Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo
Review by Eesha Patkar
“How do you build a community divided by hatred and anger?” questions Cyprien Mihigo emphatically in Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, a documentary play chronicling the horrors of a nation torn apart by unending wars. As five people sit on stage and narrate the collective and individual stories of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country’s bloodstained history comes to life.
Written and directed by Ping Chong and Kyle Bass, Cry for Peace is part of Chong’s Undesirable Elements series, a project that shines the spotlight on the unseen and unheard tales of communities that have been ‘othered’ by the world.
In the 1870s, King Leopold II of Belgium first laid his grubby hands on the ‘Kongo’ empire. For almost a century, it was a playground for Belgian colonizers to exploit and steadily drain it of its countless resources, mainly rubber.
The year is 2012, and the powers-to-be of Western world continue to use and abuse the richness of the Congo soil. The driving force this time is coltan, the mineral that powers the most ubiquitously critical tech baby of our times: cellphones. In the meantime, internal political turmoil and tribal conflicts have deeply fragmented the Congolese nation. Amidst this “war within a war”, five refugees out of the hundreds that fled the land, bear the courage to tell their stories.
The sound of birds and a babbling brook open the play; and Emmanuel Ndeze is the first to appear on stage. The soccer loving boy was forced to grow up and run away from home, as the violence escalated in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His tale mirrors that of Kambale Syaghuswa, a youth fashioned into a soldier fighting a war he didn’t understand before he escaped to Kenya.
Beatrice Neema narrates the harrowing tale on behalf of another whose “voice has been silenced by shame.” Taken as a slave by soldiers, beaten and raped, the young woman’s traumatic ordeal is unparalleled and truly begs for peace in this play.
Mihigo, the real inspiration behind this production, is neither a writer nor an actor but an effective storyteller. His quest for a united community drives the play forward.
Finally, it is Mona de Vestel who serves as calming presence in this narrative. She is the “colonial product” of a white Belgian father and black Congolese mother, struggling with her in-between identity. Carrying at once the shame of the oppressor and the dignity of the oppressed, she seeks acceptance among her Congolese heritage. Vestal’s narration is easily relatable, and she is the undeniable agency of bridging the horrifying lives of the Congo refugees with the audience.
Chong’s theatrical construction of the play is minimalist, but powerful in execution. The narrators form a semi-circle around the stage comfortable propped in chairs, and images of the Congo landscape aid as the backdrop. With only brief but brilliant interludes of lighting and soft, muted music, the play relies entirely on the actors to enact and situate their histories. The occasional native songs and sporadic ululations of war cry interspersed within the play are the only subtle glimpses of the Congolese culture that never overpower the narrative but simply goad it on.
Intermittent clapping throughout the play serves as cleverly punctuated pauses for chronicling events and dates, as well as imitating sounds of gunfire. The narration has an urgent, sound-bite like quality, and the masterful weaving of the personal lives of the refugees with the overarching history of the Congo is crisp and engaging. The five actors are constantly involved in retelling each other’s memories, reminding us that the tragedy of a nation must be borne by all.
But the play’s conclusion doesn’t conclude the terror afflicting the country of Congo. Its tremors are continuously being felt among the Congolese refugees residing in Syracuse. Mihigo still attempts to bring a hostile community together to celebrate their culture. Syaghuswa waits for the day he can be reunited with his family. For Neema, forgiving the oppressors is important, but she hopes the unnamed woman of her story will have the courage to recount her tragic tale on her own.
Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo is just the beginning to understanding the pathos of a nation and amend it.