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April 24, 2014

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'Congo' Actor Ezra Mabengeza Channels Freedom Fighter Patrice Lumumba

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'A Season in the Congo', written by the late Aime Cesaire and produced by Jackie Jeffries and Rico Speight, explores the nation's first year of independence and the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba.

Through archival footage, music, and magnetic performances, the play unfolds in such a beautifully honest and heart-wrenching way.

To know the story of the Congo is to know the scars left by acts of inhumanity. It can leave one to ponder why some among us harbor the murderous motivation to control as many of the earth's natural resources as possible, and to wonder for how long. But, pain is not the only story.

There is also the story of resilience, often untold, but nevertheless present.


'A Season in the Congo', which opened Sept. 30, has received rave reviews. The family of Cesaire provided their own stamp of approval, saying, that the "actors worked very hard to make the work come alive on stage" and calling the actors' performances "excellent and striking".

The late Patrice Lumumba, freedom fighter and the first legally elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then called the Republic of the Congo) -- who literally gave his life not just for his nation, but for all of Africa -- is played by seasoned actor Ezra Mabengeza. The 35-year-old South African actor, of Pedi and Xhosa lineage, was born in Nelson Mandela Bay (a coastal city in South Africa) to former political prisoner and a Street Committee member of the African National Congress, Gerald Mabengeza, and Isabella Mabengeza -- currently an AIDS counselor and retired Matron of Dora Nginza hospital.

Mabengeza spoke exclusively with BlackVoices.com about how he prepared for his role as Lumumba, what he hopes audiences take away from the play, and his thoughts on the new generation of Africans at home and abroad. Excerpts of the conversation are below.

How did this role come about for you?
I was moving to Los Angeles and had to work on a film out there. Before I was leaving, the producer said to me, 'Listen before you leave, I've got something to tell you. I've been working on this play for a few years and I want you to play Lumumba.' And I was like, 'Wow.' [He told me], 'Just go do what you need to do, but as soon as the time is right, I'm gonna pick up the phone and I just want you to tell me I'm coming.' So that's how it happened.

Were you already familiar with Patrice Lumumba?
Yes, definitely. No question. It's kind of interesting. I'm reading Cesaire's words and I'm like wow these are exactly the same words that we used in our revolution. These are exactly the same words that have been used in all the other African struggles. So, that part wasn't challenging in terms of digesting the material. It became really challenging when I couldn't get too much archival footage of the man himself. I was able to track down a woman who was a reporter at the time. I introduced myself, and told her I had been asked to play Lumumba. She told me that everything that this man ever said was on point and in context. She said she never met a man like that ever in her life.

That conversation really impacted me. And the last thing she told me was to remember who I was playing and consider the legacy of this man. As a performer myself, understanding the context of this play, I certainly wanted to make sure that I did that. I didn't want to really play myself. As an African, you know that we are very spiritual. This is a man's family. He comes from a certain tribe, a certain people. And I can't just go in there and think it's me. I said a prayer to his family to thank them for this opportunity and ask for their guidance in terms of portraying their representative, their father, their brother, their cousin. I asked God to help me to be this person with integrity and dignity, and to also maintain the strength and the power and the unshakable confidence that he had in what we could do as a people.

What do you hope people take away from this play?
My intention, and I believe the cast, and I'm almost certain the director, our intention is to make sure that people understand this ideal, this truth, that Africa will not fail us. That is for me the most important thing that I consistently kept reading that was jumping out at me from the script. I was raised by my parents. My father was a political prisoner. My great grandparents believed that Africa would not fail, even though their whole experience was apartheid. So, it took an incredible belief to maintain that. I believe this came to me because that belief was in me anyway. So, I just had to give thanks and fall in line with the rest of our people who have believed that and with the rest of our descendants, and just play Lumumba with honesty and integrity.

Where do you see the new generation of Africans?
First and foremost, the new generation is beautiful . The new generation is strong. The new generation is in a place that we have never been as Africans ever before. I have lived now on five continents. When I was in England, I had homeboys who literally took care of me from Nigeria, Trinidad, Liberia, Ghana, and Jamaica. And, it's like 'Hey, we are all African.' So, that has been my experience with the new generation. Much more aware of what's at stake. A lot of us are seriously disgruntled in terms of the general state of affairs of Africa. And not only disgruntled, but I'm seeing a real move to do things.

'A Season in the Congo' runs through Oct. 17 at the Lion Theatre, on Theatre Row, in New York City.
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