in the Category: art

Art unites

Oscar Van Rompay (1983) is a Flemish actor, teacher and entrepreneur who owns an eucalyptus plantation in Kenya. He is currently rehearsing with Luk Perceval, but in early March we can finally see him in ‘Histoire(s) de Théâtre II’ by Congolese director Faustin Linyekula after what has been a turbulent rehearsal process. A conversation about whitesplaining, how politics hinder the arts and night clubs in Congo.

Interview by Simon Baetens
Photos shot in Ghent by Tiny Geeroms

Faustin Linyekula was invited by NTGent to make the second part of the Histoire(s) du Théâtre series. When it comes to the history of theatre, you and him don’t necessarily share the same frame(s) of reference. How did you deal with these differences?

The main focus of the series is its name. What does ‘Histoire(s) du Théâtre’ evoke in different people’s minds? Milo Rau (who created the first part of the series with his show ‘La Reprise’ and is the artistic director of NTGent) answered that it was mainly about how theatre is made: how do you do make theatre out of a real life story? It was less concerned with a sense of tradition, although it does reflect on his own repertoire. The title can be read in two ways: it means both ‘theatre stories’ as well as ‘the history of theatre’. Milo staged a ‘theatre story’, whereas Faustin really focused on the history  - or a history, rather - of Congolese theatre. 

Wherever Mobutu went, the Ballet travelled with him

The show tells the story of the Ballet National du Zaïre, founded by president Mobutu in 1974. In the same year, the historic Rumble In The Jungle match between Foreman and Ali took place: Kinshasa was the capital of the world for a moment, thanks to Mobutu. 1974 is also the year in which Faustin was born. The creation of the Ballet was one of many steps taken by Mobutu to shape and promote and the Zairian culture after he had changed its name from Congo to Zaire. Mobutu wanted to create a history of the country in which he was the founding father, which turned the Ballet into a diplomatic tool: wherever Mobutu went, the Ballet travelled with him and performed ‘L’Epopée de Lyanja’. ‘L’Epopéé’ is a piece about the history of Congo (about the Mongo people, to be precise) and generations of Congolese people grew up learning about it, seeing it live or on national television. It is interesting that Mobutu used a very Western art form to cultivate African culture. The frontal way in which the performance is presented in front of a seated audience in ballet is very uncommon to the way dance and theatre were traditionally shown in Congo. Milo Rau thought it would be interesting to let the story of this cultural contradiction take place in the very Western institution that is NTGent. 

Who are the performers we see on stage?

Well, there’s me, as part of the NTGent ensemble, but the main focus is on three artists who were at some point in their life part of the cast of ‘Lyanja’. They really carry the history of the Ballet in their body: they have travelled the world performing this piece and, now in their seventies, are still part of the company, even though it has produced very little in recent years due to financial problems. The story of the Ballet mirrors that of Congo in the way that the future for both seemed very promising, causing the performers to save up very little money at the time which now leaves them with very little. 

The story of the Ballet mirrors that of Congo in the way that the future for both seemed very promising

 

The key scene of the piece, which we reenact in our show, shows Mama Ndjoku singing a song for her deceased lover. This was Mobutu’s favorite scene and Mama Ndjoku was a stunningly beautiful superstar at the time. She and the rest of the company have so many stories to tell about Mobutu and his entourage, since they were often invited to their parties. They are theatre history. Finally, there’s a younger actor who’s originally from Congo but lives in Canada now and who grew up seeing ‘L’Epopée’ on TV, which inspired him to become an actor. Past and present meet in who he is. 

What was it like for you to be amidst these people who represent such a specific cultural history?

It was not easy. Faustin thought it would be interesting to have a European body in the cast, since the history of Congo is a European history and vice versa. He grew up in a colonial system which was permeated with European culture and power structures. The Congolese have always had to relate to their coloniser in order to survive, which means they know Europe better than Europe knows them. The artistic director of the Ballet, for example, was a white Italian-Frenchman called Dénis Franco. He was charged with the task of creating Congolese culture. These contradictions are omnipresent. Faustin sometimes called me ‘our Franco’.

It is clear that Faustin and the performers all had a very personal connection with this piece, whereas I had to ask what ‘L’Epopée’ was about on day one of the rehearsals. It was immediately evident that I would have to search for my position in the creation process. I could make the gesture of leaving the stage to the others, which could have quickly led to a paternalistic position on my part. At the same time I didn’t want to thematise my confusion and frustration too much either, because then it would be once again about me instead of them. I was very weary of whitesplaining: imposing my perspective on a history that isn’t mine to tell. Then again, ignoring all these difficulties wasn’t an option either; finding my role was extremely difficult. At times I felt very vulnerable, having to improvise in French which isn’t my first language and without any text or script to start from. In every creation process there are differences and struggles, but in this case they could easily be misinterpreted as the refusal of a Congolese aesthetic and methodology by a white actor. All these tensions made the process very emotional at times, but I wanted to persist. I did not want to simply conclude that this collaboration was not possible. Eventually, we found ways of making images together, of existing in the same space. The difficulties are still present: we don’t ignore them, but we don’t let the whole piece be defined by them either. The history of the creation process makes for an interesting subtext. 

I was very weary of whitesplaining: imposing my perspective on a history that isn’t mine to tell

Africa as a theme seems to find you.

It’s true. Together with Peter Verhelst I made a solo called ‘Africa’, which over the years caused quite some debate, so ultimately I decided I didn’t want to perform the show any longer. For a long time I wanted to find a way to give an answer to the discussions and conversations that came out of that project and how they’ve changed me. I invited Kenyan theatre maker Ogutu Moraya to one of the last performances because I thought he’d be an interesting voice. He didn’t reply but I was fortunate to meet him later through Lara Staal who was working on her ‘State of Beauty’. Ogutu had the idea to analyze the concept of beauty around my show ‘Africa’ and he wrote an amazing (and very critical) text about the show, and even came to visit me on my farm when I was in Kenya. I have thus by coincidence had the opportunity to formulate my answer twice this season, both with Faustin as with Lara and Ogutu. 

The creation process of this production was hindered by several factors. What happened and how did it influence the piece?

The Congolese performers had problems obtaining a visa to come to Belgium. Eventually we managed to make it happen, but the situation shortened the rehearsal period and relocated the majority of it to Rwanda. We worked there for three weeks and then here in Ghent for another two (we had started with a two week research period in Faustin’s studio Kabako in Kisangani, Congo) so overall it was a short and intense process. After premiering it in Avignon last summer, we can now finally bring the show to Ghent. It is rather embarrassing to experience that I can travel wherever I want just because I happen to be Belgian and my fellow performers couldn’t come to Belgium even though they have seen much more of the world than I have, touring with a prestigious company. This causes a very weird tension in which the colonial history is still very present. It made me so happy to finally be able to welcome them in Ghent.

It was very new for me to hear people talk about historical figures who I had, up to that point, only read about as if they were their close friends

How did you unwind after these tension-filled days? Did you go out together?

Yes. Despite their age, they all like going out, especially Mama Wawina who was always in the mood to go dancing. One night we went to a club in Kisangani, which was a weird experience because there is very little there, but we suddenly were in a very luxurious club, with expensive cars on the driveway and mirrors all over the interior. Then there was another night when I saw Wawina come home from a bar just when I wanted to go out and she was immediately convinced to go with me. We drank the local beer and sat outside a night shop and talked all night. We didn’t say much but found ways to communicate and share the moment. This interaction was very special to me; I even tried to sneak it into the performance but it didn’t make the final cut. And there were several other nights of drinking and dancing together, telling stories about Mobutu and other famous people of that era. It was very new for me to hear people talk about historical figures who I had, up to that point, only read about as if they were their close friends.

Histoire(s) du Théâtre II
9 March - NTGent, Ghent
Free for members
Members need to make a reservation for this event.
Please mail us at memeberships@subbacultcha.be for more info.