In 1905, Mark Twain wrote a caustic satire, “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” in which the Belgian king tries to justify the unspeakable atrocities he committed for his personal enrichment during his 25-year autocratic rule of the Congo. “These chatterers! They tell… how every shilling I get costs a rape, a mutilation or a life. But they never say, although they know it, that I have labored in the cause of religion at the same time…and have sent missionaries there…”
Twain wrote his piece as a pamphlet, but reading it more than a century later, with its clever inversion boiling with his outrage, one can can easily imagine how it could be staged as a play; it even includes stage directions.
So it makes sense that Kaneza Schaal incorporates some of Mark Twain’s “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” into “KLII,” a play that Schall created, directed and performs, which is part of this year’s Under the Radar Festival. She describes her show in a program note as “an exorcism, in theater, starring one of the villains of the 19th century whose actions resonate through the present day.”
What doesn’t make sense is how Schaal incorporates Twain’s text – mixed in helter-skelter with passages from Aimé Césaire’s 1950 essay, “Discourse on Colonialism” and lines from independence leader Patrice Lumumba’s 1960 speech at the ceremony proclaiming the Congo’s independence. The resulting jumble could not have been less accessible if her prompt had been “Turn three intelligent texts into gobbledygook,” but Schaal goes one step further. Dressed as King Leopold II, in fake beard and the lush red robes and gold brocade of royalty, she climbs a ladder to the ceiling, turns it into a podium, and, her face shrouded by a gaggle of microphones, Evita-like she starts proclaiming, in what sounds like a recorded voice. There are no pauses nor modulations in tone or voice to help make clear which lines came from which of the three texts.
Whatever the point she was trying to make by mashing these texts together in this deliberately incoherent way, she did not need to spend upwards of half an hour making it.
This failed extended scene in “KLII” that combines three intellectual texts about King Leopold II is especially exasperating because the other half of the 65-minute production is so theatrically inviting and emotionally memorable.
As we enter the theater at Chelsea Factory, four actors dressed similarly to the king, and thus like a royal guard, hand each of us a bar of soap and instruct us to wash our hands in individual red basins. In the latter half of the play, when Schaal has removed Leopold’s beard, and speaks as herself (in a monologue written by Christopher Myers), she talks first of how her two-year-old daughter loves to listen to “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof, then segues from that song into the two songs we all sang – either Happy Birthday or Dolly Parton’s Jolene – to time the washing of our hands during the height of the pandemic, and that leads her to talking about soap. Soap used to be made from animal fat but in 1830, she says, scientists discovered a way to make it from a tree called the oil palm,. This led to a new kind of slavery, such as the partnership between British entrepreneur William Lever and King Leopold’s palm oil plantations “making soap to clean the world” through forced labor.
And this is her approach throughout this seemingly random but actually slyly constructed and startling monologue – pairing the personal, often loving and lovely, with the global, often monstrous. Underlying this approach is a suggestion of our continuing complicity: “There is no such thing as clean. Every song has an echo to it,” she says, poetic and pointed, after her history of soap. Then she elaborates:
“Tantalum is a metal in every one of our phones
and there are boys right now
sleeping in the veins of the earth
so we can tik tok or Instagram or text message our grandmothers.
There is no such thing as clean.”
The longest and most effective passage in this monologue is the story she tells of her grandfather, who escaped Rwanda before the genocide there by first selling bananas, which finance his making of banana wine, which financed his purchase of a guest house in neighboring Burundi, where people would gather to sip red hibiscus tea. And those royal guards who gave us soap at the beginning of “KLII,” at the end hand us cups of tea that has just brewed in front of us, for us.
KLII will be presented at Chelsea Factory through January 22, 2023.