Mark Twain was one of America's greatest humorists, best known for writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but also as a biting satirist. Under the guise of entertainment, Twain's writings brought attention to injustices and racism.
For Blunt Object Theatre's premiere of Twain's 1905 essay, King Leopold's Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule, Tom Foran, who bears considerable likeness to the Belgian king, delivers an hourlong rant, haranguing critics of his privately owned African colony. Posing as a Christian and humanitarian, Leopold was an colonialist who enriched himself on the backs of African natives, depleting the Congo Free State's population by some 15 million through murder, starvation and disease.
In a bare-bones, low-budget production at the Mudlark Public Theater, Foran appears more madman than dispassionate royalty. Wandering the stage barefoot, he wears only a silk robe with a crucifix hanging around his neck. The lectern where he stacks scathing press clippings is constructed of empty wine cases. Reading news clippings that describe atrocities committed in his name, he alternatively scowls, laughs and hums "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah."
"In these 20 years I have spent millions to keep the press of the two hemispheres quiet, and still these leaks keep on occurring," Leopold says, calling missionaries "meddlesome" and journalists "moralizing" when they can't understand the circumstances driving him to behave like a monster. Foran's Leopold is an unusual characterization, which works because the acts committed are clearly those of a crazy man. His mastery of the monologue is impressive and its message powerful.
This Leopold is less a king and more the deranged colonel from Apocalypse Now, which drew heavily from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Col. Kurtz was another tyrant who butchered some natives and forced the rest to worship him as their god.
An overhead projector is used to display images of malnourished, mutilated and enchained people ("my serfs, my slaves") doing Leopold's bidding. The opening paragraphs of Twain's work appear on a backdrop, starting "It is I," the famous declaration of another absolute monarch Louis XIV, "L'etat, c'est moi" ("I am the state"). Leopold feels justified and even beatified, believing he's teaching natives the error of their ways. When Africans do not achieve their rubber quotas, their right hands are chopped off.
"I planned and prepared my establishment and selected my horde of officials — pals and pimps of mine, unspeakable Belgians every one," Leopold rants," and hoisted my flag, and took in a President of the United States and got him to be the first to recognize it and salute it."
Blunt Objects Theatre's mission is to present socially and politically relevant works.
"Our aim was to simply honor the text as Twain wrote it, and show this man who was real and really did these things, so that the audience can realize for themselves that such monsters exist, have existed and will continue to exist if we let them," director Bohrs Hoff said.