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Susannah Ryan’s Brabo at UNC-Chapel Hill Is a Bold Look at the History of the Congo “Free” State


UNC Performance Studies’ presentation of Brabo: A Play Based on the Congo Free State, a new play written and directed by UNC graduate student Susannah Ryan, is definitely an informative piece and a “thought” piece. What were the truths of Colonialism and Imperialism? How has the present been impacted by the past? What correctives are even possible for the future? Can individual efforts be at all effective?

While Chester A. Arthur was president of the USA (1881-1885), Henry Martin (an African-American) made a trip to the Belgian Congo. He had been in touch with King Leopold II of Belgium (the monarch reigning over the Belgian Congo and Belgium’s other colonies), who had painted a rosy picture of life in this colony. Martin was looking for opportunities for African-Americans; what he found was something quite different. Quite by chance, Martin finds himself in the company of Congolese rebels and learns the story from their side.

Be prepared to be appalled by the savagery of colonial rule as Europeans endeavored to foist “civilization” upon the indigenous “savages.” Pay attention, also, to the church’s complicity in both the big picture and the case of an individual boy being treated at the hospital.

The play begins with intricate, rhythmic African drumming; after a short while, the house lights go down. Soon, we are met with a tableau, a posing of all of the actors around King Leopold, who is on a pedestal. (A similar tableau will recur.) Then the stage clears, and the action begins.

On more than one occasion, the script calls for a point-counterpoint situation. Dramatist and director Susannah Ryan emphasizes their differences by blocking the antagonists at opposite ends of the stage. The characters constantly interrupt each other, thus underscoring the desire of each to quash and contradict the other’s side of the story.

Ryan has assembled a talented cast. Lazarus Simmons portrays Martin as a man who wants very much to trust the powers-that-be, a man who is committed to the good that he is trying to accomplish and quickly becomes just as committed to exposing the reality of the situation.

Daniel Doyle shows us a Dr. Jon Hart, who is also committed to doing good. Specifically, he will do as much as he can with as little as he has to work with.

Jonathan Leinbach plays both Dorian Jacobs and Father Boucher. Both characters exude an air that positively invites our distrust.

Ilanga Diop (played by Germona Shadi) is a native woman who assists and is in training at the hospital. Herself a victim of brutality, she is as committed as Dr. Hart to their humanitarian cause. There is one scene in which Diop is the focus, a scene that relates Diop’s back-story and thereby fleshes out the background of the state of affairs there in the “Congo Free State.” Shadi delivers quite well.

Sean Wellington doubles as Julian Peters and Dimitri DeClerq. Peters is a slave-driving type who is in charge of the laborers. DeClerq is a general in the Belgian army. Both are ruthless. Wellington easily invites audience dislike for both.

Chris Helton and Isaac Bevely are cast as rebel soldiers. Henry Martin’s chance encounter with them alters the complexion of his visit to the Congo and radically affects the results. Helton and Bevely enlist the sympathy of the audience as easily as that of Martin.

The cast is rounded out by Nick Popio as Major Guilliam Renard, Michael Raybuck as Remi Petit (a “go-fer” intent on “doing his job” and pleasing his superiors), Kent McDonald as King Leopold, and an ensemble of actors and dancers: Jordan Latham, Georgia Zhang, Elia Essen, Evelyn Jin, and Jennifer Davis.

The production is also a fund-raiser for Women-for-Women (Congo). During intermission, there will be an opportunity to donate more money.

We recommend arriving early, because parking could be an issue.

SECOND OPINION: Oct. 21st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview:

UNC Performance Studies presents BRABO: A PLAY BASED ON THE CONGO FREE STATE at 7 p.m. Oct. 28-30 in the Studio 6 Theatre in Swain Hall, 101 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill, NC 27599, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $10 ($5 students).


DONATIONS (To support education and empowerment for Congolese women):

SHOW: and


2015-16 SEASON:




Susannah Ryan (playwright and director): (UNC Department of Communication bio).


Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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1 Response


  1. "BRABO" 10/22-24 & 28-30, 7p.m. in Swain Studio 6 - UNC Communication Studies