On a warm summer’s evening in Marylebone, London, I attended the opening night of a 75 minute play entitled Sankara. Written and directed by Riccardo Dujany, the play tells the unforgettable story of the African hero Thomas Sankara, President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987.
The production opens up with a dark eerie meeting between what turns out to be political and financial officials from France and the World Bank. Standing amongst them is a black official equally dressed smartly but with white gloves and a peculiar apron wrapped around his waist. A dubious symbol that perhaps represents a secret organisation akin to the Free Masons glowed on a large screen behind them.
It was evident that the play was not simply a straightforward biographical account of Thomas Sankara’s political life. Rather Dujany attempts to explore and bring to light the secret and unseen ritualistic dealings of powerful men that affected Burkina Faso. At one point, the three men come dressed in black cloaks with silk hoods, an elaborately shaped knife, and a baby doll in an initiation that requires the applicant to kill a child as a sacrificial act. I didn’t know whether to laugh or take these scenes seriously for they starkly contrasted the scenes we—as the general public— accept as historical fact. Thomas had electric guitars; Thomas played football in a bright yellow shirt and bright red tracksuit bottoms; Thomas planted trees.
The president started an ambitious plan to fight desertification by planting thousands of trees. While many of his followers— including his minister of defence—grew tired of getting soldiers to plant trees and build houses, Sankara stuck with the vision of fostering independence among the people of Burkina Faso. There’s a funny line where Sankara orders his best friend and right hand man to plant two trees as a ‘national duty,’ when he hears he is getting married.
Sankara also promoted mass vaccination and overtly fought against the dark powers behind the odious debt, including the World Bank. When a French official agrees to a meeting, Sankara uses the ingenious analogy of eating dates as a way of explaining the vicious cycle of debt and foreign aid. Sankara did not want to concede to foreign aid as a way of cancelling debt; this was considered to be mad but after watching the scene with the Frenchman eating dates, I saw plausibility in his argument. As the revolutionary himself said:
You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness.
But in hindsight, I realise that it was not Thomas Sankara that was ‘mad’ with Marxist revolution. Rather everyone else around him had allowed personal gain—whether it be children, a wife, or even the promise of a position of power— to blind them. With time, the belief and support Sankara’s inner circle had for him began to wilt and fracture. Fully aware of his tragic destiny, just days before his assassination, Thomas Sankara pronounced the famous words “while revolutionaries as individual can be murdered, you can’t kill ideas”.
The highlight of the play for me was when the minister of defence tried to persuade Sankara that his best friend was planning on betraying him. The minister suggested arresting the suspect but Sankara refused to allow the arrest to happen, stating that it is the suspect that will have to betray him first. Sankara was later assassinated by his friend who then went on to lie about Sankara’s death and assume power in Burkina Faso. It was a tragic thing to see the betrayer’s bourgeoisie wife get him to turn against Sankara like Lady Macbeth had done with her husband. But throughout the story, Sankara remained incorruptible, impetuous and irrevocably idealistic:
We must make every effort to see that our actions live up to our words and be vigilant with regards to our social behaviour so as not to lay ourselves open to attack by counter-revolutionaries lying in wait. If we always keep in mind that the interest of the mases take precedence over our personal interests then we will avoid going off course.
I would give this play a rating of 6.5/10. Sankara ran for a limited time from Thurs 18 Aug – Fri 19 Aug 2016.