BWW Review: Company One and ArtsEmerson Proudly Take on Genocide
We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915
Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, Directed by Summer L. Williams; Set Design, Jason Ries; Lighting Design, Christopher Brusberg; Costume Design, Meredith Magoun; Composer, Alyssa Jones; Props Design, Helena Mestenhauser; Stage Manager, Abigail Medrano; Assistant Stage Managers, John Meredith, Matthew Nadler; Dramaturgy, Ramona Ostowski
CAST: Jesse James Wood, Actor 1/White Man; Brandon Green, Actor 2/Black Man; Joseph Kidawski, Actor 3/Another White Man; Marc Pierre, Actor 4/Another Black Man; Lorne Batman, Actor 5/ Sarah; Elle Borders, Actor 6/Black Woman
Performances through February 1, a co-production with Company One Theatre and ArtsEmerson at The Emerson/Paramount Center, Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-824-8400 or www.artsemerson.org
During a talkback session after the opening night performance of the New England premiere of Jackie Sibblies Drury's play We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 (hereinafter referred to as We Are Proud), an audience member asked the Company One facilitator, "What was this play about?" Before kicking the question back to the gathering for their thoughts, she good-naturedly informed us that the playwright has stated, "The play is about whatever you think it is about."
Really? I'm all for theater that does more than entertain, that also makes you think, but I also appreciate the element of "shared experience" that is the essence of attending live theater. That implies a prescribed intention on the part of the playwright to convey certain facts, feelings, impressions, what have you, to the collective paying audience. (Full disclosure: I didn't pay for my ticket, but I advocate for those who do.) Drury's assertion feels like a cop-out; it gives her too much latitude to throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks, or what the audience makes of it. We Are Proud is a later iteration of a play she initially wrote from her research on the Herero genocide that, in her own estimation, wasn't very good, resulting in the less traditional style she employs here.
In a nutshell, We Are Proud is about the genocide perpetrated by German colonialists who gradually, yet systematically, took over the Herero land in the African country of Namibia, ultimately exterminating about 65,000 (80%) of their people in the early part of the twentieth century. Drury's conceit is that six actors are rehearsing a presentation about this historical event, but have a dearth of material from which to construct it. Unlike the more well-known and documented European Holocaust, the sparse evidence dug up by their research consists of correspondence from German soldiers and a smattering of photographs. The actors have a hard time grounding themselves in their characters and the unfinished story; as they struggle to get it under control, their insecurities bubble up in disagreements and they jockey for decision-making power within the group.
Summer L. Williams is at the helm for Company One and she has half a dozen earnest, fearless actors who have taken this unusual journey with her. Although the entire play is scripted, much of it has an improvisational feeling and the cast does have some leeway during any given performance to react in real time. Jesse James Wood, Brandon Green, Joseph Kidawski, Marc Pierre, Lorne Batman, and Elle Borders perform well together as an ensemble, convincingly portraying actors in a so-called "devised theatre" piece and morphing into historical characters once the presentation begins. Kidawski plays a black grandmother with nuance and dignity, and Borders and Green show greater maturity and depth in some very painful scenes.
Presented in the stark black box theater space to realistically reflect a rehearsal process, the set design (Jason Ries) uses all corners of the room, folding chairs, black cubes, and timelines on very large whiteboards. The lights are up for most of the play, but Chris Brusberg's design creates moods for specific scenes and adds to the horrible power of the penultimate scene. Costume Designer Meredith Magoun dresses the cast in casual, comfortable clothing that would be typical for rehearsing (sweats, jeans, t-shirts).
The playwright uses the strain among the actors to mirror that felt by the young soldiers who were unprepared for their assignment in a strange land far from home, as well as the confusion and fear they instilled in the Herero who were just trying to continue to live their normal lives. Drury introduces racial tensions between the three white actors and three black actors that bring a gritty, realistic quality to their disputes. At some point, there is an almost imperceptible shift in the presentation, and what had been an imagining of the Herero story, becomes a dramatization of bigotry and violence in the American south. It is jarring, not simply because it is unexpected, but because of the ease and speed with which the white actors totally dehumanize and threaten the black actors and seem to relish it. Additionally, there is a tacit implication that, as Americans, we are all complicit in their behavior.
After experiencing laughter and confusion in the early and middle parts of the play, it is the sudden, total discomfort during the final moments that is felt most deeply. This is what Company One wants, in a sense: Leave this play feeling something, even if it is unclear. We Are Proud is a play that is more about what is not said than what is said, what is referenced but not really shown; let the audience imagine from their own experiences what actually transpired and how to react. Looking around the room at the end, there is a wide range of reactions. At first, no one is sure if the play is over so most sit quietly, waiting for someone else to make a move. After a few minutes of awkward silence, some rise from their seats, put on jackets, gather belongings; others look around waiting for a formal sign. Crowd mentality eventually wins and everyone else gets up to go, albeit tentatively. Finally, a member of the crew silently opens the door to the lobby and we file out, some craving clarity from the talk back, some comfortable with their own interpretation. Either way, Drury's play has made an impression.
For further information, refer to A Guide for Teachers and Students at www.companyone.org