BWW Reviews: Woolly Mammoth's WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT Packs a Punch
Is there anything left for me to say about Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company? I mean, in nearly every review of any offering by this company, I mention how Woolly - now in its 34th season - is the very definition of daring and relevant. I am starting to sound like a broken record in this regard, but the company's current production of Jackie Sibblies Drury's We are Proud to Present... continues the ambitious troupe's trend. What trend? The trend of presenting socially relevant theatre that not only tackles difficult material in a unique way, but features some of the best ensemble acting one's likely to find on DC stages right now. Good trend to have, right?
Ok, let's back up. The actual title of this show is a mouthful and it's not We are Proud to Present... We are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 is the full title. True, the mere title - not to mention the likely intentional redundancy - might raise a few eyebrows and give audience members a clue that what they're going to see isn't exactly going to be the millionth production of some popular play featuring a well-known plot line. Anyone who goes into the theatre with this expectation would probably be right.
Yet, they should probably throw all other expectations out the window before entering Woolly's home in downtown DC. Yes the play in a way is about European colonization of Sub-Saharan Africa and yes, it initially takes the form of an academic presentation one might find in any high school classroom in America. Well, at least the ones that haven't eschewed world history classes for more science offerings (it's a pet peeve, ok?). However, one's not going to get a linear, well-researched narrative about this era of the nation now called Namibia's history.
What we have are six earnest actors - three white and three black -that are eager to throw themselves into a new project and try out something that's not quite finished in a rehearsal room. Tensions abound among them on how to really do it. More concerning, they don't know much about the genocide event that's supposed to be the focus of the play they're creating - a situation where the German powers sought to exterminate the Herero tribe in Namibia - or the context in which it really, truly occurred and why. There are a few letters from German soldiers to go on, but they don't say a lot about the event and some of the artists are concerned that they only present the story from one side - the oppressor's side.
So, they ponder what happened in that African country, what they want to say about it and how, and what lens to use to examine and present the situation. They also assess whether it's ok to create a story around the little understood event that highlights the relevance to contemporary American audiences, which includes, of course, themselves. Part presentation of the creation they've put together and part inner glimpse at the struggles that might ensue when any challenging theatre piece is being developed, the audience goes on an unwieldy and uncertain journey with the actors who, like us, aren't sure what it will all mean in the end and how it will impact each of them given their individual backgrounds.
What's great about this piece is that Drury is able to seamlessly leverage light comedy, dark comedy, and intense dramatic approaches to present the material in a way that doesn't leave the audience wondering whether the playwright really knows what she wants to do. Moments that poke fun at hyper serious actors and the creative process are interwoven with and lead to uncomfortable discussions of race - both in terms of the actors and the mostly nameless, archetype persons they're tasked with portraying. When the actors engage in telling the story of racially-charged violence - when they finally seemingly get it all together and go about the task at hand - we simultaneously see it against the backdrop of their own interpersonal and individual struggles as they create the work.
This is not to say the play, however, is a perfect one. At times, the jokes about the struggle of creating something from scratch when there are competing, type A personalities involved can get old. At times - particularly in the latter half of the play - Drury can get a little preachy about how matters of race aren't necessarily viewed through the same lens by all people to the point where she comes off as someone who read an introductory sociology book and decided to hammer home the same point she learned more than once. It is also a little long and unwieldy, but not to the point that it's tedious for the informed theatregoer.
Most concerning for me - a self-admitted international affairs geek - is the means by which she interweaves tales of America's shameful past of lynching with the tales of what happened in the small African state when it was under German rule. It is true that one or more of the well-intentioned actors in her play brings up the parallels between racially charged violence in that country and our own as a means to better personally understand what happened in Namibia - a place none of them have ever visited - to make their portrayals as emotionally honest as possible. Yet, the academic in me had to resist rolling my eyes. Here we are with yet another play written by an American that devalues political context and draws overly simplified relationships between historical events in considerably different conflict contexts to seemingly create a better contemporary audience connection to the material. By using the actor to highlight our tendency to relate the known to the unknown to improve understanding of the unknown, Drury could be drawing attention to whether that's always a good thing. Yet, whether intentional or not, her comparisons still took me out of a moment - one of the final moments in the play that won't be spoiled here - that should have been heart-pounding because my mind was reeling about academic matters. Nonetheless, when I could put those thoughts aside for a moment or two, the horrifyingly violent moment did pack a powerful punch.
Huge credit goes to a hardworking ensemble of actors - Andreu Honeycutt, Peter Howard, Joe Isenberg, Holly Twyford, Dawn Ursula, and Michael Anthony Williams - and director Michael John Garcés for working together to create a special theatre production that's probably unlike anything most people have seen. I'd imagine with a lesser set of acting and directing talent, several of the play's weaknesses would be more glaring. The unrelenting commitment and energy that the actors bring to the table - along with strong comedic and drama skills and an enviable chemistry with one another make minute one to minute 120 a joy or near joy to watch. There's not a weak link in the bunch and versatility is definitely the name of the game. I knew from watching numerous productions on the DC stages that Holly Twyford and Dawn Ursula have an amazing chameleon-like ability to transform into something else entirely not only in each production but within productions when needed, but here every actor impressed me with that ability as they took on a range of challenging material and even simultaneously dealt with some pretty specific choreography (Paige Hernandez), recitative chants, and singing. Garcés is deserving of many accolades for bringing out the best in his actors, but also letting their natural talents shine through because after all, this is a play about actors playing actors.
The production elements - Misha Kachman's set, Colin K. Bills lighting design, Elisheba Ittoop's sound design, and Christylez Bacon's compositions - likewise prove well-suited to capturing the 'watch it as it organically unfolds' nature of this play. They are understandably understated, but add enormous value in establishing atmosphere.
Woolly's production of We are Proud to Present... may not be a case of the theatre showcasing a work that few others have. Drury's unconventional and inherently theatrical work has seen more than a few productions across the country since its 2012 world premiere in Chicago, but it's a perfect fit for a company that not only pushes the artistic envelope, but constantly uses its productions to initiate dialogue about important, and sometimes difficult, social issues. The fact that it's probably one of the best productions presentation-wise that I've seen in a few months makes it all the more memorable.
Running Time: 2 hours with no intermission.
"We are Proud to Present..." plays at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company - 641 D Street, NW in Washington, DC - through March 9, 2014. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or purchase them online.