BWW Review: This is Why We Need Theatre: WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT… at Artists Rep
When Jackie Sibblies Drury wrote 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 (yes, that's the complete title), in 2012, she couldn't have known the maelstrom that would be upon us in 2016. Since the shooting of Michael Brown led to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, race relations in the United States have been declining. According to a survey, they're currently at their worst in recent history.
If you're wondering what all of this has to do with a play about German colonists in Namibia around the turn of the 20th century, the answer is "everything."
WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT... is a play about actors rehearsing a presentation about the genocide of the Herero people at the hands of German soldiers that occurred in Namibia starting in 1904. At that time, Namibia was a German colony. The Germans first favored one tribe (the Herero), then another (the Nama). The Germans forced the Africans to build a railroad, which didn't turn out to be the resounding success they'd hoped. Finally, the Germans confiscated the Africans' land and, when they rebelled, exterminated them. Read more in the study guide.)
The presentation in the title is to be a reading of the German soldiers' letters, which are the only primary sources available to the actors. But as they start the rehearsal process, they realize that the letters provide a totally one-sided version of the story, and -- this is the clincher -- don't actually mention the Herero or the genocide at all. The history according to the letters is completely devoid of Africa and of Africans.
To find a more authentic story, the actors turn to improv, using the medium to explore what might have happened. That's when things really start to get heated. The actors assume the roles in racial conflicts of the type that have occurred too many times throughout history. As the actors get deeper into their characters (most of whom aren't given proper names, but instead referred to as Black Man, Another Black Man, White Man, etc.), the emotions and aggression becomes uncontrollable, finally whipping toward a deeply disturbing climax.
This isn't a fun play (though it is sometimes a funny play). It's a hard play to watch. As the actors work to find the real story and the motivations behind their behavior, they go to some pretty dark places. And if you're expecting a catharsis at the end where everything feels alright again, well, you're not going to get one.
But it is a very important play, especially right now.
While the Herero genocide happened more than 100 years ago, Kevin Jones's direction moves the play in time, from Namibia a century ago to the American south during the time of slavery to today, when we are experiencing a huge amount of racial unrest. It shows how truly little progress we've made on race relations, and why a full 50% of Americans currently feel like things are getting worse. While racial issues are the second most talked-about thing in politics right now (behind immigration), it's obvious that we have no idea how to talk about them in anything other than the hate-fueled ranting that currently passes for political discourse.
WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT... brings all of the feelings and conflicts surrounding race front and center. It makes them inescapable in a way that I think only live theatre can. It's hard to ignore something when it's right in front of you in bright lights. Hopefully the play will start a conversation -- Artists Rep is hosting talkbacks after several of the performances -- at the very least, it will force us to acknowledge the place of privilege that many of us hold for no other reason than the color of our skin.
This production could not be so powerful without the work of Kevin Jones and the incredible cast -- Chantal DeGroat, Joshua J. Weinstein, Vin Shambry, Chris Harder, Joseph Gibson, and Rebecca Ridenour. I can't imagine what it's like to perform this play night after night, and I'd like to thank them, and Artists Rep, for giving us the opportunity to experience it.
WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT... runs through April 10. It needs to be seen. Check out the talkback schedule and buy tickets here: http://www.artistsrep.org/onstage/2015-16-season/we-are-proud-to-present/
Photo credit: Owen Carey