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BWW Reviews: Hard Hitting WE ARE PROUD … from Pony World Theatre

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Nik Doner, G. To'mas Jones, Ricky Coates, Jason Sanford,
Alyssa Kay, and Dedra Woods in We Are Proud ...
Photo credit: Tanya Izadora

The current production from Pony World Theatre may not be everyone's cup of tea. I mean it's already got a few things that may make people shy away. One of the longest titles in theatrical history to start, "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" by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Or how about that it's about a little known genocide? In fact I wasn't sure how I was feeling about it as it tended toward a little preachy and esoteric. But this odd and very hard hitting play ended up having so much going for it, not the least of which was it's cast, that it amounted to quite a moving experience.

As I said, it's a little known bit of history as the German military around the turn of the century occupied South-West Africa and collaborated with one of the indigenous tribes there, the Herero, to build a railroad from the African Coast to the inland German settlements. Well, collaborated might be a strong word as the Germans routinely would steal the Herero's cattle and land and force them into slave labor. Eventually they would begin a campaign of racial extermination either through outright murder or exile of the peoples from their homes and into the barren desert, which resulted in the deaths of much of the Herero people as well as other tribes. But what starts off as a bunch of actors (Dedra Woods, Nik Doner, G. To'mas Jones, Rickey Coates, Jason Sanford, and Alyssa Kay) giving a simple presentation about the events through slides along with letters from the German soldiers swiftly becomes something much more personal. As the actors recreate tableaus of the German and Herero lives they become lost in the performance that begins to correlate to their own personal lives today as well as elements of American history that we may not wish to remember.

Director David Gassner has taken Drury's play and staged it with a kind of casual sensibility that lulls you into a false sense of security only to amp up the energy and tension later and knock the audience out. It's a very effective tactic as one minute we're laughing with the actors as they put on their little presentation and the next minute holding our breath in rapt silence.

G. To'mas Jones and NIk Doner in We Are Proud ...
Photo credit: Tanya Izadora

Much of the success of this piece has to go to the brilliant ensemble of actors who go beyond the generic monikers they are given (Black woman, White man, etc.) and truly develop highly complex characters. In fact two sets of characters as they play the "actors" as well as the subjects of the history. Doner and Kay beautifully go from that sweet couple separated by war into confused kids who may or may not know what they are doing. Woods becomes a kind of guiding force of the show as she directs the actors as well as the story. Coates and Sanford are relegated to supporting roles in the play within the play but their characters are nowhere near secondary as they portray opposite sides of the same coin of young men struggling to secure their own identities. And Jones is quite powerful as the actor trapped in a play he doesn't want to do and a man trapped in a life he cannot control. And I must say that the emotion becomes so intense and raw that at times when they would break from a scene to regain their composure and distance themselves from the situations I wasn't sure if it was the characters of the "actors" breaking away or the actual actors themselves.

The play amounted to such a profound and powerful piece that the audience just kind of sat there in a stunned silence after the curtain call ended and the lights came up. As I said it may not be for everyone but any piece that can create that kind of reaction deserves kudos and so I'm giving it a very reverent YAY with my three letter rating system. Sure it got a bit heavy handed at times but the performances and the story quickly made up for it.

"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" from Pony World Theatre performs at New City Theatre through April 4th. For tickets or information visit them online at www.ponyworld.org.


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