Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915
We Are Proud to Present ... is staged in the Guthrie's Dowling Studio Theater, which, upon entering, looks as if it has been hurriedly set up for a seminar of some type. Stacks of props and furnishings, looking like remnants of past productions, occupy every corner, and several rings of mismatched chairsas if someone raided the furniture section of a Goodwillface a central area where a folding table stands, upon it a computer and LCD projector aimed at a projection screen.
Six actors enter and, with lights undimmed, eventually get the audience's attention. They assume we are not there to see a play, but to learn about the Herero tribe of Namibia during the period of German colonization, 1884-1915. Brutally worked, more or less as slave labor, and the women frequently victims of rape, the Herero rebelled against their German masters. Defeated, they were evicted from their homeland and pushed east into Namibia's scorched desert. Any who tried to return to their homes were shot. With insufficient water and food sources, eighty percent of the tribe perished. Those captured during the revolt were placed in concentration camps, with mortality rates well over fifty percent.
To convey this grim history, the actors devised a three-part program: an introduction, an overview, and a presentation. In the program the unnamed actors are identified simply as Actor 1, Actor 2, and so on, to Actor 6. On stage they are introduced as Black Man, Another Black Man, White Man, Another White Man, Black Woman, and White Woman. Black WomanActor 6tells us she is the director of the group. She takes the lead in the introduction, outlining the agenda for the evening and providing basic information about Namibia and the Herero. There are the inevitable computer and PowerPoint problems, for which embarrassed Actor 6 reminds her fellow actors that all of them were responsible for having everything in working order. The troupe appears to be an ill-prepared group of presenters.
Next comes the overview. This amounts to a greatly abridged review of the colonization, oppression and genocide of the Herero by the Germans, performed behind the folding conference table (turned on its end) with sock puppets. This summation of the history is useful, but the format lightens the air. The puppets are so gosh-darn cute that this cruel history begins to feel like a segment from "School House Rock," something we should know but not be disturbed by. Gee, learning history is fun!
The lightness is a trap. Part three, the presentation, is where the play begins in earnest. It is apparent that the group has not prepared this segment, and that we are watching their process of devising a dramatization of the Herero's saga. The actors toss around ideas for building their performance. The only written artifacts they have are diaries and letters home written by German colonials, so their first attempt to tell the story is through the eyes of white men (and their wives back home), whose letters speak of loneliness, missing the comforts of home, and the harsh African heat, tempered with hopes of great fortunes to be had. The black actors object, opining that the Africans, not the Europeans, should be the focal point. But there are no Herero letters or diaries. They hash out whether history can rightly be depicted using fabricated characters and conversations.
The actors spin improvisations such as laying out a Herero village, enacting German seizure of the Herero's lands and cattle, and simulating the forced labor of Herero building the railroad. They constantly disagree, with tempers rising and the question of race always hanging heavy in the room. They try out roles. Another Black Man is a victorious king, ripping the heart out of a tiger he has killed (never mind that tigers do not live in Africa) and impregnating all of his many wives, becoming increasingly offensive in his frenzied hyperbole. Another White Man takes on the part of Black Woman's grandmother, making her a stereotypically stern and sassy black matriarch who is increasingly abusive of Black Woman until Black Man intercedes. White Man recoils at having played out a scene of violence against Black Man at the barrier keeping the Herero in the desert, weeping that he could never do anything like that, to which Black Man points out, "Hey, I'm the one that's dead!"
A particularly stormy moment occurs when Another White Man refers to the devastation of the Herero as a "rehearsal genocide." Only Black Woman's steely resolve that they figure out together how to tell this story keeps them in the room. The troupe manages to persevere, and seems at last to have found an entry point for re-enacting the history, but it cuts too close to home. Emotions spin out of control, and ugly behaviors crop up, leading to an ending that I can only describe as devastating.
Taibi Magar directs this piece, allowing it to flow organically from the actors, creating a feeling of watching the process in real time, and never with the artifice of a scripted play. She manages to keep the flame lit on the creative process we are witness to, while also drawing out the rhetoric that is so richly woven into the piece. The improvisations use movement, at times full-out dance, and the contributions of movement director yon Tande are enormous. The physical productioncostumes, lighting, sound, and the make-shift seeming setare precisely right.
Each of the six actors are praiseworthy, fully inhabiting their roles while forming a tight ensemble. There is very little by way of background on any of these characters, yet each emerges as a fully fleshed out individual. It is impossible to lift one cast member out from the others, so I will simply commend the work of Sam Bardwell, JaBen Early, Quinn Franzen, Lamar Jefferson, Nike Kadri and Nika Ezell Pappas.
We Are Proud to Present ...is an extraordinary play. Sitting through it was both discomfiting and exhilarating, as the strife among the characters and the questions raised about race agitate our thinking. It hardly feels like a play until it is over. It feels something like a ritual cleansing that might restore the body, but might also leave it scalded and blistered. My greatest concern is whether or not one can take any hope away from Drury's play. After a few days to let it settle in my spirit, I do find hope in the opening of unknown, buried feelings, and in recognizing the inheritance of historical pain. Though the feelings and pain remain, uncovering them can be a step forward. Even if we are not sure where those steps lead, "We Are Proud to Present ..." insists that we travel that road.
We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 continues at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio through March 12, 2017, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN. All tickets are $9.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224, or go to www.guthrietheater.org.
Writer: Jackie Sibblies Drury; Director: Taibi Magar; Scenic Design: Michael Hoover; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Movement Director: yon Tande; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Music Consultant: J.D. Steele; Vocal Coach Jeffrey Meanza; Stage Manager: Justin Hossle; Assistant Director: Lindsey C. Samples.
Cast: Sam Bardwell (Actor 1), JaBen Early (Actor 2), Quinn Franzen (Actor 3), Lamar Jefferson (Actor 4), Nike Kadri (Actor 6), Nika Ezell Pappas (Actor 5).