Photo by Liz Lauren
The blisteringly hot subject matter of 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 about as tricky to navigate as its absolutely untweetable title. The racially charged play by Jackie Sibblies Drury, centering the meat of its conversation around the theatrical form, returns to Victory Gardens where it was last seen as part of the 2010 IGNITION Festival.
In the larger Začek McVay Theater, We Are Proud, which opened Monday night, is much more than a droll lecture on an unfortunately ignored, century-old world event, but a lively and powerful conversation on our theatre and on our world in this moment.
Chicago has gone through a steady parade of race-themed plays this season: Bruce Norris' ultra-chic Clybourne Park at Steppenwolf, Ayad Akhtar's problematic Disgraced at American Theater Company, and David Mamet's loudmouthed Race at The Goodman, among several others.
What lumps these plays together more specifically though is that they all deal with race as a discussion topic – delivering lofty theses through downtrodden characters – and attempt, with inconsistent capability, to bring to light etched prejudices on the human subconscious.
We Are Proud soars where all the others face plant. Sibblies Drury, rather than hammering home the inevitability of racism, keeps asking questions – an onslaught of pressing questions – through the visage of twentysomething actors. Though We Are Proud crosses into some awfully pessimistic territories, there is an ever-present belief in progress – progress, the play implies, we must together work towards.
Often theatre becomes a daycare for feathery soft reassurance. Affluent audience members lounge in donated thrones for two hours while they are soothed by a chorus of what they already know – that they are the enlightened ones. Ignorance has no place on either side of the proscenium arch, right? Wrong. Sibblies Drury has built We Are Proud around the idea that there is still a great deal of learning to be done, especially by theatre audiences and theatre makers. Which is why the play is appropriately framed by a group project.
Six characters take the stage: Black Woman (Tracey N. Bonner), Black Man (Kamal Angelo Bolden), Another Black Man (Travis Turner), White Man (Bernard Balbot), Another White Man (Jake Cohen), and Sarah (Leah Karpel). Purposefully generic, the archetypal quality of their personalities allows the issues to take precedence over trite domestic character traumas. The sparse detail on their individual backgrounds, the reason for the presentation, and their lack of real names shroud the play in a welcome mystique, allowing the focus to fall where it belongs.
Black Woman acts as the self-elected leader of the group and gives an awkward pre-show speech. She makes a few gaffes, aiming for an organic, colloquial feel – but ‘cut it with a knife’ awkwardness is a confusing beast to stage. While an improvised quality is reached for, it all still feels mighty rehearsed. Little genuine humor is elicited by the meta theatrical devices, but they are nonetheless necessary to the subsequent drama.
The audience is first treated to a farcical retelling of Namibia's grotesque genocide during the late nineteenth century, dishing out base facts as projected bullet points with the overplayed, hyper physical hilarity of Commedia del Arte. It’s truly funny sketch comedy staged with choreographed precision by Eric Ting.
But in a trend that maintains throughout the play, that farcical tone shifts instantaneously with the simple use of a repeated bell noise – first a cutesy sound signaling a ‘scene change’, and then to a bell tower on the eve of execution as the years of genocide are ennumerated. We Are Proud is rightly reliant on such unwelcomed surprises.
Break! The skit was, in actuality, a rehearsal. And there is still much rehearsing and writing to be done on Brian Sidney Bembridge’s deceptively simple set. This leads into the most relevant and intriguing underpinning conjecture of the play: the question of history's place in the theatre. Is it ever possible to truthfully portray an event with historical accuracy? And more acutely, is a dusty list of facts historically accurate?
As the group struggles to tell the story of the Herero genocide, they discover two distinct camps exist: the Germans and the Herero. Both are integral to the retelling, but who deserves more stage time? The victims, we assume, but there is little or no written documentation of those peoples’ lives at the time of the genocide; only German letters to wives at home.
“Are we just gonna sit here and watch white people fall in love all day”, asks Black Man, enraged over the prevailing depiction of the ravaged continent – Out of Africa.
Without any primary sources on the Herero, they must stray from the path of literal history and discover something deeper. What ensues is a series of rules-be-damned theatre games, seeking to uncover the Herero’s hardships on an innately primal level. The games are wacky, occasionally musical, and, at their sharpest, sickening.
The acting is always proficient and appropriately heightened, if occasionally a bit rigid. This is not a piece that facilitates virtuoso performances by any means. It encourages a brand of ensemble that fills the periphery rather than settling on a single solitary person. And when it does settle on one person, the choice is specific and hard-hitting.
As an ensemble, the cast blends together nicely, but individually Angelo Bolden and Turner own the evening. Angelo Bolden and Turner, as Black Man and Another Black Man respectively, share the most probing argument of the play. They spar over whether or not we are defined by and must be forever connected to our cultural heritage. Black Man says yes, Another Black Man says no, having been raised on opposite sides of the track. Two people fighting over unthreatening differences in lifestyle has frightful paralells to the genocide these actors are trying to present, and such hypocrisy becomes a major roadblock in their efforts.
Turner is probably the least showy of the actors onstage. His Another Black Man is allowed to fade upstage for much of the play. He participates in the games, of course, at one point depicting a highly stereotypical African warrior, but his opinions are still just a touch less asserted than all the others. Turner’s face and breathy inability to speak in the play’s final moments, however, speak louder than he ever could. In his tear-filled eyes, I saw the Herero, gagged and oppressed, embodied in this one easily dismissed person. There is much to be said about the last twenty minutes of We Are Proud, but his look says it all.-Johnny Oleksinski
‘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’ runs through April 29 at Victory Gardens Theater.