The most rigorous element of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play about playmaking about genocide is its unabridged title: 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.
What’s in a name? Plenty, there. And yet it leaves us with questions: What is the purpose of this presentation? Who is its audience?
Well, the audience is us, yes. But the instantly tiresome metatextual device Drury has chosen to educate us about a century-plus-old occupation wherein German soldiers exterminated or exiled more than half the Herero populace of the coastal African nation of Namibia is…to show us a thinly sketched group of six actors squabbling about how best to devise a piece of theater about the Herero genocide. Without troubling themselves to learn anything about it first.
It’s a perfectly valid artistic choice, as long as you can swallow that the story of a violently subjugated and all-but-forgotten people and a wacky romp about the ego-driven sausage-making of “devised” theater are two topics that rate equal attention. In fact the show—which has already been staged at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater and New York’s Soho Rep—was fully scripted. Which is to say its tedium, phoniness, and eventual recourse into desperate shock tactics are fully Drury’s fault.
Drury wrote We Are Proud to Present... as her thesis while earning her MFA at Brown University. She could’ve penned a more conventional play set during the German occupation of Namibia. Perhaps she tried. She told the Washington Post’s Nelson Pressley that she struggled to address this tragic, little-publicized history “in a way I was fully satisfied with.”
What fully satisfied her, apparently, was to depict instead a company of American actors, three black and three white, none of whom has ever been to Africa (as one of them points out in a rare moment of sobriety), arguing over who among them is best qualified to tell this African story. I’m afraid the answer isn’t controversial or complicated or racially charged: None of them. None of them has done the homework. All of them should shut up. But they don’t have the sense to throw up their hands, the way Drury did. Maybe she didn’t do enough research. Maybe she couldn’t solve the riddle of how to mold her research into an intellectually honest piece of historical fiction. All that matters is what she’s actually put on the stage, which is dull, cheap, and ultimately gross.
The self-referential tack she’s chosen is the Ivy League equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” Her meandering script has no clothes—a failing she tries to paper over by having her characters accuse one another of racial insensitivity so she can pretend she’s asking provocative and insoluble questions about race in America, the way infinitely better plays at Woolly Mammoth like Clybourne Park and Appropriate did. But having characters you’ve already established as idiots accuse each other of racism is not controversial or daring or any of the other things Woolly desperately wants you to believe this is. It’s just a waste of the talent of six good actors charged with playing six bad ones.
I feel bad for them. Where the show manages to be funny it’s because it’s a chemical impossibility for ringers like Dawn Ursula, Holly Twyford, Andreu Honeycutt, and Joe Isenberg to stand in front of us and give us nothing. I’ve never seen any of them in a show that deserved them less than this one.
Here’s the deck-stacking problem Drury gives her six players: The only source documents the actor-authors of this presentation to parties unknown have to go on are letters written by the German occupiers. The same ones who rounded up the Herero people, confiscated their lands, poisoned their wells, used them as slave labor to build a railroad, forced them into prison camps, subjected them to grotesque medical experiments, and exiled them to the desert to die. The troops tended not to mention these atrocities in their letters to their sweethearts back home. So the cast bickers over how to correct for the one-sidedness of the historical record, raising the question again of why they’re determined to proceed with their ill-advised, under-researched “presentation” at all. “We already Wikipedia-ed this!” is the best line in the show. That it’s meant as a joke doesn’t mean it still isn’t telling.
Some of the Herero have survived, as one member of the ensemble points out. Would it be possible to try to go interview 10 or 15 of them? Or just one? No need! Some exploratory role-playing “trust the process” acting-class bullshit is just as good as, whatchacallit, reporting. At least Mike Daisey actually went to Shenzhen before he started making things up.
For a piece that devotes so much—so, so much—of its interminable run time to character-finding exercises that are surely of value in rehearsal rooms but play as masturbatory in front of a paying crowd, it’s baffling that Drury doesn’t find it necessary to invest at all in the “given circumstances” of her within-the-play play. She doesn’t even give her characters names, identifying them simply as Black Woman and White Man and Other Black Man and so on. Abstraction makes bogus racial conflict that much easier to gin up, I guess. (At one point Holly Twyford’s character—“White Lady,” I infer—tries to adopt the physicality of a Herero woman. Honeycutt’s Black Man actually says, “Oh, HELL no!”)
The show, which is performed in the round, begins as informally as possible: The house lights stay on as Ursula pushes her innate likability to its operational limits with a lot of grating throat-clearing about how the “presentation” we’re about to witness was supposed to be preceded by an “overview,” only the troupe forgot to write it. Ha ha ha! We don’t have our shit together at all! Next, she narrates a slideshow about the demographics and history of Namibia in a bored monotone, as though mocking the delivery of someone unaccustomed to public speaking. It’s hilarious, of course, because these are just dumb facts. They don’t know how to move in their bodies and explore emotion and find the character and trust the process!
Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which Studio Theatre staged in 2010, told a story through the exercises performed in a community center acting class. It worked, because the tale was as modest as the telling. It never overreached by, say, suggesting that these little acting games are an appropriate way to talk about genocide.
The final 15 minutes or so, wherein the ensemble of We Are Proud to Present… connects with its faraway subject by adopting southern U.S. accents and simulating an atrocity from America’s shameful racial history, are powerful in the knee-jerk sort of way that yelling the N-word in a crowded theater would be powerful. Drury saves her most despicable cheat for last, putting a simulated lynching onstage.
The ensemble has used very few props up to that point. When they’re pretending to have guns, they point their fingers at one another. But they have a real noose sitting there in their prop box, already tied and ready to go. So the question remains: A presentation to whom?
Whoever they are, they should skip it.