More About "We Are Proud..."
Arts in L.A.
review by Bob Verini
If you revel in fine actors pushing the envelope of what performance can
do, or have an interest in investigating important historical experience
via theatrical means, this ungainly-named but unforgettable work is *the*
production of the summer, just as Son of Semele’s recently closed Our
Class was *the* production of the spring. In both, a splendidly
unified ensemble, masterfully directed, shape-shifts among multiple roles
to tackle, head-on, the 20th century’s legacy of dread.
The title says the cast is “proud,” though the situation and subject
matter seem rather to confound and rile the six thespian characters
assembled on the wide-open Matrix stage, surrounded by various
accoutrements of a rehearsal room (crummy chairs and tables; a blackboard)
and performance space (set pieces; a ladder). The topic is the now-lost
Herero tribe’s fate during the period when Germany held “Southwest
Africa,” now Namibia, in its iron grip. Between 1904 and 1907, the
building of a railroad by indigenous workers, their lives held cheap, led
to the extinction of a massive (more than 100,000) and proud people. But
how? And why?
Though company members are generically identified as “Black Woman” or
“Another White Man,” they convey an aura of specific and varied mutual
backstory as they arrive, banter, and engage in their actory preshow
“mah-may-mee-mo-moo” warmups; a stilted historical overview complete with
maps on opaque projector and scrawled wall text goes off well enough. What
stymies the sextet are knotty dramaturgical concerns.
For instance, there are plenty of personal letters extant from German
soldiers on the East African front to their Rhinemaidens back home, and
the “cast” is prepared to present those with appropriately deep feeling.
But none of the documents, apparently, alludes whatsoever to the awful
events under the writers’ watch; they barely mention the Herero at all;
indeed, there’s little or no documentary evidence of the tribe left to us.
As one character points out, the only reason we know they’re gone is that
The company debates the propriety and truthfulness of ascribing, to
Soldaten and tribespeople alike, motivations and emotions we cannot be
certain of. They improvise, relate their own personal histories, act out
and act up, their disagreements festering until they explode across racial
(three blacks and three whites among the actors) and gender lines.
Eventually it becomes clear that the real subject of playwright Jackie
Sibblies Drury is our very response to history. Yes, she wants to explore
the Herero tragedy and see that they’re not forgotten. But even more, she
needs for us to understand that human cruelty is not something we only see
in the here and now: The people who sinned and were sinned against in
centuries past were no less real than we are now, and if we cannot
recognize that and mourn them properly, it’s our limitation, not theirs.
If a genocide falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear it, it still
This ambitious play, bursting with theatrical opportunity and complex
ideas, is (predictably) subject to excess and flaw. It’s never clear why
these six have assembled to tell the Herero saga in the first place, or
what stake in it makes them remain in the face of the rawest intercompany
conflicts. Also, much is made of this being a democratic artistic
collective, but there seems to be insufficient objection whenever Black
Woman (Julanne Chidi Hill, clearly Drury’s mouthpiece) steps forward as
director and puppeteer, as she periodically chooses to do.
Script issues aside, the work is stunningly performed. Hill wears the pain
of a historical atrocity on her face and in her very body. John Sloan
manfully wrestles with his innate decency as a lonely German soldier once
he (Sloan) recognizes what this son of the Fatherland must have been privy
to, and is completely believable in his attempted exit from the whole
business. Daniel Bess provides sardonic, even dazzling comedy relief in
several of the most outrageous character impersonations. Joe Holt’s
intellectual and emotional pain is deep and evident throughout, while Phil
LaMarr and Rebecca Mozo triumph in their attempts to reconcile their
reality as actors with the narrative they have been deputized to tell.
The best compliment to helmer Jillian Armenante is that at times it
becomes impossible to believe that all of this give and take, all of this
historical exploration, wasn’t improvised on the spot. The flow of events,
emotions, and parallel worlds, shaped by her sure directorial hand, is
seamless. This is a shattering evening not to be missed by anyone who
More About "We Are Proud..."