PRESS for "We Are Proud..."

Purchase Tickets Now!

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 they’re gone.

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 occurred.

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 treasures theater.

More About "We Are Proud..."