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review by Charles McNulty
Theater review: 'We Are Proud to Present' and a time of genocide
In Jackie Sibblies Drury's play at the Matrix Theatre Company, the
depiction of a tragic period in African history is at issue.
Theodor Adorno's oft-quoted, much misunderstood remark, "It is barbaric to
write poetry after Auschwitz," raises questions about the ability of
artists to represent the Holocaust. How can the cultural tools that were
complicit in genocide comment on its barbarity?
Jackie Sibblies Drury has written a spry metatheatrical play to grapple
with just this type of knotty problem. Her unwieldy title encodes the
difficulty of her project: "We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About
the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German
Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915."
The setting of Drury's drama, which is having its West Coast premiere
courtesy of the Matrix Theatre Company, is a rehearsal hall, in which a
company of six actors sets out to create a theater piece on the genocide
that took place in German Southwest Africa at the beginning of the 20th
The performers enter the room, one munching potato chips, another on a
bike, all very much in the bubble mentality of young working actors. They
limber up, make small talk, greet one another with unnecessary hugs before
the company leader (Julanne Chidi Hill), the lone black woman, gets them
down to business.
An introductory lecture, complete with audiovisual aids, is intended to
provide an audience with necessary historical background on Namibia. All
is still a clumsy work in progress, but the imperative of remembering
drives these actors on.
The facts are bloody: The German practice of capriciously favoring one
tribe over another combined with an imperial reliance on forced labor led
to revolts with disastrous consequences for the colonized. The Herero
tribe was decimated.
"The general issues the extermination order," an actor ominously intones.
Another chillingly informs us: "Eighty percent of the Herero have been
exterminated. Those that survived the camps were used as a source of
unpaid labor by the German settlers. And in this way, the German regime
The trouble these actors are having in creating this piece is that their
primary source material is a cache of letters written by Germans about
their African experience. (The Herero record is tragically less
accessible.) A white actor (John Sloan) considers these letters
indispensable. But a black actor (Joe Holt) asks, "Are we just going to
sit here and watch some white people fall in love all day?"
"Where are all the Africans?" he demands to know. His fear is that in
concentrating on the German experience the company will inadvertently
erase the experience of the Herero. History, in effect, will repeat
itself, with tragedy being reduced to a kind of indefensible farce.
Drury's approach to the racial conflict is refreshingly unschematic. The
actors who play Another White Man (Daniel Bess) and Another Black Man
(Phil LaMarr) would rather defuse the situation than fuel it, though
tempers inevitably flare. And the sole white female is too immersed in
questions of motivation to take a decisive stand.
Viewing political reality through the lens of theatrical collaboration is
a time-tested dramatic formula, one that has been employed by such
divergent writers as Peter Weiss and Athol Fugard. Drury is better at
playfully setting up her conceit than in developing it. The combustion
that's generated — and it gets fairly intense in the closing moments —
seems somewhat contrived. The emotion isn't fully earned.
Jillian Armenante's production doesn't quite have the precise focus
Drury's intentionally scattered play requires. But the liveliness of the
cast maintains the playwright's remarkably light touch — especially
impressive given the heaviness of the subject matter.
"We Are Proud to Present" falters a bit in its cathartic stretch, but the
work accomplishes something signally important: In recalling a traumatic
chapter of African history, it magnifies the biases and conflicts that are
inextricably part of the act of remembrance itself.
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