review by Ernest Kearney
“The horror of our ability to casually inflict suffering.”
My suspicions are twofold. I suspect that the statement above is the key
to “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” currently at the Matrix Theatre Company. My
second suspicion is that the doorway, which this key promises to open for
an audience towards an understanding of what playwright Jackie Sibblies
Drury’s intriguing, passionate and undeniably intelligent work is
ultimately about, doesn’t exist.
Five actors gather on a stage with their self-appointed director (Julanne
Chidi Hill). Under her guidance, and using letters of the period written
by young German conscripts, they struggle to create, via a fusion of Poor
Theatre techniques and Theatre of Pedagogy improvisation methods, a piece
on the brutal history of Southwest Africa (modern day Namibia) while a
colony of the German Empire.
But soon tensions rise as the performers challenge each other’s abilities
to understand the harsh realities they’re attempting to convey in relating
the historical savagery of rebellion, concentration camps, forced labor
and a policy of extermination on the part of Germany that has been called
“the first genocide” of the 20th century.
What do the white actors understand of being black?
What do the black actors understand of being “African”?
And as Americans what do any of them understand of history?
If Americans are even aware that Germany had colonies in Africa, then it’s
because they’ve seen Bogart and Hepburn’s African Queen which is
set in German East Africa (modern Rwanda, Burundi and Tanganyika).
Drury and director Jillian Armenante strive to strip away the artifice of
“picture frame staging” that imposes itself between the audience and the
immediacy of the moment; we are not watching a play but a “process”. Drury
also seeks to obliterate the actor-role construct, by forming her
characters into amalgamations that are less personages and more
archetypes. Indicative of this endeavor is the eradication of character
names; performers are simply acknowledged as “Actor 1/White Man”, “Actor
6/Black Woman” (Julanne Chidi Hill), “Actor 4/Another Black Man”.
The sole exception to this is “Actor 5/Sarah” (played by Rebecca Mozo),
perhaps as an ironic jab being that the part is that of an easily
manipulated actress whose perpetual sweetness reminded me of the German
saying, “She is so good, she is good for nothing.”
To Armenante and producer Joseph Stern’s credit they have assembled a
powerhouse of an ensemble. In addition to Hill and Mozo, there is Daniel
Bess (Actor 3/Another White Man), Joe Holt (Actor 4/Another Black Man),
John Sloan (Actor 1/White Man) and Phil Lamarr (Actor 2/Black Man) who
many will recall as one of the standout talents on the criminally
underrated series Mad TV.
In any undertaking that attempts to affect a visceral change in how the
audience perceives the world around them, the only tools available are of
course the actors. As Grotowski wrote in “Towards a Poor Theatre”:
By gradually eliminating whatever proved superfluous, we found that
theatre can exist without make-up, without autonomic costume and
scenography, without a separate performance area (stage), without lighting
and sound effects, etc. It cannot exist without the actor-spectator
relationship of perceptual, direct, “live” communion.
The cast here is undaunted and unbowed by the demands placed on them by
both playwright and director and commit to the concept of the piece with a
courage comparable to that of the Titanic’s orchestra.
As the piece grapples to evolve, the actors (the written “actors” not the
performing actors) prove unable to bridge the vast distances of space and
time separating them from the Africa of 1904. But now the process, as
processes will, develops its own driving dynamism.
The span of distance and time contracts, no longer Africa and long
forgotten events, now the references shift to the American South, and the
brutal practices of segregation masquerading beneath the deception of
“separate but equal.” Now the story trying to be told is our story, a
story not buried in “history” but of yesterday, and still the actors find
themselves unable to connect to the events or even relate to one another.
In his classic work, “Violence and the Sacred”, René Girard
emphasized that at the very core of what humans define as sacred lies
violence. As the actors in Drury’s piece discover to their regret, the
bridge to the horrors they wish to present is not history; the passageway
to it is our own humanity.
I found myself frustrated with this work on a number of levels. I grasp
the playwright’s desire to enhance the communion shared by actors and
audience by purging the barriers between the two. But artifice, like
energy, cannot be destroyed, only transformed. Obliterate script, stage,
costume, language whatever you will in trying to make the truth truer and
reality realer, no sooner will you raze one embodiment of the artificial
than another will rise up like the hydra’s teeth in a Hegelian lockstep.
It is the curse of humankind, and also our uniqueness, that artifice is
the very expression of our existence. Were this not so, what bliss would
be had in the baying of the moon?
I was frustrated in being denied the history that first attracted the
playwright to write this piece. The Herero and Namaqua genocide, as well
as the Khaua-Mbandjeru rebellion, which preceded it, are tragic stories
that we stand in peril of forgetting. No other adage is as familiar or as
utterly untrue as the saying “History repeats itself.”
History never repeats itself.
But man, seemingly incapable of learning from his history, just keeps
making the same mistakes over and over again.
I was frustrated by the “snap” and “crackle” on stage, but in the end, no
“pop”. If the program notes are to be believed, Drury herself is aware
that she may have failed in what she set out to accomplish with this work.
It is to her credit that she acknowledges this. But it is to her greater
credit that she made the attempt.
I’ll take a brave failure over an insipid success any day of the week, and
for that alone I heartedly recommend this play.
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