All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The full title of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play, performed by InterAct at the Adrienne Theatre, is “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 and 1915.”
Quick! Take a breath!
The piece is as complex as its complete name, as the eponymous presentation purports to tell the fate of members of the Namibia’s indigenous Herero tribe at the hands of German colonialists (at a time when Germany, looking to build an empire under its Kaiser and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, was at its strongest) from an African point of view.
Though Drury’s play is carefully crafted, it depicts the promised presentation being sketched out improvisationally by a troupe of actors who are at the beginning of their production process and disagree about how to proceed. Attitudes about theater, history, and factual authenticity clash as the performers bring their own interpretations, perceptions, prejudices, and sensibilities to the task at hand, which is the creation of a brief script that conveys the Herero story through narration, projection, and dramatic scenes. In spite of making occasional headway, the improv session cannot withstand the participants’ myriad confrontations and disintegrates to the point it looks as if the Herero will never get their day on stage.
That seems to be Drury’s fear, that dramatic bits of history, particularly African history told by Africans, will never see the light of day. The intended presentation posits that the Herero were victims of genocide perpetrated by a nation that would systematically organize the extermination of entire populations a half century after their takeover of Southwest Africa. While the Holocaust is well-documented and frequently studied, the director in charge of the assembling the presentation points out, German imperialistic activity in Africa is not. The supposition is the same obstacles that prevent the actors from honing a script will discourage others from even attempting a play about the Herero.
Of course, there’s a solution to that. Drury could write the presentation that flummoxes the actors, a finished work about the Herero and their treatment by the Germans, just as Danai Gurira wrote a gripping play, “The Convert,” recently at the Wilma, about British colonialization of Zimbabwe in 1895.
Relating history isn’t Drury’s point. She is more interested in who relates it and from what perspective. “We Are Proud to Present…” shows the confusion inherent in trying to represent history accurately. It looks at forces that work against a simple recitation or enactment of facts, and it does so with a keen eye. In 1829, a U.S. Senator, William Marcy (R-NY) responded to Andrew Jackson’s patronage policies by saying “the victor gets the spoils.” Drury says what is true is politics, and war, and other matters, holds true with the writing of history. The victors tell the tale. Documentation about German rule of Africa is entirely supplied by those meticulous note keepers, the Germans. The Herero maintained no records. Only the German side of the story remains. The actors figuring out the presentation have only letters a German soldier wrote to his wife to confirm any definite events or imperial policies. The presentation’s director, unable to pronounce the wife’s name, changes it to Sarah, causing one of the actors to ask what else is corrupted in the story.
You see the conundrum and how Drury addresses it. She sets the actors at loggerheads to show the kinds of arguments that might emerge and the experiences that form those arguments.
Even though she gives all of her characters a distinct personality and point of view, Drury does not give them names. They are identified by their roles in the presentation — Black Actor 1 and 2, White Actor 1 and 2, Black Actress (also the director and narrator), and White Actress. They run the gamut in terms of their interest in history and their commitment to telling the Herero story with some fidelity. Typical racial cliches pop up — “White people cannot know the black experience,” “Black people of a time were subservient,” etc. — that insinuate 21st century issues into the 19th century landscape. Parallels to American experiences, such as lynching and claiming land from a native population, also arise. Drury shows that repercussions from history can be as engrained as what actually happened. Everything in each actor’s experience influences what he or she thinks of the Herero story and how it should be relayed to an audience. Even an actress who couldn’t care less about anything but learning and doing her role gets drawn into the controversies her colleagues, particularly the male actors, raise.
Drury deals with provocative material. If actors disagree or have trouble playing a part because they think it comments negatively on them, as if they are responsible for what their characters do and need to think beyond their lines and their roles, how does one make an historical event into theater? If actors get so caught up in a sequence that they reveal something of who they are and what they may think in the intensity of their performance, should they be talked to about their personal feelings or just directed to deliver enough without overdoing?
In “We Are Proud to Present…,” most of the actors end up wearing modern-day racial politics on their sleeves, and it is interesting how their points of view influence their performance and rankle some of their other actors. Its also interesting how the German colonizers and the Herero have numerous similarities to subjugators and the subjugated throughout history.
Obviously, Drury presents a lot of information in her play. Even if the actors bicker about how the presentation will be done, the author gets in her history lesson.
The InterAct production gains intensity and merit as the play goes on. Early scenes, which depict the director as disorganized and practically unable to compose an introductory speech, and in which the actors are more cautious about being confrontational, are too loose in both construction and performance. The cast looks as if they’re playing at acting instead of doing it. Portrayals are not as precise as they will become. You’re afraid the play will be one big confused rehearsal that never coalesces into anything of substance. As the play proceeds, and issues that were brewing via innuendo or side comment bloom into full-scale accusatory fights, “We Are Proud to Present…” gathers strength and involves the audience who, in their minds, are weighing the arguments the actors are mounting, perhaps tqking a side or muttering “poppycock.”
While director Pirronne Yousefzadeh lets the cast feel their way through some scenes, others are as taut as tent lines. The best and most intense scenes are ones in which the actors sustain a scene and are performing material that could be used in the finished play. A white actor playing a German holding a fort against the least threatening of a Herero , or a Herero responding to being chained and tortured, create powerful images and rivet the audience in a way “We Are Proud to Present” does not do on a consistent basis. In these scenes, Yousefzadeh has us really studying the situation. She gets us involved and asking questions. The performers’ commitment to these scenes makes them compelling. You can’t help wishing the entire play was acted at such a concentrated pitch.
Meaty improvisations that deal with the German policy towards Namibians work better to establish the raw emotions seething under the actors’ skin than passages in which the actors, out of character, conduct their arguments in front of us.
Yousefzadeh acquaints the “We Are Proud to Present…” audience with the vocabulary of theater. All kinds of props and stage mechanics abound. We see how they used in the course of a production.
The main study is group dynamics. Ages ago, when I took acting classes in college, one of the exercises was to create a play on the spot. Being a writer, I thought that would be breezy fun.
I was wrong. Without a script or even a basic plot outline, there’s no direction, no cohesion. Another player’s next line can turn the play you’re crafting into something altogether different. Chaos ensues. The exercise proves theater needs some kind of structure, some objective that every is striving to reach. The actors in “We Are Proud to Present…”have an outline of sorts. Left to their own devices, they can’t turn the basics into a script. The commanding vision an author or strong director brings to a production is missing. So is the idea of what the presentation is to accomplish.
This disorganization gives the actors the opportunity to impose their will on the presentation. Some want history. Some want commentary. Some question the authenticity of the material. Even told what a scene can be, disagreements about tone and disparity about approach bring matters to an argument, if not a dead halt.
Again, the scenes that work best are ones in which the actors get into a groove and sustain a sequence for at least five minutes. Most of these involve playing war, turning the essentially boy’s game of shooting each other, capturing each other, and giving orders to each other — as in cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, or U.S. Marines vs. foreign enemy — serious vent that turns into more when the actors stop thinking of themselves as playing Herero or Germans in intense situations and begin to regard what they’re doing as extensions of themselves.
One scene becomes considerably ugly as the result of how far the actors go and how much what they portray as having happened in Southwest Africa reflects on American racial history. Drury and Yousefzadeh have constructed and realized this scene wonderfully. It has the impact one hoped to see all along.
The presentation advertised so fully in the play’s title never has a chance to emerge. Differences turn to enmity. Discussion turns to rancor. Nothing can be accomplished.
Drury, Yousefzadeh, and InterAct work with a gifted cast that keeps “We Are Proud to Present…” in constant state of being on edge.
James Ijames is particularly strong as an actor who wants African history known, taught the way Western culture is. He is committed to getting the presentation on stage but wants the event to matter. It is Ijames’s character who questions both authenticity in the script and the motives of his other actors.
Authenticity is also on the mind of the actor played by Kevin Meehan. He doesn’t believe the letters are enough to tell the Herero story of either a German or African point of view. At first he expresses his concern calmly. He is an actor, not a politico. He only wants to know he is in a play that is telling the truth as it occurred. His questions, however, draw others into the discussion, and Meehan’s character becomes the catalyst for a major fray. Meehan is also excellent at expressing how an actor can become uncomfortable with a role.
Jamison Foreman is strong as an actor who relates a simple story from his family’s past as a way of possibly explaining the point of view a soldier might have. His tale leads to an attack, and he is drawn into the debacle.
JaBen A. Early is an actor who supports the arguments Ijames’s character advances. His best moments are at the end of the play when he quietly restores order to the set, order that could not be brought to the improvisation session.
Aime Donna Kelly is fine as the director who loses control of her project. Kelly is both befuddled and commanding in her role. The problem is neither her disorganization or attempt to control the rehearsal help the dynamics that are set in motion.
Miriam White is good at playing a woman who is caught in the middle. Her character has enough trouble remembering where props are or thinking about what her character might say. The least political of the actors, White ‘s character is affected by the anger she witnesses.
All of the characters are affected by it. As they make their individual exits, each looks at the audience in a way that is accusatory, as if to ask, “What are you going to do about this?” The looks backfire, until, Early, exiting last, stares at the audience and, almost in a whisper, intones, “Why?”
Like several recent productions, “We Are Proud to Present…” requires some patience until it catches its stride and addresses Drury’s main business. Patience is well rewarded.
“We Are Proud to Present…,”produced by InterAct Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, November 10, at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia.