‘We Are Proud to Present’ a play that crawls before it walks – and then knocks you flat
Review: “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915” by Jackie Sibblies Drury, at Victory Gardens Theater through April 29. ****
By Lawrence B. Johnson
If ever there was an inauspicious beginning to a power-punch play, it’s the first several minutes of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s stage work unveiled April 9 at Victory Gardens. In that initial stretch of awkward comedy, I might have been eavesdropping on a middle-school workshop. By the time it was over, I knew I’d just been schooled by a remarkable young playwright.
Now for the title, in case you missed it above, or thought we were kidding: “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.”
Perhaps, like me, you scan that mouthful and think, aha, I can see what this is: It’s another installment on the popular current playwrighting theme of exploitation of African cultures by ruthless European imperialists, be they English, Dutch or German. And you would be almost right, and yet oh so far off the mark.
Drury’s stunningly original play brings to mind Maurice Ravel’s hypnotic orchestral work “Bolero.” You can see right into the repetitive mechanism, which, obvious as it is, keeps you spellbound as it grows in density and complexity. And you think – no, you’re pretty sure – you know where it’s headed, until, at the last possible moment, the music changes key, modulating into something utterly unforeseeable, unsettling, yet indelible. And then it’s over.
That is “Proud to Present,” except that whereas Ravel’s music ends in exhilaration, the key change in Drury’s play is devastating. It’s a work deftly touched with comedy, and the packed theater was filled with laughter. But in the end, no one was laughing; no one was making any sound at all.
Jackie Sibblies Drury, who lives in Brooklyn, is a graduate of Brown University’s fecund playwrighting program. Still in the ramping-up phase of her career, she has received an impressive array of awards and honors. Victory Gardens chose “Proud to Present” for main-stage production from 120 entries in its 2010 Ignition Festival of works by playwrights of color under the age of 40.
The structure of “Proud to Present” is the classic play within a play: A group of actors and their director are in preliminary rehearsal for the drama we’re here to watch. The play begins in 1884. A German military force has been dispatched to Namibia to enforce German hegemony as entrepreneurs lay claim to the region’s minerals and other natural wealth. The actors are tossing around ideas for an improvised play, trying out some of them and squabbling quite a bit.
It’s important to know that two of the male actors are black (Kamal Angelo Bolden and Travis Turner) and two white (Bernard Balbot and Jake Cohen); the on-stage director is black (Tracey N. Bonner) and a second woman is white (Leah Karpel). Important for two reasons: 1) that’s the only way they’re identified and 2) some heated – and hilarious – arguments arise about who’s entitled to play members of the Herero tribe, which the iron-fisted Germans all but annihilate.
When an attempt fails to build the play around the only physical evidence from the period, a boxful of letters between the soldiers and their wives and girlfriends back in Germany, the increasingly impatient and rebellious actors begin inventing scenarios and imagining what life must have been like for the Germans and for the marginalized and threatened Herero.
So transparent is director Eric Ting’s hand in this “improv” that one might assume there’s no director at all, until a set piece – fashioned around designer Brian Sidney Bembridge’s assorted chairs and tables — consolidates the company into a jubal-like music and dance number, or Jesse Klug’s deft lighting focuses attention on a clutch of actors suddenly caught up in their parts. And then it all collapses, the cast is back to wrangling and the audience is laughing.
Turn by turn, we’re drawn more deeply into the African oppression, though it was so long ago and so far way that even the black actors have trouble relating to it. And you marvel, watching all this, how someone at Victory Gardens, reading the script when Drury’s play was selected for the Ignition Festival, ever got past page 3: the self-conscious, halting attempts at humor that set up the first scene. And set up this arc. Set us all up for the numbing denouement.
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreinChicago.com
- History of the Herero genocide: Read it here.
Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: A game cast gets its motivation together: Top row from left, Bernard Balbo, Leah Karpel and Jake Cohen; front row from left, Kamal Angelo Bolden and Travis Turner. Descending: Kamal Angelo Bolden , left foreground, and Bernard Balbot look to a letter for improv help as Jake Cohen (rear left) and Travis Turner lend moral support. Tension rises as a White Man (Bernard Balbot) confronts a Black Man (Kamal Angelo Bolden). Below: German soldiers prepare to massacre the Herero: From left, Jake Cohen, Bernard Balbot and Leah Karpel. (Photos by Liz Lauren)