Review of We Are Proud to Present... Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 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 third play in Yale Summer Cabaret’s 40th Anniversary season, isn’t a play so much as a provocation.
As directed by Co-Artistic Director Jessica Holt, the play is willing to demonstrate the way theater can fail, even the way it can fail to get off the ground. We watch a group of actors—designated only by number, Actor 1 through 6, or by generic tags—White Man, Black Man—try to put together a presentation on the genocide of the Herero tribe by colonial Germans in the years designated. When compared to the murderous machinations that the Third Reich perpetrated in Europe, the near-extermination of the Hereros, like the near-extermination of certain Native American tribes, is generally not so well acknowledged by history, in part because, in the African case, the methods and the outcome are not so well documented. All that the cast—and presumably the playwright—has to draw upon are letters home written by German soldiers, strangers in a strange land trying to keep up their spirits by addressing “the girl they left behind” who is figured in the play as one omni-Fraulein, Sarah (Jenelle Chu).
The provocation of the script, then, doesn’t come simply from that fact that, in letting us in on “the process” by which characters are formed and situations created, we have to accept how tenuous all that is, but from the fact that these actors—mostly out of their depth, and led by Actor Six (Shaunette Renée Wilson) as a kind of den mother—confront themes of racism and colonialism and genocide and must find a way to make such matters “portrayable.” And that, as they learn, is nearly impossible.
Which is a way of saying that Drury’s play points out the lack of clothing on almost any emperor you’d care to name, not least the idea of “historical verisimilitude” or “realism.” Every staging is an approximation of something but that “something” is never “what actually happened.” Even the letters back home—the documents, the evidence—say little about what is really going on. Granted, there may be ways to make a documentary on the subject, but that’s not the purpose of theater: theater has to create a representation, it must find a way to make an audience experience something that—in this case—it would probably rather not experience. Why do certain peoples detest and work to destroy certain other peoples? Why are certain peoples viewed as “less than human” by certain other peoples who have decided that they alone meet the criteria for “human”? There are no adequate answers to these questions and yet Drury’s play—and the commendable cast and crew of the Summer Cab production—attempt to grapple with them, for our benefit.
In the early going, there are fertile moments of vaudevillian goofing that let us find some amusement in how theater treats us to amusement. By giving us young actors (a strength of the production is that, as seldom happens, the actors are supposed to be and are twentysomethings) not too versed in history or playwriting as our surrogates, Drury confronts us—with good comic timing from Holt and her cast—with the ignorance that underlies, often, our efforts to “understand” and “empathize;” such ignorance can sometimes become the basis for deliberate acts of violence. Not knowing and not wanting to know are close kin.
The actors want to know just enough to make a show—we can say that, mostly, their hearts are in the right place—but what they mostly show is that they don’t know enough. What they know are what we know: the racist clichés, the racial stereotypes, the bad attempts at accents, the mimicry that can’t help becoming mockery. Early on, an argument about “Cologne” or “Köln” as the name of the German town demonstrates how even place-names and places can be in seen in two ways: by those who live there, and by those who are outsiders. This becomes particularly pertinent when the African-American actors disagree on how to characterize Africans (neither has ever been to Africa, much less Namibia), and even go so far as to imply there is a right and wrong way to “be black.”
A comical, and also very pertinent, moment occurs when Actor 3 (Aaron Bartz—in his third play this summer, demonstrating great versatility and commitment to the Cabaret experience) “becomes” Actor 6’s “grandma” and, while his “mamminess” is a cliché, his improv does get at a truth of the play: you can put on someone else’s shoes, but that doesn't make them your shoes. Ultimately none of the actors (in the play) are able to own their parts or to create the presentation they are aiming for. The presentation we get shows us why they fail.
What makes that “failure” so powerful is that it draws upon the oldest feature of theater—catharsis. And catharsis, as ancient theater teaches, needs a scapegoat. Here the scapegoat is well-chosen: Actor 2 (Ato Blankson-Wood) is the one who is most critical of the others' ill-informed efforts, calling them on their lack of knowledge and their willingness to work with stereotypes. In making Actor 2 the “black victim,” the cast gets uglier and uglier, letting us see not only the logic of domination that can lead to murder, but the group mind that delights in the discomfort of “the Other.” The moment—with its insistent chant, “I’ve been black my whole life” and “ooga booga”—attains both a pinnacle (dramatically) and a nadir (socially). The aftermath is played well by the cast as tantamount to kids lost and self-conscious when the make-believe goes too far then ends abruptly. As the parental dictum would have it: “It’s fun until somebody gets hurt.”
And when it comes to humanity’s anxious policing of its racial and national and ideological boundaries, somebody always gets hurt.
Three of the actors playing actors we have seen before this summer: Aaron Bartz makes Actor 3 a fairly gifted improv actor with good instincts; Ato Blankson-Wood makes Actor 2 rather truculent but also the voice of reason, which, as things go, generally becomes a casualty when “the blood is up”; as Actor 4, Julian Elijah Martinez is primarily a reactor, though we might say, in the end, he’s the conscience of the play; new to the summer season are Matt Raich as Actor 1, the actor least comfortable with what his role—the soldier pining for his homeland or policing newly claimed German territory against its former Herero inhabitants—demands, until he finds a “motivation” in Southern U.S. racism; Jenelle Chu gives Actor 5/Sarah a certain ditzy charm as she “acts out” her cat or pines or breaks into “Edelweiss” or a bad German accent, becoming a kind of Nazi-ish Über-Mutter; and Shaunette Renée Wilson’s Actor 6 is the director with an eye on the ball, whose acknowledgement that she saw in the face of a Herero woman in a magazine her own grandmother forms the personal basis for the entire process. In other words, this isn’t simply an exercise in historical empathy, it’s a question of how to recognize legacy and claim kin when the legacy has been expunged and the kinship is a vague racial recognition.
Jackie Sibblies Drury, Jessica Holt, and the Yale Summer Cabaret team provide a provocation that entertains and discomfits. If I have a criticism it’s at the level of “plot points”—Drury asks actors to be not very good actors so that they break character inappropriately, or “unconsciously” use accents, or act their way into dead ends, to serve her purposes. Such things are part of the process, certainly, and generally that’s behind the scenes; here, much rides on not getting it right in just the right way.
And, as has been the case all summer, the tech team delivers—special mention for Andrew F. Griffin’s Lighting (this is really one where you don’t even notice how much work it takes to make it all seem “natural”), Nick Hussong’s very valuable Projections, and Kate Marvin’s Sound Design which makes you wonder why any production ever uses the sound of blanks when a gunshot is needed.
We Are Proud to Present… plays for two more nights—tonight and tomorrow. See it if you can get in.
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 By Jackie Sibblies Drury Directed by Jessica Holt
Scenic Designer: Christopher Thompson; Costume Designer: Steven M. Rotramel; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Projection Designer: Nick Hussong; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Stage Manager: Will Rucker
Yale Summer Cabaret July 11-July 26, 2014