What happens when six actors – three white, three black and all American – gather in a rehearsal room, committed to telling the story of a genocide in colonial Africa that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Herero men, women and children? Well, the clunky, tone-deaf title of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 2012 play should be a hint: We are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915
. Luckily, the production at Stages Repertory Theatre is neither clunky nor tone-deaf, but a bold, fearless walk through emotionally charged terrain.
The show opens with a lecture, to be followed by an overview and then the titular presentation, led by the group’s artistic director. She reads a summary of the 30-year German occupation and colonialist rule in Namibia, which led to the deaths of 80 percent of the Herero people, off her iPhone, while the other five actors help make it “super fun” behind her with handy visual aids like placards and colorful cow cutouts. As the ten-minute lecture concludes, the show gets meta, as the façade falls and the audience becomes a fly on the wall, watching the actors try to pull together a presentation that increasingly makes the group’s black actors uncomfortable.
The problem? The only written record comes from the letters of German soldiers, who wax on about the weather and their beloveds back home while conveniently leaving out any mention of the brutal extermination campaign they were overseeing. With no primary sources to guide their creation of their Herero characters (or the genocidal side of the Germans, for that matter), the ensemble is left to “explore,” which proves to be the opening of Pandora’s box for the group, whose own experiences as white and black Americans come to fill the empty space, moving the story away from an early-20th century genocide and toward 21st century American racial dynamics.
Director Alice M. Gatling leads her actors through a relentless 90 minutes of well-timed jokes, emotionally charged confrontations, and even musical interludes with a firm hand, the show maintaining an improvisational, free-flowing air, emphasized with overlapping dialogue and side conversations, without ever devolving into confusion or chaos. Drury’s play is not a linear, traditional narrative; it jumps between the actor’s rehearsal, which itself is muddied with process exercises and discord, to glimpses of the presentation itself, but Gatling never loses sight of the big picture, all the more crucial in a show that depends so much on the performances of its actors to keep it afloat.
Michelle Elaine (Actor 6/Black Woman) leads the staged proceedings as the ensemble’s artistic director, an accommodating woman attempting to wrangle and placate her actors, but who is also pushing them through dangerous psychological territory in the name of a greater good, like a more benevolent Philip Zimbardo.
In particular, Actor 2/Black Man, played by Joseph “Joe P.” Palmore grows increasingly frustrated at having a white love story, and a white version of history in general, dominate what should be a black African narrative. His frustration isn’t limited to the white actors, however, as his annoyance with a song from Camryn Nunley’s character, Actor 4/Another Black Man, about palm trees and tigers (not applicable as the Herero inhabited arid desert) is comically real. Nunley plays the would-be peacemaker of the group, who finds himself at odds early with Palmore’s Actor 2 about what is or is not considered black (American).
Drury’s script plays with actor stereotypes, particularly with Actor 5 and Actor 3. Laura Menzie (Actor 5/Sarah) is energetic and eager, whether she’s seizing the opportunity to play Sarah, the German wife back home, or slinking around like a cat in a misguided attempt to find the emotion of a scene. She is the high maintenance, kid-glove required actor, while Aaron Ruiz (Actor 3/Another White Man) is the self-important, condescending actor, who makes up for playing second banana by going all in on character roles, like uncomfortably embodying the artistic director’s grandmother.
Chasen Parker’s Actor 1/White Man is accused early of being afraid to improv, so we expect that when the show's racial politics explode later, he’ll be at the center, and Parker doesn’t disappoint regarding that particular arc.
All the action is played against Jodi Bobrovsky’s simple set; a table and mismatched chairs, a ladder, a clothes rack. But it proves to be deceptively adaptable and, with a beautiful tree as a centerpiece (given depth and weight from Bryan Ealey’s bold lighting design), quite striking.
Drury's play works to an uncomfortable frenzy, one that left most of the audience frozen, stock still and stone-faced, except for the ones who had a hand clapped over their mouth, eyes wide. We are Proud to Present ...
is not always an easy show to watch but it's certainly not like taking your medicine and as Elaine's character seems to believe, maybe some things are for the greater good.
Performances continue at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2:30 p.m. Sundays through April 1 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $25 to $55.