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
nytheatre.com review by Adam R. Burnett
November 11, 2012
There is a cautionary Kurt Vonnegut quote “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” that could be an epigraph for Jackie Sibblies Druy’s new play 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. The quote is from Vonnegut’s novel Mother Night in which an American playwright doubles as a spy in World War II in Nazi Germany. Just as the character in the Vonnegut novel wills himself to play a role for the sake of the greater good, the actors in Druy’s play attempt to present the often-forgotten German Occupation of Nambibia between the years 1884-1915 and the eventual genocide of the Herero tribe. This is complicated though. The source documents are mostly letters from the German soldiers to their loved ones and these letters boldly and sometimes sickeningly skirt the reality of their actions.
The Soho Rep’s space is transformed into a rehearsal room: folding tables, acting books and source texts like “Race After Hitler” strewn about, actors preparing and researching material, an amateur timeline of events. The company of actors (Lauren Blumenfeld, Phillip James Brannon, Grantham Coleman, Jimmy Davis, & Erin Gann) are led with fervor by the “sort-of” artistic director of the company (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), who insists that a process will lead them to presenting this presentation with some sort of emotional honesty. The next hour and a half plays out this way: actors discovering a process that leads them to a theatrical presentation, the release from the presentation, and the tension between the two. At times this is a bit grating and over-indulgent, but these are necessary elements to where Drury takes us.
The production itself is a deliberative attempt in futility—not something you often witness in theater—underscoring the dangerous process of the actor in theater, who can, supposedly, access anything given enough context and background. The actors use improvisation games, emotional recall, and physical work to channel the horrific events, often falling into Mammy-inspired stereotypes and German accent buffoonery.
Eric Ting’s direction is masterful as he keeps the performance chugging and bouncing on the thinnest of air until the bomb drops in the final moments of the play. The result is incredibly profound and powerful, leaving an open-gaped audience.
The lesson is not ambiguous and there is no parsing out Drury’s intention: Beware of whose stories you tell. And most of all, beware of the processes that lead you to believing these stories are accessible to you. They probably aren’t.