Theater review: Jackie Sibblies Drury and the pain of history

Jackie Sibblies Drury's play starts off with some light-hearted misdirection and concludes with a stinger

The full title of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play, which opened Saturday at Artists Repertory Theatre, is both informative and a little joke. In its entirety, it will fill up the rest of this paragraph: 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.

So, a play that says it’s a presentation, which is not quite true. And though it contains a presentation, the play also includes the collaborative process that generated the presentation. In fact, it goes back and forth between the two: a presentation that tries to stick to the Wikipedia facts of the history of German colonialism in Southwest Africa and includes projected images of the time in question, and a process that six actors conduct to make sense of those facts.

Those little misdirections aren’t the only ones embedded in that long title. The title claims the presentation is about the Herero, for example, but it relies mostly on German sources. The Herero, the dominant tribe in the region before they were nearly wiped out by the Germans, are mostly imagined. And before long the imaginations of the six actors cease to operate on the facts on the ground in Africa and start to incorporate images and history from American culture.

Chantal DeGroat presents a section of "We Are Proud to Present" at Artists Repertory Theatre/Photo by Owen Carey

Chantal DeGroat presents a section of “We Are Proud to Present” at Artists Repertory Theatre/Photo by Owen Carey

I’m getting ahead of things here, though, mainly because the misdirections themselves are a clue to the kind of theater Drury’s play represents. That nature is indicated immediately by the informal introduction delivered by one of the actors, known as Black Woman, who also functions as “kind of an artistic director of our ensemble.” And then in an early scene of the collaborative process the actors are pursuing, when things have broken down into multiple onstage conversations.

One of the actors, Actor 4/Another Black Man, says, “I don’t know if it’s theatre just because it’s in a theatre.” At this point, we start to think, “It’s going to be that kind of a night at the theater.” You know, a fluid couple of hours that’s going to play with theater conventions in an amusing way and possibly hint at some racial tension—half of the cast is African American and the other half is white, after all.

And sure enough, the first several scenes of We Are Proud to Present are in that vein, humorous in a lightly mocking sort of way. Actors! They are SO weird!

But We Are Proud to Present is a scorpion of a play, and its tail packs a serious punch made all the more deadly by the light tone of the beginning.

I left thinking that the cast (Chantal DeGroat, Joshua J. Weinstein, Vin Shambry, Chris Harder, Joseph Gibson and Rebecca Ridenour) and director Kevin Jones had accepted the challenge of Drury’s demanding script with the courage it takes to make that courageous script work. And that anything less would have been a disaster.

If you like your theatre-in-a-theatre risky, its probing of meta-theater and meta-history elements combined with its lancing of our culture’s racist overlay of anything having to do with race no matter where it happened may resonate for you. There isn’t a traditional narrative or the development of characters in the traditional sense, but Drury will leave you with some stunning theatrical images in your mind, and with some thoughts you may need to consider after you’ve left the theater. It even includes some singing, some rhythmic drumming and some truly awful jokes. I don’t think you’ll forget it very quickly.

*****

Drury, who is in her mid-30s now, started thinking about We Are Proud to Present when she lived in Chicago and started doing internet research on a play that was going to be about a black German actor who could only get roles as African Americans, which he spoke in heavily German-accented English. (That sounds like a cool play, actually.) Google led her to the history of Sudwestafrika, a German colony, and the country’s largest tribe, the Herero, which the Germans proceeded to attempt to exterminate. And she started researching the topic at the University of Chicago, where her husband, an anthropologist, was going to graduate school.

She took that research to Brown University, where she earned her MFA in playwriting, and used it to create her master’s thesis, incorporating her experiences at Brown with both the collaborative playmaking process she favors and with the students and classes. At Artists Rep, the introduction that Actor 6/Black Woman (DeGroat) reads at the beginning of the play isn’t part of the supplied script, for example.

Vin Shambry, center, and the cast of Jackie Sibblies Drury's "We Are Proud to Present" at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

Vin Shambry, center, and the cast of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “We Are Proud to Present” at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

The history of the Herero delivered in the Presentation sections are informal—it’s less than the Wikipedia entry delivers. But the actors in the play aren’t historians; they are attempting to devise a play or a presentation, and so they begin to search for characters. They don’t have much to go on, just a stack of letters written by German soldiers to their loved ones back home. The letters help sketch the Germans, but they never mention the Herero. So, while the white actors plunge into the creation of characters, the black actors are left out.

Actor 2/Black Man (Shambry), who is on his way to some serious problems with the whole enterprise, snaps: “This is some Out-of-Africa-African-Queen-bullshit y’all are pulling right here, OK? If we are in Africa, I want to see some black people.” And then we plunge into some thinking about who tells the stories preserved by “history,” and also a cautionary scene that illustrates the problem with imagining history that hasn’t been recorded, a grotesquely funny speech by Actor 4/Another Black Man (Gibson) that involves the killing of tigers and sex with many wives, “as dark and fertile as African jungle soil.” The fact that Southwest Africa/Namibia isn’t remotely jungle-like is a small part of the joke.

The history and the play is going to get increasingly tragic, just read Wikipedia: The Germans killed 65,000 of the 80,000 Herero estimated to live in Namibia to make way for German farmers. And as we start to get re-enactments of that history in the play, they exacerbate the racial divide in the cast. This is foreshadowing, but that’s all I’ll say.

*****

I am usually uncomfortable around talk about the Dominant Paradigm, Dominant Discourse, Dominant Ideology, Dominant History—whatever you want to call the conceptual and cultural sea in which we swim. Part of it is just that in real life it all seems more heterogenous, complex, contradictory than something easily labeled “Ideology,” with a capital I, indicates. If I truly spoke the Dominant Discourse wouldn’t things be easier for me than they are? That’s a joke, maybe…

Still, the terms can be useful when we’re talking about art and culture, contradictions and all. We are all stuck with cultural material, approaches and apparatus that shape us and our thinking. Art participates in this, and it has helped create the Dominant Ideology. Some contemporary art unfolds unobjectionably inside its parameters. That’s not what We Are Proud to Present does, though.

Joseph Gibson and Rebecca James Ridenour in "We Are Proud to Present" at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

Joseph Gibson and Rebecca James Ridenour in “We Are Proud to Present” at Artists Rep/Photo by Owen Carey

More often, contemporary art examines life inside the Dominant Ideology with a critical eye, representing it and the tensions inside it, even selecting for that tension. And as the late culture critic Raymond Williams suggests, some art presents an alternative discourse or history or ideology, and occasionally art expresses direct opposition to that ideology.

We Are Proud to Present suggests the difficulties of creating an alternate history, of operating in an alternative culture. What do we make it from, after all? The existing cultural material? But then isn’t it an extension of that culture? The imaginary fertile Herero wives already exist in the culture, after all. So does the angry black man, the sympathetic but self-absorbed white actor, the “artistic director” who has to fall back on her own personal story for authority and direction. And that overlay fits neatly over the exterminating Germans and the Herero, too: The reality of the past disappears except as an expression of the reality of the present.

At the same time Drury’s play critiques, among other things, our lack of historical knowledge (yes, part of the Dominant History is its incompleteness and its ability to select what it needs to remain dominant) and the ease with which we inhabit certain roles, even ones we hate: The oppressor, for example.

This is how Drury talks about the last scene of the play, the one with the stinger. Don’t worry, it’s not a description/spoiler:

“I think that it’s a hard scene for everyone. It’s hard for everyone in different ways and it’s hard in racially specific ways. Which makes it hard to rehearse, I think. It’s also hard because it’s asking the white actors to be incredibly ugly, and ugly in a way that no one I have worked with has felt comfortable being.”

And right now, I’m wondering whether the catharsis at the end of We Are Proud to Present—a catharsis that left me gasping for breath—whether that catharsis constitutes an outright opposition to the Dominant Ideology, because if our culture contains this as a default, it shouldn’t be Dominant—it should be on the way out. Then again, maybe a play like We Are Proud to Present is just an example of the adjustment that our Dominant Ideology makes to stay in control. The culture is tricky that way.

*****

After you read this, perhaps you’ll dial up your cable news outlet of choice or find a link to a clip on social media somewhere, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about in a political rally. How quickly the old cultural material gets brushed off, reorganized and aimed at the Other. How close to the surface our violence really is, our violence and our fear.

Vin Shambry, Chantal DeGroat and Joshua Weinstein in "We Are Proud to Present"/Photo by Owen Carey

Vin Shambry, Chantal DeGroat and Joshua Weinstein in “We Are Proud to Present”/Photo by Owen Carey

And it’s not just Trump rallies, either. Here’s Drury again:

“I was in grad school at a really great school where really educated undergraduates would be asked to describe really difficult things. But whenever they touched on cultural studies, or race, or other things that make us uncomfortable, these students’ presentations would either become really ironic and removed and silly, or would latch on to a dry, super-earnest and politically correct script of how we’ve been taught to talk about it. That means that no one ever says anything new; and we have no personal connection to what we’re saying.”

The genius of 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 is that it gives its audience a “personal connection” to their conversations about race, and maybe it encourages them to find something new to think and say about it.

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