While the title of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play suggests a history lecture, the process of grappling with this particular event of African genocide in the early 20th century drives the drama. In 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, a group of six actors, three black and three white, attempt to collaboratively create a show about how the Germans exploited and then exterminated 80 percent of the Herero. And yet, that’s not really what this play within a play is about either. It is about so much more.
Director Amelia Lumpkin expertly guides this ensemble in building the layers of this show. At first, things seem messy and somewhat hap-hazard Then, as if the audience has left the theater, the cast begins the rehearsal process for the show they plan to perform. Should they use the letters the German soldiers wrote? How to imagine the lives of the Herero? What constitutes evidence?
From this point on, the six actors are tasked with improvising, and the audience gets an intimate view of their rehearsal process. Like Russian nesting dolls, these artists are rehearsing a script while the characters within that script are being confronted with the horrors of genocide and America’s racist history. Drury hasn’t made it easy for the audience, but that is the point: Reckoning with the past is difficult and an emotional landmine.
Bickering over whose words should tell the story, the group is nudged to delve into their roles by the group leader. Their subsequent interpretations create tension, even anger between members. Ultimately, the audience is left confused and discomfited.
J.Ra’ Chel Fowler, the artistic director within the ensemble, brings the right mixture of encouragement and exasperation to her role. Her character attempts to keep egos under control as well as her own emotions to get the production rolling. Alli Mae Carnes plays an over-eager actor and she shines in her impression of how a less accomplished actor might interpret the role of a German housewife.
DJ Brinson delivers a piercing performance as the mutinous voice within the production, advocating for the voices of the Herero to be heard while channeling the trauma of being a Black man in America. Matthew Hager offers a compelling portrait of an actor who finds his beliefs about himself turned inside out. Trevon Carr and Dylan Bailey embody roles that reflect a type of naivete, trying to be socially empathetic but ultimately lacking understanding. Their contrasting final reactions underscore the heightened emotional tone of the action.
This play probes the notions of race, genocide, and colonialism with all the subtlety of a jackhammer. It unpacks unexamined assumptions and forces a confrontation with a racial history that is disturbing, yet necessary, in order to move forward. Perhaps taking on this play, and witnessing it, are much-needed first steps.
The Justice Theater Project’s production of 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, runs through Sunday at St. Augustine’s in Raleigh. For more information visit http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/we-are-proud-to-present.
Adult Content. Non-graphic racial violence. Profanity. Racial Slurs. Simulated gunshot sound effects.
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