A review 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” at New City Theater.
We hear a lot lately, and more since the protests over police killings of people of color in incidents from New York to St. Louis to Pasco, about the need to have a candid, productive national dialogue on race.
But as the Seattle-based Starbucks company recently learned, after spurring a “Race Together” campaign to get its customers talking, that is far easier said than done.
In Pony World’s provocative local debut of the recent gut-punch drama “We Are Proud to Present …” diverse people of goodwill jump wholeheartedly into such an exchange. But the conversation can’t end in a kumbaya moment — for the characters, or the audience.
‘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. Through April 4, Pony World at New City Theater, 1404 18th Ave., Seattle; $14-$17 (800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com).
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s fearless encounter play puts you in the center of a gathering storm. At New City Theater, a close-up cast portrays an acting ensemble of six (three blacks, three whites) as they devise a collaborative show. Their subject is a historical reign of genocide promulgated a century ago in Namibia, a southwest African nation colonized and ruled by Germany from 1884-1915.
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The eagerly ambitious young troupe, led by a black director forcefully played by Dedra Woods, first runs through a slideshow lecture that will begin their play-within-a-play. Projecting a map and archival photos, they provide basic, shocking historical facts about how the German Army robbed the Herero and other tribes of Namibia of their land and cattle, and enslaved, starved and murdered them by the tens of thousands.
The facts are not in dispute. It is when the performers try to carve out a theatrical story from this brutal piece of history, with only a few faded images and a stack of German soldiers’ sentimental letters home as historical touchstones, that things get murky and explosive.
“We Are Proud to Present …” needs and finds humor in the clashes between artistic egos during improvs and brainstorming sessions, and wry references to Wikipedia research. But as creative frustrations arise, and the director urges everyone to dig deeper, historical wounds reopen.
What version of the Namibia story are we telling, asks a disgruntled black actor (G. To’mas Jones). The black story or the white one?
Who is being marginalized, and who is dominating the narrative? Who gets to rewrite history, and from which angle?
There are dust-ups over race-tinged assumptions. Language becomes suspect and loaded, as when a white actor suggests the Namibia genocide was Germany’s dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. (A black actor counters that for Namibians it was no warm-up but the real thing.)
In Drury’s meta-play with Brechtian effects (the actors are identified only as Black Woman, White Man, Black Man, etc.), a rehearsal hall becomes a flashpoint for frictions between men and women, director and actors, African-American males butting heads over what “blackness” means.
And ultimately, slipping into the skin of German conquerors and oppressed Namibians, the players start to identify with the brutalizers and victims they play.
Director David Gassner and his admirable cast (rounded out by Nik Doner, Rickey Coates and Jason Sanford) give “We Are Proud to Present …” the visceral power and intensity required to rattle and implicate us.
You don’t leave this show feeling resolved about anything. But you know you’ve been part of a conversation — an unsettling one, but a place to start.