There’s a wonderfully awkward earnestness about the title of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play at Berkeley’s Ashby Stage: 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. The name slyly captures the overeagerness of the idealistic fictional actors (played, of course, by real actors) who are putting on a play within the play. Their well-meaning but misguided zeal will take the young performers into territory both hilarious and acutely uncomfortable before the satire’s through.
The show opens with a crash course in the history of Namibia during the time that it was a German colony. Or, as the leader of the six performers explains, “There’s like a lecture that’s only sort of a lecture, and then we did this thing that is kind of like an overview before the lecture, which is before the presentation.” In brief it goes something like this: one of the tribes in the region, the Herero people, was for a time given favored status by the Germans but then fell out with them. Eventually, the Herero were pushed off their land into the desert, then put into concentration camps, where 80 percent of the tribe’s population was slaughtered.
The topic is well chosen. Not only is the 1904 genocide virtually unknown in the United States, but not many have even heard of this ethnic group to begin with.
The play’s Bay Area premiere is presented by Just Theater in association with Shotgun Players. Directed by Just co-artistic director Molly Aaronson-Gelb, We Are Proud to Present is exactly the kind of humorous and intellectually challenging new work her company is known for bringing to the Bay Area. (Eight years ago Just Theater introduced the region to the work of playwright Anne Washburn, whose Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play opens this month at American Conservatory Theater.) Shotgun’s 2015 season is made up entirely of works by women playwrights, and although this play isn’t part of that season proper, it fits right in.
The actors throw themselves into the introductory slideshow with enthusiasm, but signs of strife soon emerge. In her cheerful introduction to the introduction, the self-described “kind of the artistic director of our ensemble” (a gently guiding but increasingly exasperated Kehinde Koyejo) starts making passive-aggressive references to things that were not prepared as agreed. The slides aren’t quite in the right order, and the cast keeps scrambling to stay in unison.
Half of the six performers are white and half are black, which proves to be far from incidental. In fact their characters are named Black Man, White Man, Black Woman, Another White Man, and so on. “I will be playing the part of Black Woman,” Koyejo’s character says. “I am also black in real life, which you might find confusing.” We never learn any of the actors’ real names; their names aren’t important, but the labels increasingly are.
The action takes place on a bare stage with audience seated on both sides. At first it seems as if the fictional actors are performing for our benefit, but once they start squabbling over how to proceed, the audience is forgotten. The play within the play is based on letters from German soldiers to their girlfriends back home; the letters don’t talk about the Herero, but they are the only original source material available. Meanwhile, about half the cast is getting very uncomfortable about a play about Africa with no Africans in it. You can probably guess which half.
Lucas Hatton’s trepidatious White Man wants to stick to the script, in part because he gets to be the romantic leading man and partly because he’s hilariously terrible at improvising — much to the frustration of Patrick Kelly Jones’ brooding, serious thespian, Another White Man. Megan Trout’s high-strung actor is similarly invested in the role of Sarah, the all-purpose distant wife of all the soldiers, getting caught up in creating an elaborate back story. David Moore’s Black Man gets more and more incredulous about the fanciful, exoticized vision of Africa being created, while Rotimi Agbabiaka’s Another Black Man eagerly goes wherever the creative flow takes the ensemble, even (or maybe especially) when it’s in a ludicrous direction.
What follows is hysterically funny, brutal, touching, appalling and chilling — often several of these at the same time. Aaronson-Gelb’s production is dizzyingly fast-paced and sharp, with propulsive choreography by Agbabiaka. As entertaining as the 95-minute show is, it’s also sobering in the intense ways it tackles issues of race, privilege, narrative and who gets to tell the story.
For all that the performers want to honor the Herero, there’s no escaping the fact that they don’t really know much about them. In one riotously uncomfortable moment, Another White Man starts role-playing as Black Woman’s grandmother. While his eagerness to jump into the folksy country accent is cringeworthy, he also makes a point that seems central to the whole play — that you’re just kidding yourself when you talk about trying to walk in someone else’s shoes. “Now, you can borrow somebody else’s shoes, and you can walk as long as you want,” he says as the grandma. “They ain’t your shoes.”
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 runs through March 7, 2015 at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit justtheater.org.
All photos by Cheshire Isaacs.