NYT: We Are Proud to Present a Presentation... @ Soho Rep
Acting Out a Blood Bath Brings Dangers of Its Own
Ever wonder what it would be like to be in the rehearsal room when actors are digging ferociously into their psyches to discover a moment of revelation, or arguing heatedly over a character’s motivation? Your curiosity can be amply satisfied at Soho Rep, where an inventive new play by Jackie Sibblies Drury wedges the audience between the actors and their art. The incendiary results — consistently funny but ultimately discomfiting — probably won’t have you pestering your actor friends to repeat the experience.
The show’s handful of a title is exhausting itself. In full: “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.” (Actors aren’t copy editors: “to present a presentation,” really?) These words are spoken, after a fashion, by Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who portrays one of the six actors working on a theatrical inquiry into this little-known historical tragedy, which has been called the first genocide of the 20th century.
Ms. Bernstine’s introductory spiel, like much of the play, has an improvisatory air, although it is entirely scripted. As she explains, reading from index cards that she riffles through nervously, the “presentation” will be preceded by a lecture on this knotty subject, which, in turn, will be preceded by an overview. Got that?
It’s easy to get lost in the multiple layers of “We Are Proud,” but being in intimate proximity to the performers helps us sort through them. The audience is seated in metal folding chairs tightly packed around the edges of the rehearsal room. When things start getting tense — as they pretty quickly do — the actors pick their way through us for a cup of coffee, or stalk to one end of the room to cool down with a drink of water.
Strictly speaking, we never get to see the presentation — just the increasingly fraught rehearsals for it. The details of the genocide are condensed into the overview and lecture (replete with goofy visual aids), in which the actors — mockingly referred to in the generic: “white man” and “another white man,” “black man” and “another black man” — lay before us the grim story in dizzying, semi-comic shorthand.
During the years in the late 19th century when Namibia was a German colony, the Germans alternately favored one tribe, the Herero, over another, the Nama. But when the territory’s resources were drained by the building of a railroad into the interior, the Germans essentially began confiscating all the land from both tribes. When the Herero rebelled, an “extermination order” was issued, and the remaining tribesmen were used as unpaid laborers.
Trying to bring this dark history to theatrical life is the challenge facing the actors, and as they begin rehearsing, tempers flare. How do you dramatize history when only half the participants have left behind a record? The only documents these actor-authors have access to are a cache of letters from German soldiers sent home to their families. A thorny set-to also arises over whether black Americans in the 21st century can truthfully represent the experience of Africans living more than a century before, when no firsthand testimony has been left behind to guide them.
But the temperature in the room really begins to rise when the black actors (Phillip James Brannon and Grantham Coleman, both terrific, in subtly contrasted registers) begin to stew over using the soldiers’ letters as the groundwork for the show, in effect letting the oppressors shape the way the story is presented. A discussion about whether to stick to the historical texts available — one-sided though they may be — threatens to enter volatile territory when one of the white actors insists that since the letters don’t even mention the plight of the natives, they shouldn’t improvise.
“How do we even know what happened to them?” he asks.
Comes the testy reply: “So you’re saying that we just made up the genocide?” The inevitable comparison to the Holocaust only adds fuel to the fire.
In the play’s lighter moments Ms. Drury pokes teasing fun at the impromptu games and exploratory exercises the actors employ to work their way into their material. The narcissism for which the thespian tribe is widely noted also occasions some of the show’s more amusing passages. When one actor nonchalantly assumes the central role of the principal German soldier, another must grudgingly settle for leftovers.
“I’m just trying to get a sense of where I’m building my Best Friend character from,” he says quietly. “I’m perfectly comfortable with a character part.”
Expertly upping the ante in passive aggression, one of his colleagues responds, “You’re so good at character roles.”
But as the rehearsal grinds on, it is aggression of a more dangerous kind that keeps resurfacing. In trying to excavate the truth about an ugly passage in history, the actors find themselves plunging into emotionally charged territory that, in their youthful heedlessness, they don’t have the tact or the maturity to negotiate without treading on one another’s sensitivities.
Directed with an almost invisible hand by Eric Ting, the cast of “We Are Proud” — which also includes Erin Gann, Jimmy Davis and Lauren Blumenfeld (the lone actor to be given a name, Sarah) — undertake with impressive ease the rather tricky proposition of playing actors at work. Although the play gently satirizes their self-seriousness, its gradual descent into knottier emotional territory would fall flat if the actors overindulged the loopier or more navel-gazing sides of their characters.
It would be giving away too much to describe what takes place when the atmosphere thickens with imminent violence. (Clue: a certain radioactive racist epithet is soon deployed.) But I think the play ultimately goes too far in trying to suggest that the strange sorcery of acting can unleash inner demons that these naïve young actors are hardly aware they contain. Pushing hard to be provocative, Ms. Drury ultimately overplays her hand in a raucous finale.
Until then, “We Are Proud” impressively navigates the tricky boundaries that separate art and life, the haunted present and the haunting historical past.
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; directed by Eric Ting; sets by Mimi Lien; costumes by Toni-Leslie James; lighting by Lenore Doxsee; sound by Chris Giarmo; projections design by Jeff Larson; violence consultant, J. David Brimmer; choreography by Mr. Giarmo and the company; production manager, B D White; technical director, Newell Kring. Presented by Soho Rep, Sarah Benson, artistic director; Cynthia Flowers, executive director; in association with John Adrian Selzer. At Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, TriBeCa, (212) 352-3101, sohorep.org. Through Dec. 2. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Erin Gann (Actor 1/White Man), Grantham Coleman (Actor 2/Black Man), Jimmy Davis (Actor 3/Another White Man), Phillip James Brannon (Actor 3/Another Black Man), Lauren Blumenfeld (Actor 5/Sarah) and Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Actor 6/Black Woman).