A young African American woman comes across a photograph of an African woman from the Herero Tribe of Namibia and has an epiphany. Something about it puts her in mind of her grandmother, and she feels a profound connection with the subject of the photograph. After she does some research, she uncovers an unfamiliar, dark chapter in the history of humanity : a time when the German army occupied Namibia, subjugated the Herero tribe, and eventually exterminated 80% of their race. This young woman is so profoundly moved she decides to direct her small, humble troupe of players and dramatize this despicable episode, using soldier's letters from the period and improvising the rest. The result is : 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.
We Are Proud, then, is a play within a play (somewhat deconstructed). We watch and participate (in a voyeuristic sense) while a theatre group (microcosm of humanity) sorts out the details of how to make this sad, strange narrative about genocide, racism, imperialism, and the genius mankind has for quashing empathy happen upon a stage. They are still in the embryonic steps. There is an air of contentiousness between them and squabbling gradually escalates, over the course of the drama, to something volcanic and positively horrific. At first it all feels innocuous and amusing, as the actors stumble over lines, pump the director for particulars of character and motive, have their fits of ego, frustration and confusion, blowing off steam. They begin with a gloss of this history, describing how the Germans gained leverage, exploited the Herero to build a railroad, banished them to the desert to die. It's played for easy laughs, then the actors start to debate the best way to accurately manifest a situation that went from being relatively harmless to something vile and atrocious. At one point one of the white men challenges our ability to effectively appreciate any other human being's situation, by (ironically) inhabiting the persona of the director's grandmother, camping it up with a shtick about cornbread. What starts as a silly skit then takes on a far more trenchant tone.
Playwright Jackie Sibbles Drury uses a very simple device (improvisation) to turn what feels like a tentative, homespun, unsophisticated repertory production into an unforgettably disturbing catharsis of rage, terror and intolerance. They have letters from German soldiers to their sweethearts, but this, obviously, omits the point of view of the oppressed. And how likely is it, that soldiers would share their darker behavior in letters to their girlfriends? Since they have no documentation from the Herero, the director decides they will improvise. The problem is, there are no specific characters (except when one of the two women play “Sarah”) only abstractions like: ACTOR 1 / WHITE MAN, ACTOR 2 / BLACK MAN. If the players had actual scripts with defined roles, they could hide behind that mask. But when they are given permission to search for their worst impulses, without the shield of playing a person with a particular identity, they become the stand-in for their entire “tribe” and yet must own the shadow side of their personalities. Suddenly the reasons why there has been so much tension and avoidance becomes suspect. When all the unresolved issues of racism, dominance and fear erupt into a lynch mob, suddenly we're forced to ask ourselves if given the wrong chemistry, are any of us immune from frenzy and hysteria?
Once again, Undermain Theatre has bravely taken on a project that feels like exorcism. One moment We Are Proud is preposterous fun, then it confronts us with issues of culpability and moral imperative. Drury is careful though. She builds up to the tumultuous climax with precision and mastery. We Are Proud blends the experiences of different races, blurs the dividing lines, then taps into febrile animosity. This is phenomenal, powerful, raw drama. This is what theate is meant to be.
Undermain Theatre is staging We Are Proud To Present...from March 22nd-April 19th. 3200 Main Street, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-747-1424. www.undermain.org