Chicago Theater Review: WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION ABOUT THE HERERO OF NAMIBIA, FORMERLY KNOWN AS SOUTH-WEST AFRICA, FROM THE GERMAN SUDWESTAFIKA, BETWEEN THE YEARS 1884-1915 (Victory Gardens Biograph Theater in Chicago)

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by Dan Zeff on April 14, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

THE IDEA WORKS BETTER
THAN THE ACTUAL PRESENTATION

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s new play could have the longest title in the history of the theater: 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. It came out of the Victory Gardens IGNITION Festival of new plays (which also propelled The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity) and runs We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia - Victory Gardens – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff90 minutes; but after the first 45 minutes on opening night I was ready to give up on the show, as I was never on board with the concept. Fortunately, the action gets explosively tense later on, and the audience was gripped by the white-hot racial confrontations that had just passed before them.

We Are Proud begins with six amateur actors lined up in front of the audience to do what the title of the play states: Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia (this is part of Drury’s play – it takes a wonderful ensemble for real actors to come off as unprofessionals). The ensemble is evenly divided between three black and three white performers, identified only by their color. Their leader (Tracey N. Bonner) addresses the audience directly as she fumbles through a stack of note cards. We are informed that the performers will be exploring the little known genocide that took place in the early 1900’s in what is now Namibia in western Africa, when German colonial forces wiped out 80 per cent of the native Herero tribe.

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia - Victory Gardens – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The opening lecture aimed at the audience is relentlessly facetious, but eventually concludes with the six actors attempting a historical rendering of the circumstances surrounding the Herero massacre. The actors choose to recount the atmosphere surrounding the genocide by reading letters back home from lonesome German soldiers, letters that don’t even hint at the enormity of the slaughter they are inflicting on the Herero tribe.

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia - Victory Gardens – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

About halfway through the show the performers get racial in their approach to the black/white aspects of the genocide. A cultural divide opens between white and black actors, who separate over interpretations of racial authenticity and identity in delving into the Herero tragedy. The white actors seem more comfortable viewing We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia - Victory Gardens – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeffthe genocide from a white viewpoint. At least one black actor demands the story inject more of the African perspective.

The emotional temperature really heats up when the scene transfers from Africa to the United States. The two white male actors (Jake Cohen and Bernard Balbot) become Southern redneck racists persecuting one of the black actors (Travis Turner).

The viewer can cut the play some slack in recognition of the committed performances, led by Turner as the black actor who is most inflamed by the injustice he sees in the white attitude toward the Herero genocide. There is also good work by Kamal Angelo Bolden as a second black man and Leah Karpel as the lone white female. The viewer may be frustrated and confused by the inconsistent narrative but the actors seemed to know what’s happening on stage and what is expected of them.

We Are Proud is still in a state of playwriting flux. Even though the actors get to show serious dramatic chops, and the narrative does engage in some provocative issues, the overall drama doesn’t hold together. The show needs to go back into the workshop to refine its strength: the contrary approaches to race and history by the well-meaning but conflicted black and white performers. The attempts at aw shucks comedy in the opening minutes does get some giggles from the audience but trivializes the enormity of the genocide theme to come.

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia - Victory Gardens – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

The idea of actors gradually merging into the roles they perform is not new in the theater but it’s valid and worth building on. But there needs to be some bridge that connects the German forces and the Herero victims in Namibia during the early 1900’s with the hateful redneck racists on American soil. If such a bridge does exist in the current production, it eluded me.

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia - Victory Gardens – Chicago Theater Review by Dan ZeffDirector Eric Ting hasn’t been able to make Drury’s script coherent but he has definitely guided some all-out performances from his young cast. Brian Sydney Bembridge designed the set, Jesse Klug the lighting, Sarah Picket the sound, and Christine Pascual the grungy costumes. Mike Tutaj designed the projections that keep the audience informed about the play’s chronology.

Whatever its dramatic weaknesses, We Are Proud does spotlight a little known horrific episode in modern history. The Herero tribe finally has a champion to recount their near extermination more than a century ago. A spotlight is focused, however erratically, on clashing black and white attitudes over how to validly present this tragedy, and by extension other tragedies rooted in racial conflict. But there is much work to be done before the play meets the challenges it honorably tries to confront.

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia - Victory Gardens – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia - Victory Gardens – Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeffphotos by Liz Lauren

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
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater
ends on April 29, 2012
773.871.3000 or visit Victory Gardens

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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