For more than 20 years, Holly Twyford has distinguished herself as a go-to actress for directors in the D.C. area, as the stage vet has piled up a list of Helen Hayes nominations and awards that are a mile long. Whether a comedy, drama or a mix of both in a Shakespeare production, the actress always manages to present a winning turn.
That’s why when the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company was casting for its upcoming performance of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s new play, We Are Proud to Present, director Michael John Garcés knew immediately that Twyford would be perfect for the philosophical piece, which follows a group of actors—three black and three white—who are trying to figure out how to tell the mysterious story of a small African tribe that was wiped out by German colonialists.
“Michael is a dear friend of mine and an exceptional artist and I immediately trusted his ideas about this play, that was the immediate lynchpin,” Twyford says. “As for the play itself, I think it’s an incredibly important scenario told simply and beautifully. When we got together and talked about it, I knew it would be right in his hands. I was excited and impassioned to do something like this here.”
Twyford first worked with Garcés at Woolly more than a decade ago with Craig Wright’s Recent Tragic Events, which went on to Broadway with a different cast, and has fond memories from her time with the show.
“That’s really where we got to know each other and became friends, and I just loved his vision and his artistry; we just get along really well,” she says. “We know how to laugh together and do serious stuff together, too. I trust him totally and that’s the key with any artistic setting. When it comes to a play like this, it can’t be overstated how important that is.”
Drury’s somewhat satiric work touches on how these theatre artists are affected by their own process, and how their sincere attempt to inhabit the minds of people a century ago and halfway around the world comes home to roost in their own feelings about race today.
“There’s a lot more to these relationships. On the surface, it is that explanation and scenario, but it is also three black and three white citizens of the world sitting in a room together talking about issues that are really heavy, relating to things as human beings, not just as storytellers and not just as actors,” Twyford says. “Part of my interest in doing something like this is to really talk about stuff and get to the meat of things.”
Twyford is joined on stage by Woolly Company Member Dawn Ursula and noted Washington actors Andreu Honeycutt, Joe Isenberg and Michael Anthony Williams. The cast also includes Peter Howard, a company member at Cornerstone Theater Company, a Los Angeles based theater under the artistic direction of Garcés.
“The interesting part of this process is it’s about three black actors and three white actors, but it’s being played by three black actors and three white actors and we can’t change that when we get off stage,” Twyford says. “We have these varied backgrounds and the ways we were raised and our views of the world and that doesn’t go away. We all have feelings about what goes on in the world, this country and this city, and that’s important.”
Although many plays have characters who are actors, Twyford can’t recall playing a fictional actor before. Although she won’t divulge names, she has combined aspects of a lot of other actors she knows, including herself, in playing the role.
“She [Drury] touched on some of the funniest aspects of theatre people and we’re all having fun laughing at ourselves in that respect,” Twyford says. “It’s an amazing group of people and the play has had an interesting impact on us.”
Twyford hopes it has even more of an impact on Woolly’s audiences, opening up their minds and perhaps even finding some areas to change.
“I want them to walk away with a different look or way of looking at things, realizing that there is some kernel inside that they need to explore or think about,” she says. “The fact is, this play is a bunch of people talking about stuff that’s not easy to talk about by any stretch of the imagination, and that’s what keeps people from really talking about it because people are afraid—afraid to offend or hear real views. We cannot get past the racial frothiness that exists without talking about it in a clear and honest way. I hope this is an impetus for that.”