Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” Nowhere is this more true than with colonial history, where the conquerors’ truth often dominates and the subjugated viewpoint is suppressed or lost completely. In We Are Proud to Present…, a diverse acting company balances the relative truths of occupier and occupied in their dramatic staging of Germany’s 31-year colonization of Namibia. What starts as an insightful and even funny history experiment soon spirals into a devastating indictment of race relations that leaves the audience as quiet as a graveyard.
The full title of the new Woolly Mammoth production may explain the situation better: 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 seems that playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury created the long-winded title to foreshadow the cast’s wandering, indecisive experimentation with the German subjugation of the Herero. The play winds through a maze of conflicting accounts, including letters between German soldiers and their wives, Wikipedia articles, and even personal anecdotes that each actor uses to inform their character.
Under the bold direction of Michael John Garcés, each cast member brings a different perspective that twists the narrative in unpredictable directions. DC-area actress Dawn Ursula directs the experimentation as the passionate company leader. Ursula displays veteran poise as she pushes her fellow actors to the edges of their comfort zones, all in the name of artistic honesty. She professes a deep connection to photos of the Herero people; one photo makes her feel “as if she’s staring at her Grandmother”. Ursula’s emotional investment keeps the show grounded throughout the company’s chaotic free association.
The simmering tension between Joe Eisenberg and Andreu Honeycutt provides a central conflict among the swirl of plot lines. Eisenberg takes on the role of a naïve German soldier tasked with guarding the German colony, and Honeycutt plays a Herero tribesman driven from his family by those very colonists. That’s the purely historical side; the more interesting conflict stems from their intra-company hangups. Eisenberg worries that his character reflects badly on himself and nervously insists the company use only the real German soldier’s letters rather than improvising. Meanwhile, Honeycutt objects because the letters contain precious little about actual Africans, revealing in the process his pent-up anger over the marginalization of black voices in modern culture. Their respective guilt and resentment spill over in a nail-biting face off in the center of Set Designer Misha Kachman’s spartan, concrete stage.
WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT …
Closes March 9, 2014
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D Street NW
1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $35 – $97
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Talented performers Holly Twyford, Michael Anthony Williams, and Peter Howard also contribute rich moments to the show’s meandering dramatic patchwork. It should be no surprise to DC audiences that Twyford excels, no matter the conditions; here she wrings every drop of dramatic potential from a relatively small and quirky role. She retreats into the mind of a sheltered German housewife, channels a menagerie of animals, and even sings and raps her heart out late in the show. Williams and Howard provide additional depth as they delve into the pain of lost heritage and shameful family secrets. They are game participants in Drury’s demanding history experiment, which demands more and more from the cast as it reaches an alarming fever pitch.
The brutal final scene dances on a knife’s edge between crusading theater and just plain bad taste, depending upon your tolerance for nightmarish reenactments of 20th century racial atrocities. After some reflection I think it’s a pretty astonishing conclusion, but the audience members who walked out before the lights came up might beg to differ. This conflict is a microcosm of the whole play; at points it is inventive and brave, and at others it is puzzling and borderline offensive. I choose to give We are Proud to Present… the benefit of the doubt, based on the strong slate of performances and unique creative vision. Whichever way you lean, just remember to pick your jaw off the floor before you leave the theater.
We Are Proud to Present…by Jackie Sibblies Drury . Directed by Michael John Garcés .Featuring Dawn Ursula, Andreu Honeycutt, Joe Isenberg, Holly Twyford, Peter Howard and Michael Anthony Williams . Set design: Misha Kachman . Costumes: Meghan Healey . Lighting design: Colin K. Bills . Original music: Christylez Bacon . Sound design: Elisheba Ittoop . Choreographer: Paige Hernandez . Fight Choreographer: Joe Isenberg . Puppet consultant: Ksenya Litvak . Production stage manager: Maribeth Chaprnka . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Ben Demers.
Alan Zilberman . BrightestYoungThings
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