At the start of the play—within the first five minutes—an older caucasian woman with an English accent shouts at actress Aimé Donna Kelly, “You’re not black enough!”
Kelly, who has just announced that she is going to tell the story of a little-known 20th-century genocide in Namibia, is in the middle of a direct address to the audience and acknowledges the comment as a joke, with a smile and a little laugh.
If it’s a joke, it’s an extremely awkward one. No one gets a chance to ask the speaker what on earth she could have meant by it, as she soon totters across the full length of the theater to make her exit.
After the play, in a brutal silence following the closing moments, a few of us audience members are puzzling over what we’ve seen and simultaneously recriminating this lady for her bizarre behavior (she’d also approached the stage to give one of the actors a tissue). Someone eventually says, “Well that’s the point of this play, isn’t it? It shows you who you are.”
The characters of 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 (which is the full title of the play) are actors attempting to find their next line, and the structure of their play.
It could be compared to Luigi Pirandello’s groundbreaking Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which a group of characters appear at a theater company’s rehearsal and insist that their melodramatic story be told. In his 1921 hit, Pirandello explored the nature of theater-making, the divide between the stage and the dramas it presented, and the impulse of storytelling.
Similarly, author Jackie Sibblies Drury is gutting the process of modern day theater-making, and exploring the connection between artist and event. The difference here is that, in the style of devised theater which has overtaken Philadelphia’s experimental theater process, the actors are not following a script or a group of characters dictating events: the play has to come from their research and improvisations and imaginations. And the six actors (three white, three black; four men and two women) are divided on how to tell the story of an African tribe (the Herero) which was 8/10ths eradicated in the decades preceding WWI, an infrequently remembered event for which there is no physical “evidence” except for romantic, stale letters written to lovers by young German soldiers—the same idealistic young men who robbed the Herero of their land and rights and lives.
Some of the actors want to present the letters, as the only first-person “evidence” of what actually happened, others want to discard them as self-involved lies in the face of inhuman brutality.
Drury asks whether it is important that a story be told, or if it is more important that it be told in a certain way. She uses the events in Namibia to illustrate the cracks in our own culture, the divides caused by racial issues even among a group of people who would probably all vote for the same candidate. Attempting to make headway into dangerous, violent territory, and plunged into heated debate, the actors spill opinions and deeply guarded prejudices—unconscious prejudices which reverberate across the audience.
So in a funny kind of way, wasn’t this audience member’s unsavory outburst perfectly in line with what the play is exploring? Questions of “black enough” come up, again and again: who on stage is allowed to play a Herero, and who must play a German? Whose story is being told, after all? Is it valid to explore the hearts of the killers as well as the killed?
Drury’s funny, traumatic, inventive and timely play will stab at you, personally, at least once, but hopefully you won’t get up and leave. October 18-November 10, 2013, interacttheatre.org. Tickets here.