There is a moment not quite midway through Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, in which it is almost certain you have stepped into a dream. The vivid kind, in flashing, saturated color.
Bright lights, some wielded by the actors and some projected onto the back wall, blink and bleed orange, pink and blue in the small black-box theater. The cozy refrain of Edelweiss adopts a throaty beat, “Actor 5/Sarah” (Jenelle Chu) trades Fraulein Maria for Madonna as she vogues atop a workmens’ ladder that dresses the stage. A German soldier (Matt Raich) composes a romantic-cum-techno letter to his wife at center stage, making his unrelenting wish for rain in an always arid Namibia sound grittily sexy – if not also ridiculous – as ensemble members belt lines from Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball behind him. Great, “Actor 6/Black Woman” (Shaunette Renée Wilson) proclaims. The cast is finally getting somewhere.
But if you thought the Yale Summer Cabaret was done with dark, violent and ambivalent narratives, think again. The third performance of the season (read about the first two here and here), We Are Proud to Present offers audiences a wholly different side of trauma: the dangerously quiet kind that comes with ingrained prejudice, casual ignorance, and a fraught history of race relations.
At its simplest, the work is a play about a play about the little-known Herero Genocide at the beginning of the 20th century. A cast of six plays a cast of six trying to script a cogent and nuanced performance to adequately capture 41 turbulent and brutal years of German colonial rule.
But it is so much more than that. It reflects, not without humor, Sibblies Drury’s own struggle to write a heartfelt play about the genocide. Her first attempt included puppets, dark language and lots of shadow work and, by her own estimation, failed. This script triumphs. It is bitterly funny until it simply is not, endowed with subversive wit and narrative pacing that demands the actors tackle stereotypes both in and out of character.
As the play depicts the trying process of composing work – and a work, at that, about trauma, past and present – racial memes are not swept under the rug but dealt with in explicit and often awkwardly funny or stilted terms. Characters of color – all three of whom are named “Black Man” or “Black Woman” – search for some semblance of heritage while calling the white characters (both called “White Man”) out on the fact that the play, in its current iteration, does not concentrate enough on the Herero. The white characters fight back, defending their roles in what becomes a defense of their ability to relate to histories that are not, and will never be, their own. And “Sarah” (Chu), whose race is not mentioned save one shushed instance at the beginning, hangs in between, ambivalent about her personality on and off stage.
As Director Jessica Holt explained before a recent performance: “It’s about this idea of how we approach trauma, how we do it, how we process it, how we enact it.” Thanks in part to what she describes as an extremely “muscled” script – hefty but flexible – and owing to a total mastery of craft, the Summer Cab’s actors tackle We are Proud to Present with grace and subtlety. Holt’s direction is exquisite: in addition to a keen eye to shadow work and light and dark, several still moments on the set give way to green-room-meets-vanitas-like arrangements that match an increasingly fraught and desperate build to the finish.
That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to watch. At times, interactions are so deliberately performative that the play feels more like a group piece at a poetry slam or spirited class presentation than a work of theater.
Indeed, the task of telling the story of “a practice Holocaust,” becomes nearly Sisyphean as each of the show’s characters let their own unwieldy histories roll around the stage, building from uncomfortably funny to hard to stomach. And as their ideas about the genesis of the show evolve, so too does their commitment to their roles and simultaneous repudiation of them. Just after acting out a scene in which a German soldier shoots a Herero man multiple times, “White Man” (Raich) breaks character, even his southern drawl tamer as he explains to Wilson “But I wouldn’t do that.”
This, in an instant, makes the show both alarmingly relatable and drives the point home. In this dance around each other to be politically correct, to respect collective history, to massage trauma, to bring stories to light – we mess up. We offend. We injure others as reluctant products of our environment. And then we do it again. And again.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the final scene, when Ato Blankson-Wood’s line I have been black all my life is repeated against a rhythm that grows progressively more frenetic, a noose is fixed from the theater’s sturdy beams as cast members dance around him. The Edelweiss chorus has long been traded for racial epithets; the Herero have been marched into the Namib desert, and suddenly, everything is a little too real and a little too close for comfort.
In the silence that follows his exit – and it will swallow you whole if you let it – one thing is chillingly clear: These characters are one misstep, one remark, one shortened breath away from disbanding, and so are we.
We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 is showing now through July 26 every evening at the Yale Cabaret, 217 York St. For ticket information and directions, visit their website or send them an email.