UNCW Department of Theatre is asking some tough and pertinent questions in their current show, 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.” This lengthy title—also known as simply “We are Proud…”—is the first indication of the complicated and challenging terrain the script explores.
Framed around a group of people rehearsing a performance piece about what is believed to be the first genocide of the 20th century, it looks more like the early stage of creative exploration than a rehearsal process. But, make no mistake, this is a carefully scripted examination, with pacing and tension that builds continuously.
Also, it makes an interesting choice for university theatre, indeed. In his dramaturges’ note, Dr. Grimes mentions this is the first university theatre production of this very new play, which debuted in 2012. Though challenging material, in theory an academic environment should be just the place where questions about race, class, gender, history, the written record and power can be asked.
Black Woman (Afreya Munroe) opens the narration by introducing the cast: White Man (Wilson Meredith), Another White Man (Gary T. Moore), Black Man (Rickie Smalls), Another Black Man (Bruno Rose), and Sarah (Ashley Burton). Already the audience is signaled that this is not going to be another production of “Our Town.” “We are Proud…does not have a narrative arc in a classic sense, of specified conflict, attempted resolution, failure, struggle, climax, or even successful resolution. It does build to a peak, and like the human experience, with the horror of violence and guilt of silence, the falling action has no resolution, only person turmoil.
How does one present a play about a genocide that has been forgotten but has all the hallmarks of the Holocaust and its successors? The only written record the performers have are letters by German soldiers who manage not to talk much about the forced relocation of people, medical experiments, torture, property seizure, and finally 80 percent of the population’s murder. But the black performers sputter, “Where are the voices of the Herero? The people who suffered? Why do we only have the stories of the perpetrators?”
It is particularly interesting this show has come to the stage at the same time as Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing,” a startling documentary that sought to explore the genocide in Indonesia in the second half of the 20th century. Oppenheimer found the surviving family members of victims would not speak with him; yet, the perpetrators were more than thrilled to re-enact their roles on camera. These two pieces of art seem to signal a time that we, as a collective group of people, are willing to ask and explore questions of the human psyche that make these experiences so dreadful and still possible.
Part of what was so shocking about Oppenheimer’s film was that we can accept the image of the war criminal who is repentant, and has spent the last 60 years of life grieving the participatory horror. But Oppenheimer’s war criminal neither repents nor regrets participation
In “We are Proud…” Meredith and Smalls re-enact the moment that White Man refuses Black Man access to his home and family. He is a guard following orders and his orders include shooting to kill if Black Man does not capitulate and cooperate.
When the scene is over, Meredith’s character as an actor says he wouldn’t have done that. He wanted to let Black Man through and would have. Instead, his character is killed. Why? How did that happen? And how is this reconcilable in the human psyche? Meredith and Smalls play out a scene that has happened millions of time in 20th century and is still happening in many parts of the world today. They find no answer.
This is tough material. Moore’s Another White Man monologue recounts a touching family story from the Civil War. He’s angry that the other characters do not understand the vulnerability he is offering. That he is trying to connect and understand is not just necessary for these characters but for the audience as well. The collision of well-intentioned white people with justifiably frustrated African Americans is a bridge that is still hard to cross culturally.
Rose’s Another Black Man begins a monologue about Africa that is basically straight out of “The Lion King.” Smalls disrupts it like Jesus throwing the money lenders out of the temple. It is so far from African history and African American history that it must be stopped. Rose, the lighter skinned of the two, hurls the gauntlet down: “Are you saying I’m not black enough?” A visual and auditory moment gets crystalized and fractures out across time. The performers do not only create individual characters that are three-dimensional human beings, they explore some of the most sensitive and dangerous areas of the psyche and interchanging perceptions. It is brave work. It would be demanding and terrifying for professional actors twice their age. That these six bare themselves with candor and grace is stunning.
Part of the role of art in society is to provide a forum and lens through which the discussion that moves us as human beings can happen. This script and production speak very directly to a need that has been bubbling within us culturally for a long time. Given what we are witnessing in North Carolina at the present in our state government and our local school system, perhaps this is a show more people should see as a vehicle for facilitating the conversations we are avoiding.
We are Proud…
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Feb. 20th – 23rd, 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
Tickets: $5 – $12
Cultural Arts Building, UNCW
601 S. College Rd.