Photo by Dan Norman
We Are Proud to Present_Dan Norman_The Guthrie
We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 is a lot less funny than the never-ending title makes it sound. Then again, underneath the over-explanation is a subject that whispers colonialism and violence.
For the six actors who are giving the presentation—think a play within a play—this tension doesn’t register. All that matters is that they educate the audience on what life was like back then through an overview, a short history lecture, and a theatrical presentation based on the letters that German soldiers stationed in colonial Southwest Africa wrote to their loved ones.
Just from reading the description, the audience knows two things. The first is that we’ll be watching actors act out a presentation—as meta as that is. The second is that playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury and director Taibi Magar want to talk about race—or at least, talk about talking about race.
Drury’s 2012 play eases us in, though. It’s easy for the audience to laugh at passive-aggressive group dynamics and spoofs on the melodramatic thespian. It’s a little bit harder when Actor 2 (JaBen Early) asks, “Are we just going to sit here and watch some white people fall in love all day?” when that’s all that was recorded in the letters they had. Letters that speak nothing of the African experience or of the genocide that occurred. In the messy, informal, and fully-lit Dowling Studio, his question isn’t just to the other actors limited by a stage and a spotlight. It’s to us, too.
Throughout the play, there are no boundaries. We sit on our mismatched chairs and receive their over-acted, scripted presentation jokes at the beginning, but we’re soon forgotten as the actors’ personalities start to collide. They brush past us to get water or snacks at the back of the aisles, and they sit beside us as we focus in on one voice. When the emotional avalanche of hurt and anger tumbles down from the high pedestal of theater, it catches us, too, pulling us into its undertow of misunderstandings, flash points, and unreconciled pasts.
The end of the play culminates in a disturbing scene that, as the actors put it in the post-discussion, leaves the audience with no answers and no catharsis. The presentation’s theatrics mix with reality as the Herero genocide blurs into a not-so-distant American past and the monstrous acts committed by those long dead come alive again in the actors.
Have we escaped our past? Can we ever? How can we understand without excusing, without overstepping? How do we forgive without allowing it to happen again?
In the stunned silence after the final actor leaves the scene, these questions weigh heavy, unmoving, even as the audience tentatively begins to clap.
We Are Proud to Present. Through March 12; $9; Guthrie Theater, 818 S. Second St., Mpls.; 612-377-2224; guthrietheater.org.