While there’s a lot to enjoy and appreciate in this post-modern piece, a play about the making of a play about a particular genocide in specific and enormous inhumanity in general, it overstays its welcome. Actors improvise props with found objects (snapping a letter-box shut to simulate a gunshot is especially effective); improvise scenes and break character to argue the authenticity of a theatrical moment; find the humor in an admittedly glum topic; and like good Brechtians, chant the preposterously long, tautological complete name of the work, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Afrika, from the German Südwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915.
It’s in the play’s constant second-guessing of its genuineness, its refusal of its own rights and abilities to portray, that it falters. A young black man, who has never been to Africa, challenges any white person’s legitimacy to present something other than he is not. And he is contradicted in a powerful turn by Peter Howard, a middle-aged white actor, as a wizened black African woman, crossing race and gender lines at a stroke.
When the work’s closing sequence finally arrives, a harrowing scene of violence in all its universality, we’ve already been distanced from this skilled ensemble of six by too many presentational gimmicks. It’s like a Lum and Abner play-acting bit that spins out of control.
This is not meant to dismiss the calamity that befell the Herero (perhaps more accurately known as the Ovaherero), who were nearly decimated by their German colonial rulers, years before Armenians died, decades before Hutu and Tutsi slaughtered one another in Rwanda.
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s work is most effective when it is quiet and specific: a simple, lethal scene with one herdsman, one border guard, one imaginary fence, and one pantomime gun.
- We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Afrika, from the German Südwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915, by Jackie Sibblies Drury, directed by John Michael Garcés, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington