There’s no better a time for We Are Proud to Present… than right now. During an election cycle marked by heated rhetoric and racist undercurrents, the lessons portrayed in this truly intense experience couldn’t be more apropos.
In full, 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, is as exhausting as its title. Penned by Brooklyn-based playwright Jackie Sibblie Drury, We Are Proud to Present… is an emotional tour de force. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll laugh until you cry.
The play follows a group of six actors – three black and three white – who are preparing for a presentation about Germany’s near-absolute extermination of the Herero people in what is now Namibia. As the first genocide of the 20th century, many view this act as a precursor to the Holocaust. The weight of the situation plays heavily on the six young actors as they struggle to embody archetypal characters they may either personally loathe or sympathize with.
Directing the play, veteran Portland actor and director Kevin Jones fully acknowledges the breadth of his responsibility in orchestrating such a gut-punching performance. “I had to make sure the field was fertile,” he says of his technique in hiring the actors. “When I put up the notice for the audition, I said I wanted actors who have a dog in this fight; who have a point of view; who have considered the ramifications of our culture given these things called racism and genocide.”
As the evening proceeds through an uninterrupted 90 minutes, it becomes quite apparent these actors are well aware of said ramifications. The pained anguish on “white man one’s” face as he points his weapon at “black man two” is obviously so much more than an act.
“I had one actor who said, ‘I’m not that guy,” says Jones. “So I said to him, ‘Well you need to read the script because that is exactly what he says in the script.”
Jones describes how he created a “safe place” where the actors could “take a position and say how they feel.” In that way, he was able to coax an intense, almost frenetic performance out of the group. Gradually, they piece together a tapestry of angst amidst a trove of revelations.
Riding right alongside these young actors in the wagon of emotional anguish is the audience. We Are Proud to Present… strives to break down the fourth wall. “The big goal for me from the very beginning was to include the audience as much as we can,” says Jones.
And include the audience they do. At alternating points characters speak, gesture to, or sit among the audience. Enterprising German soldiers stomp up stairs while a Nama tribesman reaches out to a front-row audience member.
Yet through it all the performance somehow retains a darkly humorous edge. Hearts are shorn as laughs turn to horrified gasps. By the end you’re left breathless and slightly disoriented, with your hand clutching at your chest and your mouth hanging slightly agape as you try to process what just happened. Just take a deep breath, then step in, sit down and immerse yourself in the topical parable that is We Are Proud to Present…
We Are Proud to Present… runs through April 10 at the Artist’s Repertory Theatre in downtown Portland. Tickets are $48, for students and under 25 tickets are $25. To buy tickets call 503.241.1278 or click here.