When a play’s complete title is “We are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915,” it’s understandable that potential ticket buyers might have questions. Is it a documentary? Serious drama? Experimental?
While there are elements of these categories in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 2012 script, it’s also engaging, funny and inventive. PlayMakers Repertory Company’s staging admirably balances Drury’s racial, political and theatrical themes in 90 vivid minutes that will stick with you many hours afterward.
Six enthusiastic actors are putting together a theater piece on genocide of the Hereros of Namibia by the German Empire. The three black and three white performers know the event’s general history but have only the letters of a German soldier to fill more personal details.
Soon the actors are arguing over lack of balance from the Herero viewpoint, the questionable ability of white actors to understand the situation, and the best way to depict the events’ horrors. When the actors finally come together to make the piece work, they learn shocking lessons about good intentions, privileged lives and hidden prejudices.
Drury’s bold structure satirizes current methods of “devised” theater, flipping back and forth between the actors’ rehearsals and finished performances, subtly moving them – and the audience – from lighthearted humor to sobering gravity.
Director Desdemona Chiang coaxes commendable range from her players, whose likeable characterizations buoy the audience through the first half-hour while the script’s true intentions are not yet revealed. Her decision to make the characters caricatured in the beginning makes it harder to accept their changeover to dramatic reality later. Still, the play’s intended impact comes through with unsuspected power.
Schuyler Scott Mastain (White Man) easily switches from self-absorbed actor to German soldier torn between duty and humaneness. Myles Bullock (Black Man) is gripping as rebellious actor and hounded Herero. Nathaniel Kent (Another White Man) finds humor and depth as an actor trying to relate through his grandfather’s Civil War experience.
Genesis Oliver (Another Black Man) gets laughs as the fun-loving peacemaker while Carey Cox (Sarah) gamely enacts Chiang’s way-too-perky conception of the eager-to-please white actress. Caroline Strange (Black Woman) plays the group leader with amusing frustration and feisty determination.
Porsche McGovern’s mood-setting lighting of Junghyun Georgia Lee’s rehearsal room set gives the production a heightened reality.
Strong language and harrowing depictions of the Hereros’ treatment should not deter adult theatergoers from experiencing this uniquely involving presentation.
If you go
What: “We Are Proud to Present ...” by PlayMakers Repertory Company
Where: Paul Green Theatre, UNC Center for Dramatic Art, 150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill
When: 7:30 p.m. Mar. 1-5, 8-12; 2 p.m. Mar. 6, 13
Tickets: $15-$54 (students $12; military 10 percent off)
Info: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org