Friday, March 3, 2017

We Are Proud to Present is Profound

For a visceral understanding of colonialism, look no further than the Guthrie's latest offering. 

Photo by Dan Norman.

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, currently playing at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio, is probably the most specifically-named show you will ever come across. It is also one of the most confounding in terms of categorization. Is it history? Is it performance? Is it fiction? Is it scripted? Does any of that even matter if the point gets across?

Photo by Dan Norman.

We Are Proud to Present begins with a brief history of German and English colonialism in Namibia (the German version of which took place between 1884 and 19195, after which the colony was taken over by the British during WWI). It then circles back to the beginning of this history in 1884, examining the lives of the colonialists through letters of the Germans sent to the colony as they wrote (and thought) of home. The performances of these letters are meant to guide the audience to truly understanding the massacre of the Herero Tribe and the horrors the Germans committed in the name of progress, but they immediately hit multiple problems that seem wholly unanswerable as the cast discusses them.

Photo by Dan Norman. 

We know what these soldiers include in their letters, but what about what they don't include? Does the fact that no written accounts of the Herero's experience survive make their experience less valid or true? Does imagining what happened to the Herero cheapen the horror of their situation? Over 80% of the Herero people were massacred in the drive to seize Namibian lands for Germany; how does that compare to modern genocides like the Holocaust or Armenian or Rwandan tragedies? Does the fact that the extermination of the Herero wasn't physically documented in videos and photographs somehow make it less important than the others? We Are Proud to Present's uncomfortable honesty lies in the fact that it doesn't provide the answers to these troubling questions for you. Instead, by commissioning the audience to directly engage with the actors as they "rehearse" through multiple scenarios, it directly engages us with this difficult history and ties us completely to the devastating actions that eventually close the play.

Photo by Dan Norman.

This show would be impossible to perform without a strong cast, and thankfully it has one here. The experience is guided by Nike Kadri, who narrates the show, serves as the "Artistic Director" of the rehearsal, and plays the parts of black women in the colonial vignettes. Kadri is forceful and well rehearsed, and her strong personality is able to guide the experience with a necessary firm hand. Nika Pappas plays the white female characters and supports Kadri in the role of peacemaker between the male characters. Pappas is lithe and energetic and provides some desperately needed comedy throughout the performance.

Photo by Dan Norman.

The biggest tension of the show lies in the fraught discussions between the two white male (Sam Bardwell and Quinn Franzen ) and two black male (JaBen Early and Lamar Jefferson) characters. Each has a different perspective that directly conflicts with the others and makes consensus on the truth of the narrative they are trying to portray impossible. From the white men:

  • Thinking themselves modern and thus unconnected to colonial history
  • Sharing fond (but troubling) memories of their white immigrant ancestors
  • Assuming historical omissions are a sign of historical truth; 
From the black men:

  • Not knowing their specific African heritage as descendants of slaves
  • Empathizing with the horrific experiences the Herero experienced, as a person of color in a white power world
  • Having a lot of differences with each other despite having the color of their skin in common and struggling to provide a united front) .

The strong tensions as these fine actors discuss the progress of the play and the appropriate ways to process their individual traumas is deeply illuminating. Each man presents his perspective with conviction and verve; you can feel the audience react viscerally as each unravels more of himself and sometimes aggressively confronts his fellow characters. Watching their confrontations is frankly quite uncomfortable, but it's necessary: these are the kinds of conversations bubbling to the surface in America today, but without this specific kind of honesty, it is difficult to see how they can be resolved. Sometimes a flagrant honesty is required to reach the root of a troublesome truth, and only once it is confronted can it be rooted out, warts and all.

Photo by Dan Norman.

If you're uncomfortable with the removal of the fourth wall, this show will be very tough to watch. Its blurred lines between lecture and fiction, performance and rehearsal, and distinction between history and today makes it impossible to remove yourself from the implications this incisive examination of racism and colonialism raises. That, however, is entirely the point; history is never "dead." We are all living, breathing products of those who came before us, and we carry the legacies of our ancestors with us. It is only when we can confront those legacies head on and tear them down, brick by brick, that we can begin to rebuild a better, fairer world for us all. We Are Proud to Present is a powerful call to self-examination, and it's one we need now more than ever; everyone should see this and confront their personal demons. We Are Proud to Present runs until March 12; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

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