Bob Fischbach / World Herald Staff Writer
It’s not easy theater – not for this cast of six strong actors, and certainly not for audiences.
But a play with this year’s longest title, which SNAP! Productions opened Thursday, could be the most powerful thing you’ll see onstage this season.
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, by Jackie Sibblies Drury, is a play within a play. It is actors playing actors who appear to be shaping scenes off the cuff – but those scenes are actually very carefully scripted and staged.
This troupe of six – 3 black and 3 white – tells the audience up front that it will tell a real-life story of colonial genocide, in which German occupiers nearly wiped out entire tribes of African natives.
But they’re not quite sure how to tell it. It’s a work in progress. There’s a prologue, explaining the basic historical facts. But how to dramatize them?
Black woman (Rusheaa Smith-Turner), a take-charge kind of gal, calls herself the artistic director. White Man (Thomas Gjere) likes the leading man spotlight a little too much. Black Man (Aaron Ellis) has anger issues and doesn’t play well with others. Another White Man (Robby Stone) resents being relegated to character parts. White Woman, aka Sara (Colleen O’Doherty), loves improv and playing the romantic lead but is emotionally fragile. Another Black Man (Regina Palmer, yes, a woman) has a definite point of view but is often caught in the middle of clashes.
“But a play with this year’s longest title…could be the most powerful thing you’ll see onstage this season.”
It’s terrific ensemble work, and there are no weak links in this acting chain.
Co-directors Noah Diaz and M. Michele Phillips effectively stage push-pull scenes that mix history and theater rehearsal techniques with creative and personal differences. At times they incorporate a projection screen, pantomime, a rap number and simple props into the telling. It all works as the troupe works it all out – or agrees to disagree.
Should letters written by a German soldier be used as a framing device, or are they boring and one-sided? What scenes and characters should tell the story? How can the black tribes’ views be accurately portrayed when so little written record of them exists? Should a white actor be allowed to play a black character? Is this genocide different from the Holocaust? These and more issues stir increasingly heated debate.
What starts out as light, fun comedy about egocentric actors pushing and pulling for time in the spotlight and a voice in shaping the show gradually veers to deadly serious conflict over viewpoints that are lifetimes apart. Cultural bias intrudes with ever more pointed elbows.
The audience is left feeling gut-punched by an increasingly ugly an incendiary ending that tosses around the N-word, tells the worst kind of racist jokes and peaks with a harrowing scene that descends to mob mentality.
Drury’s play uses an unusual structure to deliver a message about just how wide and deep the racial divide remains. Diaz’s and Phillip’s cast does a remarkable job of making something rehearsed feel improvised and making pseudo-improvised storytelling deliver a message that feels as real as a hard slap.