Gordon Spencer / The Reader
We Are Proud to Present a Presentation, About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 is the play’s full title. Reading it, you might say “Huh?” It looks kind of weird, right? Thus does playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury provoke you from the outset. Actually she’s taking on the personas of six actors who don’t have it all together, stumbling to present a drama while not knowing enough about where they should go. This signpost points to a complex journey ahead. You are thrust into it.
SNAP Productions co-directors M. Michele Phillips and Noah Diaz along with their remarkable cast, however, do have it all together, coming up with a memorable take on the complex script, as if to the nature born. As nameless characters (e.g. Actor 2 / Black Man), the performers gradually come into focus while seeking definition. And then they turn into disturbing personifications of the roles they seek to portray, trapped in the brutal history which they sought to convey. By the end of their endeavor you can be shaken up along with them. Plus Phillips and Diaz have provoked powerful movement and sound from this remarkable ensemble. Togetherness again.
Drury has pointedly chosen to call attention to 30 years’ of rather obscure of African and German history from over 100 years ago. In so doing, she reminds us that there is a kinship of racism and genocide affecting African-Americans and African natives. By making the oppressors German, she also reminds us of another holocaust looming ahead in their near future. And, as the play progresses, these horrors inevitably, seamlessly merge. Leaving us to look into our mirrors to see if we recognize ourselves.
Ostensibly the six actor / characters have assembled because they want to tell about and dramatize the story of how Germans in their colony of Southwest Africa plundered the land and dominated, punished, and exterminated native people. But the performers are ill-prepared, confused and, at first, struggling to define themselves while taking on roles of white Europeans and black natives. Initially their stops and starts may seem amusing, even comic, but as they come into focus within their project, they can’t help losing themselves in the characters. Sibblies brilliantly shows that there is no escape from cultural conditioning.
She gives us many things to ponder, but not as an intellectual exercise; she forces us to see and feel. And these ultimately intense, densely packed 90 minutes turn into a dreadful kind of reality, even when achieved with simple props. Two fingers and a thumb become a menacing pistol. When it goes off, you may want to duck. And a long steel ladder fantastically evolves into a fence, a train track. And a gallows. Credit Phillips, Diaz and properties designer Ronnie Wells.
The outstanding cast merges into one organic, palpable substance. Among them, Thomas Gjere stands out as a once-simple German soldier who transforms into someone vicious; frail-looking Aaron Ellis forcefully stands tall portraying a vulnerable Herero and Regina Palmer moves with beautiful grace as Another Black Man.
After their remarkable energy has grabbed in your seat, you may yearn for fresh air. But you haven’t escaped. You are still part of our culture which still seethes with unresolved racial agonies. Consider Ferguson, MO. Or Staten Island. Bro.