Dallas — Jackie Sibblies Drury was Googling for something else when after typing in “black people Germany,” up popped a story about the first genocide during the 20th century, the murder of 65,000 Africans prior to World War I. She had never heard of this incident and figured few if any others had either. It was 2010. Barack Obama was in the second year of his term as the nation’s first Black president and Occupy Wall Street had just materialized. Social justice issues did not even rank in the top ten priorities for American citizens. However, Drury was Intrigued and redirected her inquiry which resulted in this play. After developing through a reading series and playwriting festivals, 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 eventually premiered in New York City at Soho Rep in 2012.
Undermain Theatre filmed its April 10, 2014 staging of Drury’s play, which was directed by Dylan Key. They are now streaming that performance for virtual audiences.
Undermain’s production happened the year after Black Lives Matter was formed so the timing was right for a piece which attempts to have a conversation about race. Such has been a goal of the playwright, to have this conversation that everyone knows we need to have but no one wants to have so most pretend it has already been handled because after all, Barack Obama is president.
Drury avoids the trap of creating a sermonesque piece and establishes the premise that a group of six actors have decided to create a play about this genocide of the African Herero tribe by German colonists. Immediately the actors realize their biggest problem is that the only written artifacts or records were those created by the Germans. Rather than constructing the play about the genocide Drury takes us through the creative process of rehearsing the play, tackling problems, difficult situations, as they arise. Of concern and some frustration is that the troupe will wind up telling “the white version of the story over and over.” Drury was dealing matter-of-factly with cultural appropriation. Arguments erupt over who gets to tell the stories of Black people and their pain.
The story is presented chronologically in two- to three-year segments beginning in 1884 and with the last segment beginning in 1906. Structurally, Drury employs an unusual style of writing in that it pulls the audience in and out of the scenes unconventionally. Costumes (Claudia Stephens) and props (Linda Noland) help the audience know where we are and which roles the actors are assuming. It is a high energy constantly moving piece helped a lot by Millicent Johnnie’s effortless looking choreography. Without all of those technical elements including Steve Woods’ lighting design and the sound design of Bruce DuBose, one could get lost.
The cast consists of six actors: Actor 6/Black Woman (Ivuoma Okoro), Actor 1/Black Man (Christopher Dontrell Piper), Actor 2/White Man (Jake Buchanan), Actor 3/Another Black Man (Bryan Pitts), Actor 4/White Man (Blake Hackler), and Actor 5/Sarah (Shannon Kearns). They have organized the process into the overview, the lecture over Namibia, and the presentation. Actor 6 is the facilitator, and it is she who explains everything to the audience.
Interestingly, the only character with a name is the white woman. The dialogue establishes how this happens but still, it is a choice by the playwright which begs one to wonder why. There are so many ways of thinking about that decision.
The sections of overlapping dialogue are fantastic in that the actors’ lines can be clearly distinguished. This was the most impressive part of the performance because the actors did all of that while handling and switching out various props. That is really difficult to do and they worked seamlessly as an ensemble.
Once the stylized overview ends and the curtains open to reveal the set (Robert Winn), the actors argue over how to proceed, and which German artifacts to use. This play has an improvisatory feel; however, every word is scripted and every rhythmical music section is dictated, most often with patterns of 7, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1 or 1-2, 1-2, 123.
One of the most salient moments in the script—"You better shut your mouth and listen to me, girl. You can’t take no walk in somebody else’s shoes and know anything. … They ain’t your shoes” received laughter. It was jarring to hear because while the play has humor, that is not a funny moment. Perhaps in 2014, it was easier to laugh at this section. Today, that’s a little harder to do.
Drury has expressed surprise and some sadness that this play remains relevant. In 2019 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Fairview, which examines Black storytelling and the white gaze. The passing of the Barack Obama era has revealed one thing very clearly, the conversation about race and principles remains as difficult now as ever.