Dallas — Can a group of contemporary actors truly tell the story of the near-extermination of an African tribe 100 years ago? Brooklyn-based playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play based on that question had its New York premiere at Soho Rep in 2012. Now Undermain Theatre, in an intense and tightly choreographed production directed by Dylan Key, is giving regional audiences a fascinating and frightening look at the results of her inquiry, particularly the personal impact on actors trying to wrangle some kind of authentic response from the horrific source material.
The full title of the 90-minute play summarizes the shocking historical event Drury examines: 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. In fact, the show starts with an engaging and forthright young black woman (blade-thin and fiery-eyed Ivuoma Okoro) talking to the audience encircling Undermain’s basement playing space. She’s one of a company of six actors, three black and three white, numbered 1 through 6 in the program, trying to make a play about what happened. In turn, they strut before the curtain, introducing themselves as White Man, Black Man, Another White Man and so on.
Smiling and charging ahead, our group leader reads prompts from index cards, and introduces “a lecture, proceeded by an overview” of the subject. On the simple screen behind her, we see maps of Namibia and historic photos of pitifully emaciated survivors of the genocide. A woman’s face on one of these old photos had caught the group leader’s eye, somehow reminding her of an ancestor she never saw, and inspiring her to find out more about the Herero tribe. The actors listen and look, as they try to absorb the sketchy details of the occupation of German colonials who moved into the area, claimed the land, the cattle and enslaved or murdered any African natives who stood in their way.
The rest of the evening dramatizes the actors’ sometimes funny, sometimes volatile, often revealing attempts to get inside the heads of these historic characters. One huge hurdle is trying to construct a meaningful story when the only source material is letters German soldiers wrote home to their families.
Through Millicent Johnnie’s fast and furiously choreographed dance, hand-clapping group rap, satire and sweaty improvisation, we see this microcosm of actors wrestling with issues that still confront us.
The wittiest bits reveal the fat egos of the actors as they jump in and start “being” some figure or other. When Actor 1/White Man (a dashingly boyish Jake Buchanan) starts improvising a letter to his sweetheart in Germany (an eye-rolling and wildly eager Shannon Kearns-Simmons), our leader prods them both to imagine their voices more authentically. But even after the soldier’s most heartfelt rendering of his letter, the sweetheart holding the imaginary letter shrugs, looks away, and says, “Your reading didn’t totally work for me.” Stung and flushed with humiliation, poor dejected Actor 1 could not have looked more crushed if a real love had rejected him. One thing is clear from this show, their success in interpreting a role is way bigger for these actors than the fragmented humdrum life of the bare bones studio, designed by Robert Winn, they inhabit.
As the theatrical process continues, the group grapples with the ugliness of colonial oppression, and the more philosophical question of whether a group of modern actors can even begin to feel and articulate the suffering of men and women whipped to the point of exhaustion and collapse laboring to build a railroad for their masters. Actor 4/Another Black Man (a muscular, slow-on-the-draw Bryan Pitts) has a comically stereotyped Jungle Book take on Africa. Actor 2/Black Man (an aggressively attractive Christopher Dontrell Piper) raises the specter of whether a white actor can ever convincingly portray a black character. Actor 3/Another White Man (a wiry, tightly strung Blake Hackler) begs to differ.
The actors, pushed to go ahead with their collective ideas, work themselves into a frenzy of physical and emotional performance. Racial epithets uttered in role-playing mode hit hard on the real-life psyches of the troupe in an explosive and revealing finale. The play tells us perhaps more than we want to know about the theatrical process, and the exhausting commitment it entails.
The “presentation” about the Herero tribe is never completed, although we learn enough to be deeply saddened by this terrible genocide. What we do see is foolish, funny, angry, touching people struggling to make meaning and unity from whatever brains and heart they’ve been allotted in life.
Amazingly, this play about improvisation truly feels unrehearsed and spontaneous, thanks to Key’s collaborative direction and a first-rate ensemble performance by a cast of leave-it-all-on-the stage actors, each embodying a unique personality and acting style. Hot stuff.