This time it’s Brooklyn playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s nervy farce-meets-race-riot “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,” which will now run through April 10.
The play follows a troupe of actors — half black, half white — as they struggle to prepare for a presentation about the first genocide of the 20th century: Germany’s extermination of 80 percent of the Herero people in what is now Namibia (an act viewed as a precursor to the Holocaust). However, rehearsals devolve and the group is nudged over the edge by simmering questions about race, authenticity and truth. Can the reality of the genocide even be accessed by the actors, whose only historical source material is a collection of letters written by German soldiers — and whose cultural touchstones are stubbornly, almost bizarrely American?
As part of our “What Are You Looking At?” series, State of Wonder producer Aaron Scott invited Kimberly Howard, program officer at the PGE Foundation and former head of the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, to see and discuss the show. Here are some highlights from their conversation.
On the feeling in the theater after the play ended …
Aaron Scott: I don’t think I’ve ever left a theater that was that silent for the outgoing audience.
Kimberly Howard: I’m still pretty speechless. It’s not just that it was silent, but that people didn’t know what to do. I’ve been in silent end-of-shows before, and it was silent because it was moving. But this seemed like it was silent because it was so confusing. What do we do? Do you applaud that?
On how we do history…
KH: Hearing references to nooses and hangings in a play about a genocide that happened to people of our ancestry is hard. It’s bitter; there’s an edge to it that is razor, razor sharp. As all the actors on stage are trying to figure this out. They begin to layer on references that they understand, because there are slight echoes.
AS: We start to project our own history and our own ideas of history. That seemed to play out more and more as it builds to a crescendo. The white actors, who are playing the Germans, had said at the beginning, “We are not speaking in accents.” And all of a sudden, they are speaking in Southern accents. It takes it to a whole new meaning. The idea is that, as we try to get into this history, we end up telling our own history.
On the cast…
KH: The ensemble was very strong, and they were consistently in the same play, which doesn’t always happen. Chantal DeGroat, Black Woman/artistic director, is always a joy to watch onstage. She is so present in her body and so physically connected to the work, she just radiates this strength on stage, and she’s a delight to watch. Chris Harder was hilarious. I love watching him perform and seeing the things he comes up with. Vin Shambry: strong, strong performer. Powerful, powerful ending and how he takes that journey in the show was just a joy to watch as well.
On questions the play asks but does not answer…
AS: It seems the play is not supposed to be easy, it’s not supposed to be answerable. It literally leaves with questions.
KH: Yeah, and a big hollow feeling that I’m not sure those questions can be answered.
AS: And does that, to you, make it a successful piece of theater?
KH: Yes. In the middle of it, I wasn’t sure that that would be true. There was a point where I was tired of the concept; it became a little bit trite and too cute. But then they broke free of it to get to the meat of it. And then I came back and realized, “Wow, I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight because I’m going to still be wondering about this.”