By Michael Grossberg The Columbus Dispatch • Thursday April 3, 2014 9:10 AM
We Are Proud To Present. . .
Actors confront tensions and conflicting views over race, history and politics as they try to make a play about a little-known genocide that took place about a century ago in Africa.
Available Light Theatre is presenting the Ohio premiere of 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, which continues through April 12 in the Riffe Center’s Studio Two Theatre.
“The play takes on a really difficult subject matter and creates a situation in which these difficult conversations have to be had,” director Matt Slaybaugh said. “It’s a multi-layered piece about how we talk about race in the 21st century, and especially the way we talk about race when we talk across cultural boundaries — when white people talk to black people and black people talk to white people.”
Considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century, between 24,000 and 100,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama natives died between 1904 and 1907 during the Herero wars in Namibia, then called German South-West Africa. In 1904, when the Herero people rebelled against German colonial rule, the Germans defeated them and drove them into the desert, where most died of thirst. Later that year, the Nama people also rebelled, with similar results.
“Perhaps the most amazing thing about the genocide is how few people know about it,” Slaybaugh said. “Jackie Sibblies Drury wrote the play, in large part because she was astonished when she learned about the genocide and wanted to explore why this is a hidden piece of history.
Six actors — three white, three black — play all the roles in the 90-minute one-act, which alternates between the story of the genocide and the rehearsals and discussions of the actors as they shape their drama. “It allows you to see their conversations as they try to create a play,” Slaybaugh said. “As you might expect, they fight about it.”
Reflecting the play-within-a-play format, Acacia Duncan, Jordan Fehr, David Glover, Matt Hermes, Ben Jones and Shanelle Marie each play double roles. “It’s different from anything I’ve read or been a part of before,” said Marie, 33, who also appeared at Available Light in Attempts on Her Life, To Kill a Mockingbird and some staged readings.
Marie starts out playing Black Woman. “Black Woman is the one who convenes the actors after learning about the Herero people through a story and picture she saw in a magazine. She identified with the picture because it looked like her grandmother,” Marie said.
“Throughout the play, she struggles with some of the creative power plays as the work is being formed because everything doesn’t fit her vision.” Meanwhile, Marie also plays Another Sarah, an African woman in love with a Herero man who is writing a letter to her about his desire to marry and start a family. “She shows the humanity of her people,” Marie said, “not just their destruction.”
One of the most unexpected aspects of the piece, Slaybaugh said, is its blend of comedy and drama. “It starts out being really funny,” he said. “but as things start to break down and tensions start to build about race and race prejudice, it gets more and more unsettling.” Marie, for her part, considers the play a satire of the theater world. “Is it OK to laugh? Yes, it’s OK,” she said. “The audience goes through a range of emotions, and there’s an opportunity to talk about the deep issues after the show.”