“I Would Never…”: Undermain Theatre’s Archival Performance of "We Are Proud To Present..."
By Adrian Cook
The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a palpable blow to live performance. This is obvious. It is also uncertain. We don’t know when we will be able to return, in earnest, to sharing space as audience and performer again, so there’s a big down-side to this. What we do know as storytellers, as scholars, and as spectators of the dramatic arts -- which deeply examine the human experience – is that there is never just one perspective on any event. “You take the good, you take the bad; you take them both, and there you have the facts of life,” as the old TV theme song goes. With regard to the pandemic, one of the upsides is that we are forced to pause and reflect. For artistic entities, this has often manifested in going into the proverbial archives and streaming past shows that are relevant today. Undermain Theatre did just that with their 2014 production of We are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Nambia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1844-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury.
Oh yeah, the title is a mouthful. Upon reading the full title, I was immediately reminded of the titles of American slave narratives with which I spent so much time in graduate school, in particular Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave, Written by Himself. The last bit is important. The humanization of Black Americans depends upon the point of view – the ability and agency of Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and many others to tell their story first hand, and from their own experience. I do not digress; at the heart of We are Proud to Present…is point of view, the idea of direct experience. It is not simply about telling the story of a historical arc; it is about whose side of the story gets told, by whom, and in what way.
This show is meta-theatrical, which is something that Undermain does well. The intimate space lends itself. Watching the archived version doesn’t offer quite the same effect, but the set design by Robert Winn still reads very well. (The curtain. The curtain is way cool!) Script-wise, it’s tricky. Actors acting like actors we’ve seen, especially if “we” are theatre folk. What makes Presentation work so well in this regard is the cohesiveness of the ensemble. As the title suggests, this show is presentational. Interestingly, the presentation of the story…getting it moving actually is one of the conflicts.
After laying out the historical timeline that will be discussed in a darkly hilarious performative overview, the ensemble stops and starts. One faction of the company backs an epistolary approach. “We should read the letters,” they say. “The letters, are boring,” retorts the other faction, and the presentation devolves into a passionate debate – actors speaking over one another, arguing in pairs or groups. This happens at least three times, and it could get tedious in less capable hands. Here, the ensemble -- Jake Buchanan, Blake Hackler, Shannon Kearns, Ivuoma Okoro, Christopher Dontrell Piper, and Bryan Pitts – deftly walks a fine line. Clearly, to the critic and seasoned viewer, this has been well-rehearsed. But it is well rehearsed in that it truly appears organic. It is musical. Discordant, yes, but intentionally so, like the best heavy metal or the jazz improvisations of Miles Davis. Musically, the ensemble is just getting warmed up. The argument – how to tell the story…and through what lens – is at the core of the over-arching conflict. The uber-conflict, so to speak.
The letters, the “only evidence we have,” of this period of Herero genocide and oppression are not from the Herero, but from their oppressors, German colonizers who have used the period to romanticize their own experience of traveling to a foreign land, taming the natives, and doing what they believe to be service to their country. And…they are boring. The White characters (and even sometimes, the Black ones) try to make the most of it by improving – “Improv it!” – but refuse to “just make up” the Herero point of view by extrapolating the human experience from what is known. This is the crux of the play. This is the central issue, the erasure of the Black experience in Southwest Africa, and by the play’s own extension, the United States.
There is a moment where the parallel humanity of German and Herero romantic love holds the two cultures in balance, humanizing both. When pushed by the onstage “director,” portrayed by Ivuoma Okoro, to embody the darker aspects of the German soldier tasked with protecting stolen Herero territory on threat of death to its rightful occupants, Jake Buchanan’s “White Man” character balks. “I would never…” he pleads. Okoro-as-Director pushes him and the other actors to trudge on, to feel it, to embody these historical figures known only by impersonal historical documents and the letters of White tenderfoot soldiers plunged into a genocidal mission far from home. Thus the final dance begins.
This embodiment undoes them. It is a descent into angry madness. It is confrontational. It makes you stare – even from the seemingly safe remove of streaming – into the pitch abyss of human darkness in the same way social media in 2020 has forced its White users to finally face the sheer magnitude of racial injustice in America that has been untold, suppressed, since the days of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play may be about Nambia, the Herero, and the German Sudwestafrika, and it may have been performed by Undermain in 2014, but its relevance to our present moment in history is eerie and disturbing. The climax is exhilaratingly musical…and absolutely horrifying. Under Dylan Key’s direction the choreographed chaos combines African dance, Step, and mob-movement worthy of a violent mosh pit, never “losing the beat,” which accelerates to a deafening crescendo and visual holy shit! fermata.
We say we would never fire shots on an innocent man. We say we would never, ever be on the wrong side of history. But would we? And 100 years from now, who will tell the story of our country, of our time? What evidence, and which voices, will we leave behind?
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 by Jackie Sibblies Drury is an archival performance of Undermain Theatre's 2014 production, available for streaming through October 4, 2020. Grab your personal viewing link here: https://undermain.secure.force.com/ticket#/