"We Are Proud..." Is Witty, Thrilling Theatre
One of the truisms of theatre is that one doesn't need a lot of money to do it right; you just require creativity and talent. The latest example of this is a new show with a very long title: 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. The west coast premiere of Jackie Sibblies Drury's play at the Matrix Theatre is a dazzling tour de force of brilliant writing, acting and direction, and, despite the serious subject matter, it's frequently hilarious.
Six actors are rehearsing to put on a presentation about the genocide of the Herero tribe of Namibia in the early part of the twentieth century. Although it's stated that nobody is leading the troupe, unofficially Actor 6 (Julanne Chidi Hill) seems to be the motivating force. White actors (John Sloan, Daniel Bess and Rebecca Mozo) are chosen to play German colonial officers and the wife left back in Germany, respectively. The African American actors (Hill, Joe Holt and Phil LaMarr) decide to represent the Herero tribe. As the actors struggle to represent the tragic history, everything from thespian egos to issues concerning racism gets in their way.
More than the other actors, Hill stays in one character as the group leader, and she's very good and convincing as the actor who is clearly trying to control the show, yet is also the person who ultimately keeps it going when it falters. Sloan is solid as the improv-challenged Actor 1, particularly fine in a scene when his soldier character feels forced to threaten the life of a Herero man. LaMarr brings a believable righteous anger to Actor 4, both in his protestations about the thematic direction of the presentation and as the Herero man prevented from returning to his home and family.
Bess is consistently amusing as Actor 3, who wants to show his range by portraying Actor 6's grandmother and futilely attempting to get Actor 1 to improvise with him. Holt is terrific throughout, but is especially fine in an over-the-top Africa fantasy, and he also delivers a great spit take. Finally, Mozo is fantastic as Actor 5, getting what amounts to an acting showcase with the role. At different points her character is petulant, enthusiastic, self-centered and well-intentioned; Mozo also sings, dances, puts on a mask and acts like a cow, and does perhaps the best cat imitation I've ever seen.
Jillian Armenante's direction is a marvel, dense with creativity. Having looked at Drury's play, it's apparent how very much Armenante has brought to the party, from using the walls and floor of the theatre as a chalkboard to create settings to the use of masks and projected video. It's a feat of unfettered imagination and a joy to behold. Drury's play is similarly witty and boundary-pushing, spotlighted in the quick history of Namibia and its genocide that begins the show. If the piece has a flaw, it's that it gets a bit overheated in its conclusion, conflating historical American racism with the plight of the Herero in a somewhat obvious way, but after such a surfeit of brilliance, this is just a quibble. In every important way, We Are Proud... is excellent, thrilling theatre.
"We Are Proud..." plays through August 11 at the Matrix Theatre. Tickets are available online.