by Lynn on November 12, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St. W., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury
Directed by Ravi Jain
Set and Lighting by Ken Mackenzie
Costumes by Joanna Yu
Sound by Debashis Sinha
Music by Debashis Sinha with
The Ensemble.
Cast: Michael Ayres
Brett Donahue
Darcy Gerhart
Brendan McMurtry-Howlett
Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah
Marcel Stewart

A play that starts off looking like it’s an innocuous history lesson turns into a harrowing situation that shows the divide between skin colours, understanding, what it means to walk in another person’s shoes.

The Story. The full title of the show says it all, or almost all: We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From The German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.

A group of American actors—three white and three black– have been preparing a presentation of the history of the Herero tribe of Namibia and how they had been brutalized and almost decimated by the German occupation from 1884 to 1915. The actors have prepared, researched, done a chronology of events and even gathered letters written by German soldiers home to their loved ones. The actors have rehearsed. They know their subject, or do they?

Cracks appear in their relationships with each other. There is discord in how to actually present the story. A black actor accuses the others of presenting the black experience frivolously. Deep-rooted animosity and prejudice erupts. Subtly the reality of what the play is about emerges. It’s not really about an experience of a people thousands of miles away and more than 100 years ago. It’s about the black experience in the United States now. And one might argue, they are the same thing.

The Production. The audience is welcomed into the theatre by the cast—bright, smiling, friendly. They take us to seats and let us pick where we want to sit. When the audience is seated the cast of six skilfully give us the thesis of their presentation, expressed in playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s extremely long title. That title is reminiscent of those overlong thesis titles in a University Grad course. In fact the play is Sibblies Drury’s Graduate Thesis for her playwriting degree from Brown University.

The cast smoothly presents the chronology of the German invasion of Namibia and domination of the Herero. They point to a detailed chronology on the wall to our right. Each actor deals with a sequence quickly followed by the next sequence. The presentation is accompanied by broad physical business, sometimes creating rhythmic sounds like jungle drums and dancing. (Kudos to Debashis Sinha for his sound design and music). Director Ravi Jain has created this tight-knitted ensemble to riff off each other like a well oiled machine.

Changes appear in the presentation as one actor questions her motivation (a wonderful ‘actor’ joke.) A white actor (Bendan McMurtry-Howlett) creates his version of an old black woman suggesting she could be the grandmother of one of the black actresses. That actress (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) takes offence at this. The white actor does not back down. Animosity builds. The well-oiled machine seems to be experiencing mechanical trouble. It’s soon after this that the whole enterprise seems to derail. There are unsteady truces. An actor tells a story about his father, who is from Pennsylvania, during the war and his experience fighting next to a black soldier. The story is harrowing.

It’s about here, 45 minutes into this 90 minute play that the true theme of We Are Proud To Present clearly presents itself. This is about the black experience in the United States using the Herero in Namibia as a jumping-off point. In Sibblies Drury’s play one can try and understand what it’s like walking in another person’s shoes but even that thought is disrespectful. The black actors do not feel the white actors have any sense of what they have gone through.

Again, Ravi Jain builds the tension of the last stunning scenes to such a level that you hold your breath. And he doesn’t let us off the hook by giving the audience a chance to applaud the cast. There is no bow, just sobering realization of what we saw.

Comment. We Are Proud To Present is the second of three shows (the first was Butcher) that is part of the November Ticket, a series of three plays for a low price. The last play will be Late Company, that opens shortly. The November Ticket is a wonderful collaborative effort between The Theatre Centre (Artistic Director, Franco Boni) and Why Not Theatre (Artistic Director, Ravi Jain). The aim of the November Ticket is to offer theatre companies an opportunity, technical expertise and a place to present their shows. It’s a great idea. The first two plays of the series are some of the finest theatre in the city. I so look forward to Late Company.

Produced by the Theatre Centre as part of the November Ticket initiative.

Opened: Nov. 3, 2015.
Closes: Nov. 29, 2015.
Cast: 6; 4 men, 2 women
Running Time: 90 minutes.

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