Jackie Sibblies Drury’s WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION…, currently onstage as the second production in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ season, opens up challenging questions about history, who has the right to tell what story, and how best we can represent critical moments from the past without complete information. In the play, Drury lays bare the white washing of much of history and how the identities that we bring into the room shape our understanding of the past. Under the direction of Hallie Gordon and Gabrielle Randle, the six actors of the ensemble dive into the complexities of this play with full force and with a clear trust and respect for one another. WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION…offers up issues that are not only provoking and challenging for students, but for any audience member.
The title of Drury’s play alone suggests that this is not a piece with easy or clear answers. In full, the play is entitled WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION ABOUT THE HERERO OF NAIMIBIA, FORMERLY KNOWN AS SOUTH WEST AFRICA, FROM THE GERMAN SÜDWESTAFRIKA, BETWEEN THE YEARS 1884-1915. The play concerns a troupe of six actors, attempting to stage a production about the German colonization of present-day Namibia and the Germans’ genocide on the Herero tribe, brought on by an extermination order. While the play shows us a bit of the introduction and overview to this presentation, much of the play concerns itself with the actors’ attempt to meaningfully tell the story of the Herero through their rehearsal sessions. This challenge becomes further complicated by the fact that some of the only primary documents on which the troupe can draw are letters written by German soldiers, which fail to mention the brutality against the Herero.
Drury’s script identifies the actors only by number and broadly by ethnicity (e.g. Actor 1/White Man, Actor 2/Black Man, Actor 3/Another White Man, Actor 4/Another Black Man, Actor 5/Sarah, and Actor 6/Black Woman). Notably, only one of these characters has a name, and it’s not the given name of the troupe member. The nomenclature for these characters becomes an interesting device and a commentary on the inherent gaps in the historical record that often cause us to paint a picture of the past in broad strokes.
While WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION…is a necessarily intense piece of theater, it’s also important to note that the first half of this production has a great deal of humor. As the actors experiment with different methods of presenting the material, we see many of the classic tropes of theater. The group improvises certain scenes to try to find their way into their characters, with hilarious effect. This becomes all the more jarring when the play takes a much darker tone in the second half, though I don’t want to spoil the shocking end here.
Drury has written a meaty, multilayered play that is immensely demanding both physically and emotionally. The first-rate cast, featuring Will Allan (Actor 3), Terry Bell (Actor 2), Taylor Blim (Actor 5), Jeffrey Owen Freelon Jr. (Actor 4), Michael Holding (Actor 1), and Jennifer Latimore (Actor 6), gamely conquer the demands of the piece. As the troupe’s leader, Actor 6, Latimore has a brisk energy. She demonstrates the tension that comes from wanting to take charge, while also wanting to recognize the voices of the others in the room. As Actor 3, Allan finds some of the funniest moments, particularly in a scene where he attempts to assume the role of Actor 6’s deceased grandmother (to mixed results). Bell similarly finds a balance between humor and gravitas, easily shifting between the two very different beats of the play. Holding makes clear Actor 1’s struggle in needing to play some necessarily uncomfortable roles in the troupe’s experimental acting work and movingly portrays his character’s desire to seek the truth. Freelon fully leans into Actor 4’s desire to also use this moment as a way to unlock the truth. As Actor 5, Blim delightfully portrays her character’s exasperation as she struggles to find her role within the story and the room. This is clearly not an easy play to perform, but all of the actors do not shy away from the difficulty.
Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION…has public performances on March 8 at 7:30pm, March 9 at 3pm and 7:30pm, March 15 at 7:30pm, and March 16 at 3pm and 7:30pm in the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf, 1650 North Halsted Street. Tickets are $20. Visit Steppenwolf.org.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com