Thursday, January 16, 2014

Company One Shines A Light On a Dark Secret: "We Are Proud To Present A Presentation . . ." At ArtsEmerson, Paramount Theater Black Box

Namibia.  Before it was known by that name, this African nation was colonized by Germany and named Southwest Africa, or German Sudwest Afrika.  The indigenous peoples in this land fared about as well under German rule as North America's indigenous Native Americans fared when the Europeans landed on these shores.  Under German rule between 1884-1915, 80% of the members of the dominant Herero tribe perished.  Genocide is the only word that can come close to describing what happened during those years on The Dark Continent.

Brooklyn-based playwright, Jackie Sibblies Drury learned about this chapter of Namibia's history and was astounded that the truth of the genocide was not more widely known.  It was in response to this discovery of the near total destruction of the Herero people that she decided to write this play and to tell their story to the world.  The full title of the play is "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."

Rather than writing a play with straight exposition, Ms. Drury chose a riskier and more bold approach.  The play is written and carefully scripted to feel as if the actors comprise an Improvisational Theater troupe in rehearsal figuring out the best way to tell the story of the Herero.  They have available to them only a handful of historically verifiable primary documents, including letters written by German soldiers sent to their wives awaiting their return back home in the Fatherland.  The point of view of the Herero people cannot be verified with written documents, but only surmised from the oral tradition that has been handed down by the few survivors of the German hegemony.

During the course of the "rehearsal," many questions are raised and complications arise among the six actors. three White and three Black. Here are some of the philosophical and historical questions that emerged for me as I took in the stream of data and emotions that were being poured out as if from the nozzle of a fire hose:

  • To what degree  is the history of the Herero genocide verifiable?
  • In the absence of documents, how can their story be truthfully and adequately told?
  • Can it be told only by Black actors?
  • Given the availability of the letters from the German soldiers, can we extrapolate from the facts of daily life conveyed in these letters to gain a sense of what life was like in German Sudwestafrika - for the German ex-patriots or for the Herero tribesmen?
  • To what degree is human experience in a particular time and place a universal experience that can be shared globally?  Or to what degree is it unique to that time and place and understandable only to those who have walked a similar path?
  • Was this early German Holocaust a "rehearsal" for the Holocaust of World War II? 
  • If as an actor I play the role of a sadistic German oppressor, does that fundamentally change who I am as a person?
As the "rehearsal" progresses, many of the stereotypical elements of drama class and improvisational theater are on display - petty arguments about who will play which role, deep questions about a character's motivation and back story.  Are  these questions appropriate, or are they narcissistic personal indulgences in the face of the overwhelming tragedy of the subject matter?

As the players continue with their presentation, the tensions mount, violence erupts, lines blur, relationships are strained to the breaking point, and things fall apart in stunning ways.  The audience is left to ponder the question: "What just happened?"
This is not a play for the faint of heart.  It is not a play to be "enjoyed," but rather a gut-wrenching and intellectually challenging journey of reflection and self-examination to be experienced.  As the actors in the troupe struggle with their roles, with themselves and with one another, there are some very humorous moments - and there are some very troubling moments.

The actors are superb in presenting the "presentation" and playing multiple layers of roles - accessing multiple levels of emotions.  They have been well selected and well directed by Company One veteran, Summer Williams.  They are:

Lorne Batman - Actor5/Sarah

Elle Borders - Actor6/Black Woman

Brandon Green - Actor 2/Black Male

Joseph Kidawski- Actor 3/White Man

Marc Pierre - Actor 4/Another Black Man

Jesse James Wood- Actor 1/White Man

Brandon Green, Jesse James Wood
Lorne Batman, Joseph Kidawski
Elle Borders, Marc Pierre

Liza Voll Photography

During the audience Talk Back session that followed the formal play, someone asked the question: "What was this play about?"  One of the Company One staff members shared the fact that the playwright had once responded to a similar question by answering: "The play is about whatever you think it is about."

As the play progressed, I found myself watching the players, and at the same time, observing other audience members.  Generally, audience members of my Baby Boomer generation looked and acted bemused, confused, and uncomfortable with the non-linear and non-traditional drama that was unfolding before us and around us.  Younger members of the audience and those who were clearly "theater people" were loving it, basking in the inside jokes about actor's preparation for a role and riding the waves of chaos that washed over some of us.  In talking with some other "critics" after the play, I can predict that the reviews will cover a broad waterfront of opinion.  I found the evening to be deeply moving, incredibly informative and challenging  and a very worthwhile investment of my time, emotional energy and "mind share."  

Now that you have a sense of what to expect (I have left some secrets still to be revealed when you see the play yourself), I encourage you to consider "presenting" yourself at Emerson's Paramount Theater in Downtown Crossing to view "We Are Proud To Present A Presentation . . ."  The show will run through February 1.

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The personal and political, humorous and harrowing collide in this exhilaratingly irreverent play from Boston's own Company One Theatre. A rehearsal room descends from collaborative to absurd as a group of idealistic actors attempt to dramatize the little-known first genocide of the 20th century. But as the ensemble wrestles with this remote story, tensions mount, and their exploration hits much closer to home than anybody expected. One of The New York Timestop ten plays of 2012, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation... is an innovative, fast-paced and uncomfortably funny take on race, empathy and the devastating consequences of our best intentions.


Founded in 1998, Company One Theatre was recently named "Boston's Best Theater Company" by The Improper Bostonian and "One of the most inspiring and innovative theatre companies on our national landscape” by the American Theatre Wing. Company One Theatre’s mission is to change the face of Boston theatre by uniting the city’s diverse communities through socially provocative performance and the development of civically engaged artists. The award-winning company has been instrumental in bringing younger and more diverse audiences to see and participate in socially and politically relevant theatre.


JAN 10 - FEB 01, 2014

  • Location The Jackie Liebergott Black Box at the Emerson/Paramount Center
  • By Company One Theatre
  • Title We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915
  • Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury
  • Directed by Summer L. Williams
  • A co-production with ArtsEmerson andCompany One Theatre
  • Series Pioneers
  • Ages 14+
  • Running Time 90 minutes with no intermission

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