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?
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Liza Voll Photography