Writer: Jackie Sibblies Drury
Director: Gbolahan Obisesan
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Jackie Sibblies Drury has said that she had so little conﬁdence that her play would ever be produced that she could not be bothered to ﬁnd a short, snappy title for it. To explain, the full title 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. Her lack of conﬁdence was misplaced.
So, does the title tell all? Well not completely, because, at the heart of the play, lies acts of genocide committed by the German colonial occupiers in the 1900s, killing around 80% of Herero people. These events have become buried in the annals of the history of a century so ﬁlled with atrocities, perhaps suggesting that even history looks upon this part of the World as less signiﬁcant than others.
The play adopts the odd structure of having actors play actors who are playing characters in a presentation (not a play) that they are putting together about these events. The races of the actors are speciﬁed in the script. Ayesha Antoine, a black women, plays an actor/director and the rest of the cast are a white woman (Kirsty Oswald), two black men (Kingsley Ben-Adir and Isaac Ssebandeke) and two white men (Joseph Arkley and Joshua Hill).
At ﬁrst the ﬁctional actors preen, massage their own egos and go to absurd lengths to get into character. This is all amusing, but it is a diversion and, at this stage, the playwright is running the risk that such levity in her work could have the effect of trivialising genocide itself. However, the play gets much stronger as it progresses. When, working from letters written by German soldiers to their loved ones at home, the actors begin to ask how such seemingly normal men could have been expressing themselves so affectionately, while, at the same time, they were casually participating in the extermination of a race of people.
Of course Jackie Sibblies Drury wants to draw attention to an overlooked tragedy, but, by midway through this 90-minute play, her wider objectives have become clear. Developing her belief that, in the modern world, racism is viewed as a problem that has now been dealt with and can no longer be discussed, she re-opens the discussion and asks searching questions about attitudes that still prevail. Her actors drift into and out of racial stereotypes, challenging themselves and each other, speaking what some might regard as unthinkable and even telling jokes so vile that, in other circumstances, they could have led to prosecution.
Played on an empty stage, with the audience on three sides, Gbolahan Obisesan’s production is lively and ﬂuent. He directs a cast of six who all show the energy and conviction needed to bring this complex piece to life. At ﬁrst, an outline of Namibia appears on the stage ﬂoor, but, gradually during the play, boards are removed to reveal a sand pit in which the climactic scenes are played.
Towards the end, lighting turns the sand red, representing both the bloodshed of the past and the images of red desert that we now see in travel brochures, inviting us to spend our holidays in a land where a greatly diminished number of Herero still survive and cling to their heritage and culture. We Are Proud to Present… experiments with dramatic forms and occasionally misses its targets, but, more often, it delivers theatre that is both powerful and provocative.
Photo: Keith Pattison
Runs until 12th April