Any number of stage productions are relevant at this precipitous historical moment, but few feel as searingly urgent as We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.
Once you get over that imposing title, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 2012 play is disarmingly accessible. Gathering themselves at center stage, six performers (Sam Bardwell, JaBen Early, Quinn Franzen, Lamar Jefferson, Nika Ezell Pappas, and Nike Kadri) make a few public-service announcements before launching into the supposed meat of the production: a sock-puppet show recounting... well, read the show’s title.
As the puppets quickly show us, that history can be effectively summarized in one three-syllable word: genocide. The actors take the socks off their hands, shake their heads, and talk about what comes next. It’s here that the real show begins, on the contestable premise that we all now really understand what happened to the Herero around the turn of the 20th century.
As the actors — three of whom are black, and three of whom are white — proceed to debate what to do with the little first-hand source material documenting that history (unsurprisingly, it tended to come from the German colonists), we come to understand that Drury’s real interest lies in how our relationships to the past vary, and why it matters who’s talking about that past.
Under the direction of Taibi Magar, the performers radiate confidence. While all have initial moments when their characters seem to overreach their prerogatives, ultimately the play lands on a damning indictment of whites who fail to appreciate the reality and the sources of their privilege.
As the character most vocally committed to the distinctiveness of a black perspective, Early keeps unrelenting pressure on his castmates, but finds a quiet sensuality in a romantic scene with Kadri. Their characters’ close, physical relationship contrasts with the distant and formal coupling between white characters played by Bardwell — smoldering with resentful anger — and a kinetic Pappas.
Despite the play’s unconventional, postmodern structure, Drury pursues and achieves one of dramatists’ classic goals: to find a truth that the characters don’t realize until they’ve chipped everything else away and it’s left naked before us.
Magar, a Guthrie first-timer and hopefully not a last-timer, sustains a broad but precisely calibrated tone even as the tension ratchets up. By the play’s conclusion, the characters have struck disconcertingly upon the history of violence we all share. That’s laid before us, and then the actors silently exit the stage.
There’s no curtain call, and despite the production’s power — rather, because of it — nobody really feels like clapping.
We Are Proud to Present...
818 S. Second St., Minneapolis
612-377-2224; through March 12