Epic Blurs the Line Between Art and Life with Their Latest Show

Right from the title, the play is a doozy: 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. Not exactly a title that rolls off the tongue, is it? Written by Brooklyn-based playwright Jackie Sibbles Drury, this play places audiences in the rehearsal room as a group of six actors struggle to put together a presentation on an obscure and tragic moment in history: the genocide of the Herero tribe committed by German soldiers. The only primary documents they have to work off of are a series of letters from a German soldier to his wife back home – the rest comes down to their Wikipedia-hand knowledge and improvisation. With only records of one half of the story, tensions flare over how to tell the story of a widely forgotten people, and the line between art and life becomes blurred.

The characters are unnamed, but rather referred to by their race and gender. At the helm of the ensemble is both director of the play as a whole and director of the presentation within the play,  Tiffany Fenton. She begins by offering an overview preceding the lecture preceding the presentation, nervously flipping through ineffective-proving notecards. The opening gives a brief summary of the circumstances surrounding the genocide: German colonists stripped the territory of its resources, leading to new laws to ensure wealth for the Germans and take land from the Herero. The Herero, for obvious reasons, rebelled, to which the Germans responded with an extermination order. This history is illustrated by the rest of the troupe,  “white man,” “another white man,” “black man,” “another black man” and… Sarah, the name they give to the wife to whom the letters are addressed (respectively, Ian Hudgins, Justin Pimentel, Court Stafford, Ibrahima Tylar Jahumpa and Melanie Stone). This sets the tone as being deceptively lighthearted, considering the events being covered and what comes later, featuring the actors’ spunk, a stuffed cow and a triangle as accompaniment. From here and into the typical rehearsal antics, there are plenty of laughs, from some wild improvisational exercises to a “High School Musical” reference because of course, but by the end, no one is laughing. The conflicts grow from establishing the characters to deeper questions of who is responsible for telling these stories, and whether they have the right to portray stories that have been lost to history through their own extrapolation. Many lines are crossed, with inevitable comparisons to the Holocaust and questionably stereotypical portrayals of Africans. It all culminates in an extremely tense and disconcerting scene that cuts the rehearsal short.

Proud to Present is the kind of show that poses more questions than answers for the audience to grapple with long after the play has ended: in this case, questions of history and race and art. Such is what makes it exactly the kind of show that needs to be performed, especially now. As artistic director Kevin Broccoli notes in the program, “There’s always this temptation when the world-at-large is so serious and fraught to back away from stories like this and produce work that’s on the lighter side. We felt that it was more important to double down and lean into the political, the polarization and the dangerous.” In that penultimate scene, the white actors who said just moments before they would never do what their characters did – namely, follow their orders to exterminate Africans – end up doing exactly that and more. People say things like that all the time, that if they were there, they would have resisted, they would have been the good guys. This moment in the play seems to say to that claim, “Now is that time. So what are you doing?”

We Are Proud to Present… runs through Sept 22 at Theatre 82. For tickets, visit epictheatreri.org or artists-exchange.org

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