Actors Playing With Fire
A funny, frightening American play about theatre and racism strikes a nerve in its Toronto debut.
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
The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West)
Runs to Nov. 29
Back in 2006, formerly beloved Seinfeld co-star Michael Richards essentially destroyed his career during a stand-up act at a comedy club. Feeling pressured by hecklers, one of whom happened to be black, he let loose a torrent of vicious racial abuse that, captured on a patron’s cellphone, went viral.
Something similar happens in the troubling play-within-a-play by U.S. writer Jackie Sibblies Drury, currently making its Canadian debut at The Theatre Centre. Only this time the racist trigger isn’t heckling but Method acting.
A group of young American actors, white and black, have gathered to collectively create a show about an act of colonial genocide that occurred more than a century ago in Africa. But in their struggle to depict how Germany set out to systematically exterminate the Herero people, the actors end up tapping into America’s own racist history—leading to scenes even more ugly and troubling than Richards’ odious outburst.
Drury’s play is called—take a deep breath—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. And if that sounds awkward, it’s nothing next to the way you’ll feel watching this alternately hilarious, embarrassing, and bone-chilling look at well-meaning artists playing with fire.
The action takes place in a rehearsal hall, where the “presentation” of the title is being created and rehearsed. On one wall, the actors have tacked up photos and Wikipedia entries about their chosen subject, considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century and a foreshadowing of the Holocaust. There is no script and the nominal director, a black woman (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah), has given the biracial troupe arbitrary character names: White Man, Black Man, Another White Man, Another Black Man, and so on.
They’re all keen to tackle the story and find a way into their characters. But a dispute quickly arises: the only existing eye-witness accounts of the Herero tragedy are in letters written by German soldiers to their loved ones back home. One actor, White Man (Brett Donahue), argues that, for the sake of historical authenticity, the letters should be the basis of the show. Others—notably, the vociferous actor playing Black Man (Marcel Stewart)—complain that they only tell the oppressors’ side of the story.
Eventually the director agrees to use the letters, although their irrelevant trivialities drive her crazy. Matters aren’t helped by the flaky white actress (Darcy Gerhart) playing Sarah, the imagined recipient of these epistles, whose manic improvisations on her character’s German back-story take the rehearsal off on ludicrous tangents.
And even when they get down to the business of telling the Herero’s story, racial stereotypes creep in. Another White Man (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett) is particularly adept at these, doing a mean impersonation of a cranky black grandmother who could’ve waddled out of a Tyler Perry film.
The early part of We Are Proud to Present… is an astute and funny satire of chaotic collective creation, acting techniques, and actors’ temperaments. But Drury is aiming at something more than just the 21st-century, indie-theatre equivalent of Jitters or Noises Off. She makes us question the intent of these actors, who are inept not in their skills but in their approach. How can they presume to dramatize genocide when their only recourse is to clichés and received knowledge, when they don’t understand the Germans, let alone the Herero?
The actors are aware of their limitations and, finally, it’s only by dredging up their own cultural past that they are able to authentically express their characters’ anger, fear, and hatred. But at the play’s sickening climax, you feel that the Method has also unleashed madness.
We Are Proud to Present… is directed by Ravi Jain, who last season repurposed Dario Fo’s classic Accidental Death of an Anarchist to satirize the Toronto police. But Drury’s play needs no such tweaking to strike a local nerve. There are scenes here that will make you think of the Sammy Yatim shooting and the carding controversy, never mind the latest rash of incidents in which cops have killed black men in the U.S. The play, the 33-year-old playwright’s first produced work, premiered in Chicago and New York in 2012, but it seems even timelier now.
Jain’s electrifying production is staged, appropriately, in The Theatre Centre’s BMO Incubator. Set and lighting designer Ken Mackenzie has dressed it up as a cluttered rehearsal space with makeshift props and racks of costumes (the latter designed by Joanna Yu). The six sparky actors playing actors—including Michael Ayres as Another Black Man—sweep you up in their fresh-out-of-theatre-school enthusiasm.
The show is part of the November Ticket, a package of three plays co-presented by The Theatre Centre and Why Not Theatre. It can’t be a coincidence that the first play in the triptych, Nicolas Billon’s Butcher, also deals with genocide, but Billon’s approach is more artful—if more traditional dramatically—than the groping efforts of Drury’s actors. It’s notable that it took years for Billon to write his play and, even then, he chose not to focus on an actual historical case.
Drury’s thesps haven’t considered such things, blundering into their subject with more determination than good sense. And Drury herself isn’t quite sure what to do with them in the end; if her play has a flaw, it’s that the abrupt ending leaves you desiring some kind of realization, if not resolution, on the part of its characters.
After his nightclub meltdown, a mortified Michael Richards made a public apology on Letterman in which he insisted he wasn’t a racist. At one point in Drury’s play, Donahue’s White Man breaks out of his role as a German colonist threatening a Herero man to insist he would personally never behave that way. And yet later, improvising a lynching, his White Man brings forth something terrible inside himself that seems to go beyond acting. Are these racial attitudes embedded in us and only lying dormant until somehow provoked? That’s what We Are Proud to Present… suggests, but doesn’t go so far as to confront.