A bunch of actors are staging a genocide. As in they’re putting one on stage. And they’re trying to be very cautious about it. They’re inspecting historical documents. They’re respecting sensitivities. They care. But as Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play proclaims from its committee-fussy title (in full: ‘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’) to its fractured self-devouring structure, that’s a complex and loaded action.
‘We Are Proud...’ is a smart piece of self-reflexive theatre, constantly questioning the appropriation of characters, narratives and cultures that are commonplace elements of ‘storytelling’. By beginning with a bullet-point timeline of the Herero genocide at the hands of German colonial powers before moving into a series of messy re-enactments, it pits the false objectivity of accepted history against the explicitly subjective process of recreation.
The laughs are plentiful but considered, as the company push intentionally or clumsily against stereotypes and unconscious hard-wired prejudice. Liberal good intentions crumble with bruising comedy into xenophobia and minstrelsy.
Gbolahan Obisesan’s production is too heightened to land many of the play’s most effective blows; the ‘work’ these actors are attempting never feels entirely credible. Drury’s script also overplays its hand in the harrowing conclusion, as the deft strokes of the earlier scenes are obscured by a sledgehammer crash. By raising her accusations to such a pitch, Drury risks letting her most important targets off the hook.
But it’s still a bold and distinguished work, particularly in its suggestion that theatre itself can be an act of colonialism, that it enacts its own genocides through the annihilation of voices and perspectives. As ‘Black Man’ (an excellent Kingsley Ben-Adir) repeatedly insists, stories of black experiences seem inevitably to be viewed through a glass, whitely. At its best Drury’s confrontational play depicts theatre (imperfectly, vitally) checking its privileges.
When my friend said, "I've got you a birthday present... we're going to see a play about genocide", I was a bit unsure about what to expect (other than the obvious). But we were absolutely blown away by it and throughly enjoyed it. Although, when the play started my initial thoughts were "oh dear" as I realised it was a 'play about doing a play'. I think actors (more than the audience) tend to enjoy this form of navel gazing and it can be hard to connect with it. I'm pleased to report this was not the case though. The style of the play meant that when the scenes became a bit too intense they could break off and have a bit of humour to lighten the atmosphere. I think they did very well at pushing the boundaries and it made me question history and my own interaction with the subject. Two scenes in particular blew me away - the use of different accents to portray different points in history and the ending which was unbelievably intense and symbolic. Overall a great play that I would recommend to anyone that likes theatre to move / effect how they feel. If you are particularly attached to story telling this might not be so up your street.