Theatre review: “We Are Proud to Present …”

From the April 3, 2014 edition

In some sense, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play and its title share a similar structure: “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.” It’s a clumsy comedy of redundancy at the start, followed by the recitation of historical background, and finally, a stark, specific fact.

What is now the African nation of Namibia was a German colony for three decades before World War I, at which point it became part of the British Empire. During the period of German rule, various ethnic groups were dominant at different times as the Germans played their power games with the Africans. And as was so often the case during colonial eras, things didn’t end well, especially for the colonized Herero people. If this is discussed in Western history books at all, it tends to be largely from the white European perspective.

Under the direction of Matt Slaybaugh, Available Light Theatre’s ultimately powerful production takes the audience through the meta-theatrical funny business of an improv company literally getting its act together for the presentation of the convoluted title. Five actors (Acacia Leigh Duncan, Jordan Fehr, David Glover, Matt Hermes and Ben Jones) are guided by their artistic director (Shanelle Marie) in dramatic readings of letters from German soldiers to their loved ones back home. But as becomes increasingly clear to the actors, this makes for a highly selective view of the time and place, one mostly devoid of an African presence.

Reorienting perspective, placing actors and audience into that little-known historical reality, and vividly personalizing a human tragedy, Available Light Theatre’s production makes a powerful point. Under Slaybaugh’s direction, “Proud” finds the Herero in all of us, collapsing the chronological, geographical, moral and emotional distances.

Matt Slaybaugh photo

From left, Jordan Fehr (hidden,) David Glover, Acacia Duncan and Shanelle Marie in Available Light Theatre's production of "We Are Proud to Present..." by Jackie Sibblies Drury.