In the last couple of decades of the 19th century and the first couple in the 20th, the Germans rehearsed the genocide they would spring on the world some 20 years later. This wasn’t the holocaust that so shocked and transformed the world, it was a quieter, more contained version and it took place in southwest Africa, where apparently nobody gave a damn. In fact, most people have not heard of this grotesque piece of history to this day.
Now, a young playwright named Jackie Sibblies Drury has written a play-in-progress in which six actors try to imagine and improvise their way through that adventure. The play is called — hold on, here it comes — “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.”
The actors, identified simply as Actors 1 through 6, are two black men, two white men, one black woman, and one white woman whom they name Sarah. Sarah is the universal everywoman waiting at home for her lover to return from battle.
At first the six, struggling to bring the story of the genocide to life, try to build it around the letters that the German troops actually sent home from their dusty, boring bivouac in the Namib Desert, the oldest desert on earth.
The letters are the only artifacts left from that period, but as they were love letters and did not cover the soldiers’ lives and activities, the present-day actors determined that they were irrelevant to the play they were trying to develop.
They then pursued the historical transfer of authority from the Germans to the Herero tribe to the Nama tribe and back to the Herero, with cattle being exchanged with each transfer.
During this period the Germans attempted to force the tribes to build a railroad and instituted many of the same sort of horrendous laws that they later promulgated so devastatingly in Europe. Two examples: “Any land a German sees that doesn’t belong to a German he can claim and if you contest the claim and you aren’t German, you will be hanged,” and “Cattle that wander onto German land belong to the Germans and if you try to reclaim them you will be hanged.”
The Germans also instituted concentration camps, starved the tribes people, worked them to death, and eventually issued an extermination order that eliminated some 80 percent of the Herero by 1908.
Eventually, as the play-within-a-play progresses, the players begin to rebel against the actions they are taking. The lead White Man (John Sloan) doesn’t want to perform the cruelties that are encompassed in the role of the German he is playing. Phil LaMarr, who plays Actor 2/Black Man, becomes incensed by his role as a downtrodden Herero.
He wants to capture the spirit and identify with the great African warriors whom he claims as ancestors.
He wants to roam through the African jungles “hunting tigers,” he says. Whereupon the others tell him he knows nothing about Africa or his own presumed heritage, and that he is a black American, no longer an African (which is self-evident in the fact that he is unaware that there are no tigers in Africa).
This theme about African-American identity becomes the heartfelt focal point when Actor 6/Black Woman (Julianne Chidi Hall) wails that she longs to see “an African face that looks like me, so I can point to it and say ‘There! That’s where I came from!'”
The other members of the ensemble, Daniel Bess, Joe Holt, and Rebecca Mozo are also uniformly good, but the play doesn’t succeed in arousing immediate empathy because it is so scattered and fragmented and broken up by its various fits and starts. There is humor and silliness and a lot of throwing parts of the ramshackle set around as the cast and the playwright and the director (Jillian Armenante) strive to make their intentions clear. It’s a thought-provoking play that becomes clearer the next day, but leaves you disengaged at the end.
“We Are Proud to Present …” will run Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Aug. 11 at The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Call (323) 852-1445 or visit www.matrixtheatre.com for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at email@example.com.