Editor’s note: Last Wednesday, the Dramat 2017 spring mainstage, We Are Proud to Present, premiered at the University Theatre. The “incendiary, funny-until-it-isn’t” play captured the attention of the Yale community. Because of its complex nature, we at the Herald felt compelled to publish not one review of We Are Proud to Present, but three interwoven perspectives. To narrow the scope to one point of view seemed both contrary to the show’s intention and unfair to its audience. Victoria Wang (VW), Robert Newhouse (RN), and Stefani Kuo (SK) each reflected on how this production inspired them to contemplate how removed (or how close) we may be from performed narratives of historical atrocities.
SK: Written by alumna Jackie Sibblies-Drury, YC ’03, in 2012, We Are Proud to Present was born here at Yale. Though the presentation is about a genocide oceans away, the story is not solely about the atrocity. Rather, it concerns the formation of narrative: how do we tell a story complicated by the tug-and-pull of truth and fact, evidence and reality? It is also the narrative that characterizes almost any school collaboration. It is history that is written in the everyday, in the rehearsal room, in our classrooms, our suites, our club meetings. The play uses the bodies of the people we meet as innocent actors and turns them into pieces that remember history as it repeats itself. The act of retelling sews fragments of history back together, as it occurs in the present.
VW: Nominally “A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 – 1915,” We Are Proud to Present is also an American play about a group of Americans trying to understand their place in the history of African colonization and genocide. Their chosen method is an improvised “presentation,” loosely based on a photo of a Herero woman, a cache of letters from German soldiers, and the Wikipedia entry for German South West Africa. The result is messy, exhausting, and horribly necessary.
Starting out innocuously enough in a cozy rehearsal room, the “art director” begins by reading off index cards, while the rest of the actors put on a gorgeously designed shadow-puppet show. The whole thing is reminiscent of an awkward high school history presentation, complete with overhead projector and dry erase marker.
RN: We Are Proud To Present is certainly not any sort of “‘play”’ in the traditional understanding of the form. Where we could usually expect a clear delineation between reality and fiction—here and now, there and then—what we were instead presented with was a play whose subject was at once another play and itself. There are plenty of famous plays whose subjects are themselves. But the ‘meta-ness’ of We Are Proud To Present extends well beyond questions of what theater can be and not. The ‘meta-ness’ of Drury’s work instead forces us to ask ourselves how complicit we all are in the terrifying act of violence occurring both on and off stage. We Are Proud To Present therefore doesn’t so much question what theater is and can be, but rather why we need it—how it can be valuable, and how it can hurt. How much trauma is it reasonable for theatergoers to be expected to sustain?
VW: The characters are named Black Woman, Black Man, White Man, Another Black Man, Another White Man, and Sarah (the placeholder recipient of every letter from the German soldiers—so basically, White Woman). These names largely inform their roles both in the presentation and in the backstage dynamic.
Sarah becomes enraged when she realizes the letters only give voice to men; Another Black Man enacts a cartoonish stereotype of the lion-fighting, raw-heart-eating African chieftain; White Man envisions himself as the good boy savior, accusing Black Man of being “angry;” Black Woman, the in-text director, just wants everyone to finish the play and make something “real.” They’re not quite people, but they don’t need to be. Their role is to convey the universality of how the lines between actor and portrayed can be blurred, to problematic effect. The actors—the real ones—understand this and approach their characters with the requisite nuance.
But as the play progresses, it gets harder to laugh. As the situation for the Herero worsens, the actors pause repeatedly to argue over their roles. They become increasingly vexed by their differences and the difficulties of faithfully representing the Herero genocide. The walls of the set collapse, revealing both the unforgiving African desert and backstage props.
Having completely embodied the horrors they are trying to represent, the actors succeed in their mission—but not in the way we expect. In the desperate final scene, as the Herero, as Black Man, flees from his pursuers, the actors chant “Run black man run,” a reference to an American folk song about an escaped slave.
Before our eyes, the genocide of the Herero people by German soldiers in Africa suddenly—inevitably—becomes a haunting tableau of racial violence in America. We never left this country. The play has been grappling with the trauma of slavery all along, a trauma that, as demonstrated by the finale, is far from resolved.
SK: It is so important for us, as members of this institution, to take responsibility for the things we choose to support, and the art we choose to present. But it so often happens that the people who support art are the ones already making it. So many people, particularly on this campus, do not make time for theater or art, because it is fun and entertaining, and there are constantly so many fun (or more important) things happening on campus. We Are Proud to Present was not fun. It was a production, naturally, but there is an honesty to the rehearsal process (however rehearsed) put onto display. The production was not only refined, beautiful, and honest, but was also the most important piece of theater I have seen at Yale. As Professor Deb Margolin says, “tragedy is the floor comedy dances on.” The play begins with moments of levity, with portrayals of typical “actors’ antics,” from wanting to be the star of the show to needing a backstory and sense of motivation for every move and utterance. But the laughter then descends into discomfort, where needing an objective for the character turns into needing evidence for the character’s existence. How can we tell the Herero’s story if the only letters we have were from the Germans? How can we prove their stories existed? The play descends down a steep hill, with no turns or curves. At no point in the play is the audience led to believe there will be a happy ending. With every proceeding moment, we descend deeper into a tunnel that leads to an abrupt dead end.
VW: We Are Proud to Present is an unsettling critique of a common brand of liberal self-righteousness—the worst instances of human suffering happened long ago, and far away; and that they would never happen here.
The play’s final scene refuses to provide such an idealistic sense of closure. Instead, it leaves the audience keyed up, confused, desperate for some resolution, leaving us very little to be proud of.
RN: It was while considering the show’s potential to inflict pain—whether useful or not—that I realized that the most important part of my experience of We Are Proud To Present was what I thought while leaving. Passing row after row, I couldn’t help but worry that the hurt I had just felt, while overwhelming, was gravely fragile. Though I had no doubt been deeply moved by the show, I knew the figurative wound it left on me would soon heal—and possibly without even leaving a scar. In this moment, I knew that the component of whiteness that allowed me to escape the show’s charge on my privilege was an extension of what the performance had been demonstrating all along: whiteness’ insidious capacity to erase and rewrite.
In this moment and in moments long after, I knew that the show hadn’t ended. I knew that We Are Proud To Present would continue; that in fact it’s still happening—right here, right now.