YELLOW FACE Post Script (#2) The Politics of Casting and Representation in WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT… at Woolly Mammoth

So Yellow Face began a conversation that’s continuing once again across town, this time at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company where there’s a seriously challenging production of perhaps the most loquaciously-titled show you’re likely to come upon: 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 by Jackie Sibblies Drury.
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Like Motti Lerner’s The Admission, which will be performed as a “workshop presentation,” the barebones performance at Woolly comes modestly presented as a workshop. But in the case of Woolly, this is a bit of a disguise. There will water falling from the ceiling. There will be a fancy color program to distribute at evening’s end. But to start, we’re given a single sheet of paper with the cast list on one side and a question on the back, and a golf-pencil taped to the top to facilitate a written response from the audience. It’s about a theater troupe trying to figure out how to get to the end of telling the story they’ve gathered to tell. “Who Can Write Whose Story?” was a question that arose during the academic talk-back. “Who has the right to play an African in a story of African genocide?” “How much focus must be on the white colonists in a story about the colonization of black Africa?”

Questions of authenticity abound. “Black people don’t make jokes about Woodstock!” Or do they? “The play foregrounds the machinery of representation.” Meaning, how history gets represented is made all the more explicit by having a theater troupe debate amongst itself how it intends to tell the story. And then we watch attempt after attem acknowledging pt play out before us in what seems to be both a rehearsal and a “presentation” — both acknowledging but also ignoring the audience.

What to make of it all? There are previous productions that made major impressions in both Chicago and New York. Those reviews are worth looking at. What of its reception here? It’s been all over the place. It’s got wonderful local actors whom we treasure.

Michael Anthony Williams, seen last year in David Mamet's "Race" at Theater J, heads up a great line-up of actors at Woolly Mammoth that includes Holly Twyford ("Lost in Yonkers" at Theater J + many others) and Dawn Ursula (back to the camera).

Michael Anthony Williams, seen last year in David Mamet’s “Race” at Theater J, heads up a great line-up of actors at Woolly Mammoth that includes Holly Twyford (“Lost in Yonkers” at Theater J + many others) and Dawn Ursula (back to the camera).

What did our student subscribers make of it all? I’m particularly interested in the connections back to Yellow Face. Respond away!

34 thoughts on “YELLOW FACE Post Script (#2) The Politics of Casting and Representation in WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT… at Woolly Mammoth

  1. For the duration of the last five minutes of the show, “We are Proud to Present,” every member in the audience sat there speechless, motionless, probably thinking: “what the hell just happened.” Well, at least that I was thinking… and still thinking even a day after the performance. As the noose swung back and forth from the ceiling, minutes went by that felt like hours, and I felt abandoned by the performance, left wanting more of an explanation or conclusion.

    There aren’t enough words to describe how powerful the show was. It was abrupt, fast-paced, quick-witted, moving, and most of all: surprising. I don’t think anyone in the audience expected the transition from colonial Germany “Sudwestafrika” to Jim Crow’s South. It was terrifying. It felt a little too real. I was literally squirming in my seat. But I think that was the point, to make the audience feel uncomfortable. Racism is an uncomfortable topic, one that people often tread carefully on. “We are proud to Present” does just the opposite; it rips down race boundaries, stereotypes and confronts them brutally.

    Another pivotal moment in the show came when Peter Howard, also known as “another white man” attempts to portray “black woman’s” grandmother. In what turns quickly into to the stereotype of the mammy-figure, Howard takes a step out of his character role to shout at “black woman.” This moment, as I am sure with others as well, really resonated with me. Throughout my life, I have heard the expression: “you don’t know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Howard disagrees. He says that you can’t walk a mile in someone’s shoes. He does have a point. You can’t place yourself into another person’s life. You can try to imagine what it might be like, but you can never truly see the world from someone else’s eyes.

    This particular play hit on similar themes and messages that we saw in Theater J’s “Yellow Face.” For instance: can a white actress play a black woman? Can a white man play an Asian man? And vice versa. Such questions trace back to themes of identity, community, and politics of theater.

    • I completely agree that the show was very powerful, and that it was “abrupt, fast-paced, quick-witted, moving, and most of all: surprising.” Its “surprising-ness” was what made me love the performance. The play pushed boundaries in a way that is only possible through artistic representation, in a way that people cannot do in ordinary life. The emotional arguments about who can represent who, who is “black,” who gets to tell the story of history, and more, are all topics that make many people feel uncomfortable, so they often go ignored in everyday life. But the play does indeed do just the opposite, and this results in confronting the audience with questions about racism, oppression, history, that did make us uncomfortable. Hopefully, the audience recognizes these questions and reflects on them, which is what I am still trying to do. I am grateful that the play gave me the opportunity to do so.

    • I agree with the majority of your comments, but I think it’s interesting that you say that the play “rips down race boundaries.” To me, it seem that many of the plays we’ve seen this semester do exactly that: they tear down boundaries and expose the falseness of many of those boundaries. But I don’t think that was the point or effect of “We Are Proud to Present.” To me, it seemed more that the play emphasized those racial boundaries without being able to pull them down, and that seemed to be part of the point. In this show, the theming exposed racial boundaries and their destructive potential, but I didn’t see any movement toward removing those boundaries or providing an avenue for that to happen. But so many shows provide the destruction of boundaries, that I wonder if the idea wasn’t to show that those boundaries haven’t been destroyed yet.

  2. As a play within a play that addresses some of the most sensitive and shameful topics in global history, “We Are Proud to Present…” was both original and surprising. It poses challenging questions, such as “Can Americans fairly portray an African genocide without addressing the racism in their own history?” and “Do Black Americans have any more right than Caucasian Americans to make claims on African identity?”

    Though these questions are important ones, I did not appreciate the way the play attempts to answer them. In fact, I found the play incredibly offensive to every racial group portrayed in the theater, from Germans, to Africans, to whites and to blacks. Though some of the stereotypes in the play were satires of societal stigmas, others were thrown in without being addressed or corrected. As mentioned in the post-show discussion, it is untrue that little is known about the Hereros of Namibia, and I found it cheap to simply cast them as a simple-minded barbarian tribe that has no unique culture of its own. The play revealed absolutely nothing unique about the culture of these people, but gave an oversimplified presentation of German colonialism, of European colonialism. I wanted to know what made the Hereros the Hereros, and frankly, I learned very little about them from watching the play. One does not have to possess personal letters from one Heroro lover to another to create a story that is deeply Namibian.

    History is ugly. European colonialism is ugly. The Jim Crow laws are ugly. But that does not mean that all of our disgraceful past is the same and it is naïve to assume that one can shed light on one thing by equating it to another. “We Are Proud to Present…” has great ideas, insightful questions, and valid points to make; but I believe its presentation of these things was ultimately unsuccessful.

    • I completely agree. The play seemed to offer what was wrong with particular ways of storytelling without offering a productive alternative. In fact, the play ends with a traumatic scene with absolutely no dialogue or discussion of it afterward. I found it particularly misleading that all of the characters acted had the same perspectives and opinions of the other characters of their race. This may be a convenient way to show that different races have different perspectives, but it is not how the world works. I also wanted to know more about the Hereros and found it unexplainable that the play would argue on one hand that more needs to be told about them and then not say anything more about them besides a love story that could be placed into any other war situation. In the end, the play seems to say we can’t tell you the story because we weren’t there, but we can compare it to an American story, but even that isn’t a true comparison because “you can’t walk in someone else’s shoes.”

    • Michelle, you definitely hit my frustrations right on the mark. There is a difference between attempting to facilitate discussion and dialogue about these complex and shameful issues, and attempting to start a fire. Maybe not a fire, but the play is engineered to provoke and trigger serious emotions. Themes as touchy as race relations need to be dealt with respectfully and with reservation. Perhaps part of the goal was trying to blow the door off this notion — that sensitivity to the past is the best pathway to address the future.

      However, if this is the goal, it should not feel this deliberate. If it wanted to be this general of a social commentary, an unflinching look at the Herrero genocide would have been far more effective than the attempts to extrapolate all of the white guilt, and reinforce the marginalization of African Americans. To come back to your original points — there was a way to address these topics head-on, but that mark was completely missed by the playwright.

    • I almost felt this play did an injustice to the Herero tribe once again as the cast “Americanized” this genocide and made the story of the Herero people into a commentary on America’s ugly past. Why couldn’t this play bring attention to this time in Germany and Namibia’s history? Why did our own historical problems become the climax of the play? We don’t find out what the Herero tribe is doing now. We don’t find out how they continue to live despite their ancestral fires burning out. We don’t find out if Germany has attempted to preserve the history of this tribe or if they have no shame from this period of time? I left the theater wanting to know much more about the Herero people. Instead, the play ended with a dramatic, disturbing scene portraying America, stories from the Civil War, and other connections to U.S. history. The playwright used this story to describe our past, because that is the American thing to do.

    • I felt incredibly frustrated after leaving Woolly Mammoth on Thursday. I had extremely high expectations for this play because I felt it would touch on some important international/transnational perspectives and issues. I was incredibly disapointed with what the play had to offer to the audience. I agree with you 100% on the portrayal of the Herero people. The play could have done more to tell us a different kind of story about the Herero people; one that didn’t seem to make a group of people appear inferior. Oftentimes, plays/movies that talk about issues concerning colonialism perpetuate the sterotypes of people being backwards, simple-minded, etc. Honestly, there could have been more research on the part of the playwriter to portray a different image. I guess it is up to us to do some more of the background research and perhaps pass down the story of the Herero people in a more humanizing way.

  3. “We are Proud to Present…” offers us an insight into the world of acting that many of us never get to see. There are arguments about how to represent a certain scene, how to tell a story, what a character is feeling, how to convey the feeling, what the focus should be. These scenes are presented to us in an informal, familiar, and sometimes comical (due to Holly Twyford especially) way, so much so that I felt like I was secretly sitting in on the actors preparing for the play, which was very interesting.

    This led to an improv-like representation of the scenes. They would establish what scene to do and just jump right in. Then, they would stop whenever someone needed to or whenever someone objected to the direction or representation of the scene. This stop and go resulted in very moving, deep, important, provocative scenes, to be followed by small breaks where the actors would discuss, and this allowed me, as an audience member, to have time to digest what just happened and see how the actors themselves commented on it.

    Many times, the actors commented, explained, or showed their deep emotions. “Black woman” felt a loving connection to her grandmother or her picture, since she has never known her ancestry; “other black man” related to the Herero when they lost the fire of their ancestors because he knows what it feels like to not know one’s past; “white man” shared the story of his great grandfather killing a fellow black Union soldier in an attempt to show how people will kill others to survive themselves, but he was then criticized by other actors for attempting to relate to the Herero; “black man” questioned “other black man’s” ability to “be black.” Sometimes, these emotions proved too strong to continue the scene, as evidenced specifically by the last scene in which “black man” has an emotional outbreak and storms out after the lynching scene, before every actor exits the stage, leaving the audience is silence for the last part of the play, questioning what just occurred.

    The actors’ personal emotions about race, the heated arguments about representing the genocide of the Herero, the sudden transition from discrimination in “Sudwestafrica” to Jim Crow’s South, and the play as a whole shows how race and power play such an important role in people’s lives. Race and power can shape how one is expected to act in society. In the post-show discussion, someone brought up the parallel between how the actors must perform for others even throughout their disagreements and emotions, just like some of the German soldiers are just putting on a performance to stay in the good graces of their country, like “other white man’s” great grandfather had to put on a performance to save himself, like “black man” wants “other black man” to put on a performance of being more black. Overall, race is influential in so many ways, and it is important to have a play like this which pushes the boundaries and makes people uncomfortable because it asks the tough questions, about who can represent certain races (like in Yellow Face), about who tells the story of history. By being blunt and upfront about racial issues, “We are Proud to Present…” allows the audience to question the issues in ways they may not have before, while enjoying the play itself for its humor and dynamic action.

  4. “WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT…” left me confused on multiple levels. I was uncomfortable, contemplative, bewildered, and displaced. Anything that can make me feel all those emotions at once is definitely worthy of discussion. I think one of the main highlights of the play can be summed up with this quote: “You can’t take no walk in somebody else’s shoes. Now you can borrow somebody else’s shoes, and You can walk as long as you want, They ain’t your shoes.” This line came in at a very tense moment in the play and it really resonated with me. Based on this idea, then, no matter how much I try to relate to other people, to hear their stories, to attempt to feel their pain and their happiness, I will never be able to “walk in their shoes”. The only person I can be is me. If all we can assume to know then is the shoes we have, how does this relate to storytelling and theater? For example, should the white actors in “WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT…” have been helping to tell the story of the Herero genocide, though they have no ties to Africa? However, at the same time, in one of the scenes, after The Black Man says The White Man has no right or standing to tell the story of the genocide, The White Man asks the Black Man if he had ever even been to Africa. This idea of who can claim to know what and who can represent who ties in with the play “Yellowface” that we saw earlier in the semester at Theater J. Can a white play an Asian role? Can a white help tell the story of the Herero genocide, especially from a Herero perspective? Is it fair for a white to take a role that an Asian or an African American could play when he or she has more options for roles that minorities do? “WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT…” left me pondering these questions and I have yet to establish definitive answers.

    • Kelly, I agree with you in that the main premise of the play is that one can never truly experience another person’s tale. What I thought the play lacked, however, was an explanation on what we can do to better understand another person’s story. Just because I can never be a Herero woman during German colonialism, does not mean I am not permitted to learn more about the history. On the contrary, it is essentially that we share these stories in the most respectful and accurate ways possible, without twisting and mutating the history to make it about ourselves. “We Are Proud to Present…” posed many challenging questions without answering them, made shocking statements without really serving a purpose.

    • Kelly, when I watched the play, I also found the line You can’t take no walk in somebody else’s shoes. Now you can borrow somebody else’s shoes, and You can walk as long as you want, They ain’t your shoes” to be one of the main lines that stuck with me. As someone who is involved in many campus organizations working on the issues of diversity and inclusion, I am often faced with internal conflict of how to best assist different marginalized groups in telling their story. This is the case whether I am working with communities, such as college students with a disability, that I am a member of or communities, such as various Detroit-oriented groups, that I am not a member of. However, when working with the Detroit-oriented groups, I am often more concerned with my role as an outsider and how that role is percieved by members of the group. I think the walk in shoes quote shows the challenges experienced by those who aim to help marginalized groups because it shows that they have the ability that the groups themselves do not have- and that is to walk away from the situation.
      As a result of this, I was somewhat troubled by the use of “White Man” in the play to tell the story of what happened to “Black Man” because as an outsider, he did not fully experience what occurred to the Herrero people, represented by “Black Man”. As a result, he may not be able to fully grasp the extent of what occurred and fully understand descendants of the Herrero’s reaction to his telling of the story.

  5. I left “We are Proud to Present” confused, frustrated, and slightly offended. To me, the play seemed to lack focus or a well developed thesis through which to guide the audience. Instead, it provided provocative statements with little to no development of them or explanation. Whereas the beginning of the play seems to offer more about acting in a play and the playmaking process, “We are Proud to Present” makes abrupt stoppages that left the audience wondering what just happened. The play definitely left the audience thinking about it, but it was unnecessarily and suddenly disturbing. I feel that the play offered little more to the audience but a depiction of how genocide (for the lack of a truly better term) sucks. It is important to spread this knowledge and to educate about lesser known genocides, but what next? How should we deal with them? How do we prevent them, educate about them, empathize with its victims and help them? “We are Proud to Present” offered almost no answers to these questions.
    In addition, “We are Proud to Present” makes an argument that no one can walk in another person’s shoes, they can only “borrow them” and tries to connect this to the idea that people outside of a particular group cannot tell that group’s story. However, even if this statement is true, I do not feel it is relevant to the play at all. While it may be true that it is difficult to fully understand an experience that is not of your culture, one could also make the argument that each individual within a culture has his or her own experiences. So by extension, is it then impossible to walk in any other person’s shoes, even if they have a similar situation to you? This argument would seem to reject the entire notion of storytelling as a means of learning because no one else can depict another’s story accurately. However, I reject this notion because it is not necessary to walk and stay in another’s shoes in order to tell a portion of that person’s story. Just because someone has a different story than you does not mean that you cannot learn that story, understand it, and portray it. No acting will ever perfectly match the events in an individual’s life exactly as they occurred. Acting based on real events is a shadow of those events that hopes to most closely match the real event. Therefore, it takes a deeply empathetic person to tell a real story, and it is not necessarily a requirement that the person have similar situations.

    • I disagree with the point that the play offered no answers to questions about how to move forward in educating on genocides. I think one of the main points of the play was the importance of spreading knowledge about genocides – thus to minimize the number of comments like calling Namibia a “practice Holocaust.” I think if it seems as if the play did nothing to answer this question, it’s likely because the answer is exceptionally complicated. History is skewed by those who have the right to tell it. I think “We are Proud to Present…” emphasized the importance of making sure that histories, especially those as horrible as genocide, are accurately told to future generations. To me, the result of this wasn’t that we should do nothing in response to genocides, but the opposite: we should do more to educate and more to empathize, so we don’t end up in a situation where we are retelling a version of the story that doesn’t do it justice.

  6. Usually, when I come out of a theater production, I really want to talk to the actors. I’ve done some (very amateur) acting in the past, and when I see a production, I usually want to congratulate the performers on the work they’ve done, even if it wasn’t a production I liked.

    “We are proud to present” was different, and I think that was a testament to its effectiveness. When I came out of the theater to greet the actors in the lobby, I really had to force myself to say a few words to them. This show was possibly more effective at making me uncomfortable than anything else I’ve ever seen. While I did think the actors did a wonderful job, I was so shaken and disturbed that it was hard to speak to them out of character—especially because in the play, they were playing actors. It was all a little too close for comfort.

    We’ve seen several shows this semester that deal with the theme of race, but this particular show had little to none of the warmth of the other shows to thaw the difficult issues it brought up. It was very funny, particularly the first half, but it lacked the compassion or redemption that has allowed many of the other shows to break through the other side of racial tension.

    I think that was intentional. I was unsure of the show at first—the pacing of the beginning is a little odd, some of the theming a bit heavy-handed, and the stopping and starting goes on longer than it should. But my feelings about the show completely changed after the point where “Black Woman” told the rest of the cast that they weren’t going to stop anymore. The pacing suddenly became breakneck, no longer broken up with awkward dialogue and sometimes-forced humor. Because that was the point that the actors within the show really threw themselves into the story, that was the point that I as an audience member was completely drawn in.

    After the awkwardness of most of the show—not all of which seemed intentional/effective—it was really startling how emotionally real it got after that. I know we were all waiting for the story of Namibia to be blended with the story of the American South, but when that transition did finally occur, it was totally flawless. The stiff, military German chanting at the “rebelling” Herrero that became the cruelly playful Southern chanting at a runaway slave chilled me. The continued use of chanting and rhythm, along with the “comedy” that goes on while “Black Man” is bound and finally put into the noose, created an incredibly vivid image that made me feel physically ill. The ending, then, as “Black Man” can’t take it anymore and leaves, and each character leaves in silence one by one, left me that way.

    This show didn’t leave any ambiguity in its end, not really—the relationships between the characters are miles worse than they were at the beginning, or maybe just now brought to the surface. I personally can have a problem that narratives that allow no hope for redemption, because I believe that redemption is always possible. But this show may not have felt the need to allow for redemption, because so many others do. “We are proud to present” instead left all of the conflict and anger and borderline hatred intact, forcing the audience to confront it as they left the theater. It’s the kind of show that can leave you looking at the people around you and thinking, what do we all really think of each other? And how can we possibly overcome the past?

    My problem with the last show we saw was that I didn’t feel it brought anything new to the conversation. This show, however, even though it’s covering a theme that many have attempted, does bring something new to the conversation: an unflinching, raw, and uncovered look at all the worst things inside ourselves without any resolution. And if the play doesn’t resolve it for us, maybe that means we’ll have to go out and resolve it ourselves.

  7. The first thing I can say about We Are Proud to Present… is subtlety is a virtue. For me, the most powerful displays of art I have seen have been when the piece is open to interpretation; when viewers are guided towards the themes and messages of the play without it being slammed over their heads. More than anything, the foundation of this play did not seem to be attempting to tell the story of the Herrero – it felt designed to push as many buttons as possible.

    Last fall, I saw the Oscar-nominated film 12 Years a Slave. It was an unflinching, brutal look at slavery in America. While much of the imagery was graphic, it still gave me plenty to interpret at the end. I felt invested in the characters and their fates; I wanted to know more after the runtime had elapsed. On the other hand, I couldn’t wait to leave the theater after We Are Proud to Present… after the play had concluded. I felt like the play had violated me in a way that 12 Years never had considered doing. For something the ratcheted up its tension slowly, it certainly compensated for all of that by the end. Albeit slow, the beginning made sense in terms of setting the stage – tell a story faithfully using limited resources without giving too much attention to the Germans instead of the Herrero people.

    Maybe it was because Black Woman #1 was not an appealing main character. She was controlling, but also passive; loud, but also devoid of significant insight. Maybe it was because the group never seemed to gel together – there was no explanation about why they were there in the first place. Were they even friends? It made it difficult to connect with no real background.

    By about two thirds of the way through, the wheels really felt like they came off of the play. It became about the shock value. It turned from telling the story of the Herrero people to an exercise of blatant Jim-Crow-Era racism, complete with some of the worst racist jokes I’ve ever heard. They were neither funny nor thought provoking. We Are Proud to Present… had absolutely no foundation to stand on. I’m not even sure what the end goal was. There was no pervasive feeling of white guilt. There was nothing that felt subliminal about the ending. If it was simply designed to shock, then the play accomplished that tenfold. But if the goal was to provide a social commentary and provoke discussion on worldwide racial relations and social identities – well, I have never been so turned off to an idea.

    • Garrett, I really appreciate your comment about the play being designed to push buttons. I noticed that more about this play than any other play we’ve gone to – it seems to dive enthusiastically into controversy with the intent of sparking discussion, and while discussion is good and admirable and a worthy goal, I think that it should be a byproduct and not a central objective. You should write a play because you have something to say, not because you want someone to say something.

    • Garret I appreciate the audacity of this comment, and find myself agreeing with it. Like both you and Caroline mention, I got the feeling that controversy and discomfort were the playwright’s main objective – not the importance of telling the story of the Herero tribe and genocide in Namibia. In that sense this piece is an injustice to the Herero people, and simply commercialized their painful history to lure in viewers and ultimately deliver them an alternate, and entirely American, message. The ending scene represents that – the noose hangs in the center of the stage, swinging back in forth as the audience sits in an aggravating silence. They often repeated that the Herero people were shot if and when they disobeyed the law, or otherwise left in the desert. The noose and attempted lynching is an abrupt allusion to American history and an utter abandonment of the Herero storyline.

  8. One of the aspects of “We are Proud to Present…” that I thought was most interesting was their use of silence. The purpose of the play as a whole was clearly to challenge the audience to think about certain topics that may make them uncomfortable: How do you justly tell the story of a genocide? Who can tell whose story? Which actors can play which parts? How heavily does race factor in? All of these questions are difficult to answer and highly politicized. I think one way the play tried to highlight the nature of this question was by using long periods of silence to make the audience feel a heightened sense of discomfort. It’s an uncomfortable topic.

    I did enjoy the play quite a bit. I liked the structure of the “play within a play” to realistically show the hardships that come along with trying to tackle this topic. The story of the genocide in Namibia needed to be told, but more importantly than that, it needed to be told in a respectful and accurate way. That is difficult – how much focus should be on the white colonizers and how much should be on the Africans? I think the arguments amongst the cast members were effective in showcasing this dilemma.

    I was slightly confused about the end of the play and what the takeaway was. Maybe there wasn’t supposed to be a one-line, easy to sum up takeaway. Clearly, the scene where the black actor who is playing a Namibian man being hanged during the genocide was highly charged and emotional. But what exactly were we as the audience supposed to make of this scene? That he felt more connected to Namibia and what happened when he was in that scene? I’m not sure.

    Clearly, this play had some connections to the questions raised about race in Yellow Face. Most notably was the question of who can play whom in a theater setting and have it be acceptable. As for the answer to that question, the jury is still out.

    • I agree with you, Megan, when you state that there shouldn’t be an easy takeaway from the performance. The discussion that “We Are Proud to Present” started was an important one, and such discussions generally do not warrant easy answers. I also agree with you regarding the structure of the piece. The “play within a play” aspect allowed for discussion to start at the beginning of the workshop and then continue until well after it was over. I think this is important because, again, the topics the piece tackled are heavy and do not yield easy one-line answers, like you said.

  9. Chloe, I agree that the play ends with “an unflinching, raw, and uncovered look at all the worst things inside ourselves without any resolution.” That’s something that I disliked about it though. It did a great job of breaking open a chasm and escalating tension. Consequently, I was anticipating a resolution among the characters. Instead, the play just ended. “WE PROUDLY PRESENT…” was too powerful not to have any hint of resolution at the end. It left me wanting more.

  10. This play had a great backbone, the story of the Herero tribe and the genocide that took place in Namibia in the early 1900s. I think the actors improving and work shopping through the story was a great idea by the playwright, as well. The beginning of this play, though, was so confusing and all over the place. I really didn’t get into the show until Sarah sang to her “child,” giving the audience some great, unforced laughs. This technique of singing, clapping, and dancing, however, was overused during the show. By the time it was most effective in the last scene (contrasting with the silence that followed) I was really burnt out on this technique. After Sarah’s song we went through some more dull periods during which the actors walked all around the theater and were much more like caricatures of actor stereotypes than believable individuals worth getting invested in. Therefore, when the climax of the play revealed itself, I was not very drawn into it. I feel as if I could have stepped into the theater minutes before the ending scene and would have had the same level of emotional reaction as I did after sitting through an hour and a half of weak character development.

    In the post-show discussion, panel members discussed what would happen if the play took place in Germany. This was an interesting thought. A German panelist talked about how in Berlin there are still street signs symbolizing the colonial days without acknowledgement of the mass murders this practice led to. Another panelist talked about how the story of the Herero was not compared to the gentrification of DC because that would hit a little too close to home. Where is the line that should be left uncrossed? Why is it okay for We Are Proud to Present… to display racist antics, use racial slurs, and include statements like “practice Holocaust” in the script? Where do we draw the line?

  11. I would like to focus on the function of storytelling in the play, as I believe it is essential to the development of the key argument of the play. Storytelling, whether it is through oral or written, is an important way that many people learn about their culture and history. I truly appreciate it when people try to recount stories that have been lost through history. Through school and even in our own lives, we get an incomplete narrative of history.
    The question of race is an interesting one, as it pertains to storytelling and the storyteller. Whites and blacks/African Americans/Africans have just as much of a responsibility to tell a full account of any given story. A full account entails a version that accounts for even the most painful stories (ie. how German colonization permitted the genocie of a group of people).
    I found it very interesting that the play revolved around a set of letters written by German soldiers. Fictional or not, these letters are subject to rigorous and the utmost critical thinking about what we consider to be the “truth”. We live in a society where written accounts are privileged over any form of evidence. This has been particularly important to me because of my Hispanic heritage. As a person of mixed racial descent, I have to rely on both written and oral storytelling to get a greater understanding about the past of my ancestors. This is just how things turned out to be because many of my ancestors in Mexico were never given the opportunity to learn how to write, therefore couldn’t pass down our histories through writing.

    • Uri, I agree with you that it’s very interesting how the play revolved around this set of letters. It is true that we don’t know whether these are real letters or not, but I think that even if they are real letters written by real German soldiers, they are not “true” stories. Just like they show in We Are Proud to Present, they do not tell the whole story. I think you really hit on something important, which is that we often place too much importance on what written evidence we have. Clearly in this incidence the written accounts we have are worthless with respect to the Herero’s story. They are, for the most part, ignored despite being a central part of the German colonization of Namibia. It’s unfortunate, but often times we don’t get to hear the whole story.

  12. The performance of “We Are Proud to Present” was appropriately thought provoking, comedic, and serious. The play touched upon the intricacies of story telling; a specific subset of story telling. The retelling of the Herero people and the genocide they experienced was the primary goal of the play. However, it touched a much larger discussion on race and history. How can we only learn the history on a subject from one viewpoint? It is unfair, however challenging with the limited materials that we have.
    The performance also touched upon the relationship between an actor and their role. Some of the actors in the play struggled to portray their characters, whether it was based on their characteristics, the storyline, or their role in the story. In some ways this relates to the play “Yellowface.” While “Yellowface” focuses primarily on playing roles and mixing races, “We Are Proud to Present” focused more on the psychological effect of playing a role, while also touching on race.
    The play utilized a good bit of comedy in their story telling and discussions within the troupe. In my opinion, I feel that comedy is crucial in telling a story. It keeps people engaged and entertained, which “We Are Proud to Present” does very well. It also keeps a serious topic, such as genocide, as light-hearted as it can. Heavy topics are easier to discuss when the level of seriousness fluctuates to appropriate levels for the audience to handle. Overall, “We Are Proud to Present” was an important piece to experience and widens the discussion on race and history.

  13. My reaction upon leaving the theater on Thursday was “what did I just watch?” And, upon further reflection, that is still my reaction. I have no idea what happened on Thursday night.

    But I liked it.

    The structure of the play, I think I got that. In the beginning it was a little sketchy – when the actors started moving but the lights remained on, when they were dashing back and forth grabbing things they’d ‘forgotten’ or directing each other on stage, I think we were all a little baffled. But soon I caught up, and my general dislike of super-meta concepts like this one subsided as I was absorbed into the story. Perhaps the strength of the writing and the acting hastened this process; the show was surprisingly funny, and I was never pulled out of the play with the thought “these are actors who are acting like actors who are acting.” I just saw actors. Acting.

    But as the show wore on, and I fell more into the rhythm of the story – there would be conflict, then an ‘improv’ scene, then they would all talk about what they’d learned – it began to get a little repetitive. Lots of interesting ideas flying around about race and racism and colonialism and Jim Crow and the way stories are chosen and the way stories are told, for sure. But I suppose that, in the end, I felt that in telling us that we shouldn’t be told what to think – we shouldn’t accept the version of truth that we receive as the absolute truth – I felt like they were also kind of telling us what to think.

    What else? There were times when I was intensely uncomfortable – the OOGA BOOGA moment comes to mind – but none of that was due to the acting or the writing as much as the fact that yes: this is an uncomfortable moment in our past. Facing it should be an uncomfortable experience. And I think that, though repetitive, the show did a good job of at least making me think about an era of history that I know little about and how a version of that played out in our own country,

    • I couldn’t agree more with you… 4 days later, I am still thinking about what we saw Thursday night. Like you, I am having difficulty pulling together the play,”We are Proud to Present.” The show was so fast-paced that so much happened in only 2 hours. Every line that an actor said had meaning, power and passion behind it. I think it would be really helpful to either read the script or have a class discussion about the show, as I know we are not the only ones who are having trouble “digesting” the larger takeaways from the play. I felt uncomfortable in the play, but not in a bad way. Yes, the play pushed boundaries in a controversial manner. But race and genocide are controversial, uncomfortable and difficult topics to portray.

    • I’m glad you brought up the “super meta concepts” because this is what I thought was the greatest strength of the play. I like what you said about actors acting like they’re actors, because it’s really true despite sounding redundant. Instead of a regular play, we got a play about making a play. I think this was such a strength because it revealed the difficulties in talking about the issues of race and genocide. We saw how, despite all the characters having good intentions, tensions ran high on the set when these issues were discussed. It also reveals how difficult and emotional it can be to act out such horrible events. After one of the “White Man” characters acted a scene where he kills a Herero man for trying to get home, the white actor breaks down because of it. And even more profound was the moment where the “Black Man” character panicked and ran out before the final lynching scene could be completed. It was a jaw-dropping moment, but what happened after was even more powerful. The final scene of silence is impactful because it gives the audience time to absorb what just happened. This wouldn’t have been possible without this “meta” aspect to the play.

  14. The play “We Are Proud” had one of those story lines that made me think “Wow, I really feel about about being white.” This isn’t a criticism nor is it a compliment; it’s just how I felt at the end of the play. There’s no doubt that this play is supposed to make the audience feel uncomfortable. And I think that this discomfort was appropriate depending on what the greater meaning of the play was supposed to be.

    If the message was specifically about genocide, then I think this play hit it right on the nail. The plot line does a good job of connecting an African genocide more than a century old with more recent practices of lynching in the South. The transition between the two is so sudden that it took me a while to register that the play had moved to America. For me, this brought the idea of genocide (relatively) closer to home. We always here about Rwanda and Uganda in terms of genocide, but it isn’t often that you think of lynching in the same manner. To picture that this inhumanity happens in our own backyard adds a whole new perspective to the concept.

    This is a play more generally focused on racism, however, then I don’t know if it quite got there. I was definitely squirming during the racist joke segment of the story, but not in a way that made me feel guilty. I already knew that this behavior was wrong and it didn’t do much to adjust my thoughts on racism. It was certainly a powerful presentation, and I think it’s best if genocide, not racism as a whole, is the focal point.

    • I value your opinion about the plot’s transition from the African genocide to the lynching that was shown at the end. However, I did not view this scene as a success. I felt that the plot, did not smoothly transfer from the story of this African genocide to Southern practices. I took this scene as trying to connect the situations in Africa to the ones in America as inaccurate. I’m not saying that lynchings were not used during the colonial era, but I don’t think it was as prevalent if so and it had little to do with the route the performance was taking. I enjoyed the play when they were informative, but I did not like how humor was used during serious situations. There was very few parallel’s made between the start of the show and their main goals to the final scene.

      I agree that certain aspects of the show, the actors were racist purposely, but it was not as bad because the other cast members would usually balance out those thoughts with counter explanations. I don’t think that the play was suppose to make you feel guilty in anyway for being white, instead it was created to have you think about these issues from a different perspective. Even though, a large majority of people like to assume that they understand the struggles of others, they really don’t. I could relate directly to some of the monologues of the characters. As an African American male, who is highly interested in history and the continent of Africa; I still can’t point to one place on the map and say that my family is from “there”. This is a problem that many African Americans face, other groups of people are able to trace their ancestry to specific countries or subgroups, this is an aspect that is taken for granted by many Americans. There needed to be more dialogue in that last scene, that linked the major themes; it was interesting how uncomfortable I felt, I couldn’t even address the actors after the performance.

  15. We are proud to present… is by far the play I have spent the most time grappling with thus far this semester. While the nameless ensemble was very entertaining, I found the entire premise of the performance to be initially indistinguishable and I felt the “plot” languidly developed. Overall, I took interest in the conversations that the piece sparks, but I was admittedly overwhelmed by the myriad of representations and societal commentaries that surfaced throughout performance.

    The piece was about genocide as much as it was about race, about Namibia and Germany as much as it was about the United States, and as much about the ethics of theatre as it was about portrayal, drama and storytelling. While the props, cast and set were minimal—the subtext of the piece was extensive.

    The entire performance portrayed the cast struggling to decide how to best represent the Herero people and the historic events of the genocide in Namibia. They debated the ethics of performance, and how much they could extrapolate or invent while still keeping the representation factual and accurate, arguing, “You can’t make this part so much your own that you ignore what’s actually there.” The retort to that—“The whole idea of this thing is that we are not so different than these people.”

    However, I struggle with the idea that people inherit the racism of their ancestors. At one point in the play the white female actress was attempting to portray a Herero
    woman, claiming, “We are trying to find the Herero in us.” To which the black male actor responded, “No you can only find the German in you.” Just because a woman is white does not necessarily guarantee that she has a German imperialistic and oppressive ancestry; likewise simply because a man is black does not guarantee that his lineage originated in Namibia. A popular quote from We are proud to present, posted throughout Wooly Mammoth Theatre, essentially argues that you can take someone else’s shoes, but they’re still not your shoes and they never will be. I find that insight to be truthful, regardless of race. There are “shoes” of other white women I will never be able to walk in, just as there are “shoes” of Black, Asian, Hispanic, Greek and Indian women that I will never be able to walk in, understand or sympathize with.

    These differences, and the inability to walk in other peoples’ shoes is something we should be aware, sensitive and understanding of—but not be shamed for. We are proud to present… straddled that line.

  16. This play was an incredibly interesting play that I found to be relatable to both my time interning in Washington, DC and my past education. I found the content of the play,”We are proud to Present…” to be relevant to my prior educational experience since the play focused on the Genocide of the Herrero in German South-West Africa. Although I did not personally have knowledge of this genocide, I did have much knowledge of the Halocaust during World War II. I found the similarities of “rounding up the Herrero” “placing them in camps”and “building a wall to seperate the Herrero” to be strikingly similar to the events of the Halocaust, where those of Jewish Origin were rounded up by German Soldiers and sent to concentration camps. As a result, similar to the Herrero, a large portion of the Jewish population was killed by the Germans. Additionally, “extermination orders” were issued for both the Herrero and the Jews which led to a large-scale genocide of their populations. Further, the use of a wall to segregate the Herrero is a highly similar tactic to the forced removal of Jews from their homes into Ghettos. The overarching take-away from this play was the importance of learning from the past mistakes of history so that they do not repeat themselves in the future.
    I was also able to relate the subject matter of this play to my internship, as I have been learning a great deal about the politics and history of southern Africa. It is very sad to see how racialized societies such as the German colonial rule of South West Africa and the Apartheid state are born out of hatred for those who are different and xenophobia.
    As for the acting during the play, I was impressed with the storytelling setup of the play and its organizational structure. I liked how the history was presented in a lecture form and then very livley acting was utilized to tell the story of what happened to the Herrero and show the importance of examining all of the evidence in the letters to fully understand the extent of what occurred.

  17. Last week in my blog post about Mother Courage and Her Children at Arena Stage, I spent the whole time raving about the use of a theater in the round in that production, and how I thought Mother Courage and Her Children was the perfect play to be done on a theater in the round. I think my blog post for this week will be clear evidence that I am learning a lot about theatre this semester.

    I do not want to fully retract my thoughts from last week; I still think I had a lot of valid things to say. I will say, however, that after having seen another show, We Are Proud to Present, where the audience watched from multiple vantage points (even if the Woolly Mammoth is not technically a theater in the round), I do not know if I can say that Mother Courage and Her Children is the best kind of show to be done on a theater in the round. We Are Proud to Present is also done on a theater in the round, and, while I’m going to bite my tongue and hold off on making absolute statements about what’s the best, I think this play is also a great show to be done on a theater in the round.

    In my view We Are Proud to Present is all about to seeing into the actor’s minds as they attempt to figure out how to tell this story. As the play goes on, it at times becomes less about the story, and more about story of the Herero, and more about the actors, and their stories and relationships to race. Eventually the play leaves the story of the Herero, and comes back to a story about race relations in the US. I think the theater in the round setting allows the audience to really see into the minds of the actors, and makes us get much closer to their stories.

    Last week I said the theater in the round makes the show less personal. I have to say now, after having seen We Are Proud to Present, that that statement is totally wrong. Instead, I think the theater in the round setting makes the play much more personal, and gives us a connection to the actors, which we couldn’t get without it. I could see doing Mother Courage and Her Children on a normal stage. There is no way I would ever do a performance of We Are Proud to Present on anything other than a theater in the round. Or at least that’s what I think for this week.

  18. After watching the performance, “We are proud to present“ on Thursday, I had to take a few days to digest what I just saw. I had many mixed feelings following the play and it was unique to see the different interpretations and reactions of the play. The weekly task of going to see performances on an array of topics has increased my ability to decipher major themes and critique some of these works of arts. The cast of this play seemed dedicated to their craft, I enjoyed the randomness that they expressed while trying to express this set story and script. For a large portion of the play, I felt highly uncomfortable during several sections of the play. The set, although, it seemed desolate and boring at the beginning, the set ended up being a useful tool in telling this story. The props that they used were a great touch; the actors made sure to utilize the entire stage. The playwright was successful at writing lines that seemed spontaneous, I’m aware that it was a scripted show but the actors actions, did not come off that way.

    I felt that it was key that I read some of my peer’s responses and discussed the play with a few family members before submitting my post. Majority of the theatre that I attended, had the main purpose of entertaining, but within this course we have watched several performances that get the audience to look at a debate that they wouldn’t have otherwise. This play attempted to tell the story of the colonial expansion of the Germans by telling the story of the Namibian tribe. The first half of the show included playful interpretations of the Namibian tribe that were suppose to be humorous. There were selective parts that were funny, but others were drawn out, or border line offensive. The last half of the show got intense relatively quickly. The play kept hitting on this point; that even though you may try to walk in someone else’s shoes, you will never understand what they have been through. There was a section that the actors compared the Holocaust to what happen previous to African states during colonialism. I personally dislike when people try to group certain people’s struggles together. No one will understand the journey’s that Jewish; Africans, Irish, or African Americans went through. It was demeaning to hear that because there was less written proof of what happen to Africans like the Namibian tribe then it must have not been as severe as the Holocaust. These are two separate struggles and many people died during them, there should be no need to rank these issues.

    The last few scenes of the performance, I have mixed feelings about. Throughout the play the actors continued to stop during the difficult scenes. The last scenes took it too far in my opinion. There was not enough worthy dialogue nor was their any explanation to what made this last scene relevant to the rest of the performance. There was a list of “jokes” mentioned by the “white man” and the “other white man” that the play could of did without. During play’s, I enjoy looking at others reactions while watching a scene like this one. I felt uncomfortable, I understand that they were playing Nazi Germans but there was too much of an attempt to be humorous at serious sections of the show. During the last scene they hung one of the men and put something weird looking on his face. I understood that a lot of it was done for shock value, but I didn’t think it was necessary. Even as an African American male, I will never completely understand the experience of Africans during the colonial times; families, villages, and tribes were executed during this period and because of those large numbers there are not many who didn’t make it to tell their story.

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