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In We Are Proud to Present …, a Play About African Genocide Forces the Actors to Confront Racism

PlayMakers Rep's production of <em>We Are Proud to Present ...</em> by Jackie Sibblies Drury stars (from left) Schuyler Scott Mastain, Genesis Oliver, Myles Bullock, and Nathaniel Kent (photo by Jon Gardiner)

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of We Are Proud to Present … by Jackie Sibblies Drury stars (from left) Schuyler Scott Mastain, Genesis Oliver, Myles Bullock, and Nathaniel Kent (photo by Jon Gardiner)

When a group of actors assemble to perform a play about a long-ago incident of genocide in Namibia, they are forced to confront contemporary racism in PlayMakers Repertory Company’s upcoming production of We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 by Brooklyn-based African-American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury. The show will preview on Feb. 24-26, officially open on Feb. 27th, and run Feb. 28th and March 1-6 and 8-13 in the Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Art.

In preshow publicity, UNC’s professional-theater-in-residence calls We Are Proud to Present … an “emotionally charged journey into the past,” and notes that the 2012 drama is “[s]et in a present-day rehearsal hall[. It is] the story of a theater group preparing a performance piece on a little-known episode of early 20th century genocide. Things take a jolting turn when the actors — three black and three white — tap into personal resentments and ingrained prejudices. Tensions mount as they expose more of themselves than they ever wanted to.”

In his April 16, 2012 New Yorker review of the play’s inaugural production, at the Victory Gardens in Chicago, Hilton Als wrote, “Too few women playwrights deal directly with politics in their work. Some may have bought into the cliché that women are better at writing character than they are at writing plot — and what is politics if not plot-driven? … [B]lack playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury refutes this notion, and so much else, in her grand play …. The show provides a thrilling opportunity to see both a serious new talent developing her voice and what an inspiring director [Eric Ting] can do to encourage it. The piece is about theatre, and how to ‘play’ politics onstage — the politics, in this case, being the history of conquest and colonization in Namibia.”

In his Nov. 16, 2012 Backstage review of the show’s subsequent New York production, Clifford Lee Johnson III called We Are Proud to Present … “90 minutes of original, enlightening, pulse-pounding theater,” and added “… “[T]his fiercely intelligent work manages to be both a comic spoof of the rehearsal process and a devastating dramatization of how easy it is for human beings to do horrifying things to each other. It’s absolutely thrilling.”

The show stars Carey Cox (left), Caroline Strange, and Myles Bullock (background) (photo by Jon Gardiner)

The show stars Carey Cox (left), Caroline Strange, and Myles Bullock (background) (photo by Jon Gardiner)

“I first encountered We Are Proud to Present … in 2011, when I served on a selection committee for the Playwrights Foundation in San Francisco,” recalls Seattle/San Francisco-based PRC guest director Desdemona Chiang. “The play was one of seven scripts chosen from a pool of more than 500 submissions to be developed and presented in an annual festival of new plays. I was directing another play in the same lineup that year, so I had a chance to meet and get to know Jackie Sibblies Drury as colleagues in the festival. We Are Proud to Present … has since then gone on to have a very successful series of productions (hopefully including this one!), so it’s exciting in retrospect to have been a part of its early stages.”

Chiang adds, “This play is all about young people who try to do a good thing but get in way over their heads. I’m fascinated by social psychology and group dynamics in humans, how behavior changes with circumstance, and in today’s PC [politically correct] climate, the way people need to measure what they say against how they truly feel.

“I’m also obsessed with the notion of unconscious biases right now, and how even the most well-intending people will carry subliminal assumptions imprinted by mass media and their personal upbringing or culture,” says Chiang. “And when the ego goes unchecked, it can turn into something dangerous and destructive. It reminds me a lot of [William Golding’s 1954 novel,] Lord of the Flies[,] in that way.”

We Are Proud to Present … is a spirited play about a group of ambitious young theater artists who come together to make a performance piece about the Herero genocide in Namibia during the German occupation at the turn of the 20th century. It is a largely unknown atrocity, untaught in schools, and invisible in the global conversation, except for a few elite historian circles.

“As this company of artists interrogates the work and moves deeper into the process, they cannot help but interrogate themselves, their personal assumptions, and unconscious biases around society and race; and they start to frame the telling of the Herero genocide from their own perspectives as White and Black Americans. Despite the noblest of intentions, when ambitions set forth on an unknown terrain, the results are often powerful, surprising, and terrifying.”

Director Desdemona Chiang

PlayMakers Rep guest director Desdemona Chiang

Desdemona Chiang, who previously directed the PlayMakers Rep production of 4000 Miles (2015) and the PRC Summer Youth Conservatory presentation of the Hairspray (2014), as well as worked on PlayMakers‘ 2012 production of The Making of a King: Henry IV & V, says, “I think anytime you’re dealing with the race issue in America, it’s like you’re playing with gasoline in a room and hoping no one around you has a lit match. It’s both unnerving and thrilling, because I literally have no idea how audiences will respond to this play.”

She adds, “Everyone has a unique perspective on society and race, based on their own life experience. So, in many ways, it’s hard to claim a kind of universal point of view with this show. This play will undoubtedly make some audiences uncomfortable, frustrated, or furious. It will also provoke others to hearty laughter, both the delightful and the ‘oh-no-he-didn’t’ variety.

“As with any artistic endeavor truly worth undertaking, this one is full of challenge, risk, and danger,” says Chiang. “It provides no answers, but is a step forward in our continuing but complicated conversations about society and race.”

We Are Proud to Present … stars (in alphabetical order) Myles Bullock as Actor 2/Black Man, Carey Cox as Actor 5/Sarah, Nathaniel Kent as Actor 3/Another White Man, Schuyler Scott Mastain as Actor 1/White Man, Genesis Oliver as Actor 4/Another Black Man, and Caroline Strange as Actor 6/Black Woman.

The show stars (from left) Schuyler Scott Mastain, Myles Bullock, and Genesis Oliver (photo by Jon Gardiner)

The show stars (from left) Schuyler Scott Mastain, Myles Bullock, and Genesis Oliver (photo by Jon Gardiner)

In addition to director Desdemona Chiang, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team includes PRC producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch, production manager Michael Rolleri, scenic and costume designer Junghyun Georgia Lee, assistant to the costume designer Michelle Bentley, lighting designer Porsche McGovern, sound designer Eric Collins, video designer Caite Hevner Kemp, vocal coach John Patrick, dramaturg Jules Odendahl-James, supporting dramaturg Jacqueline E. Lawton, stage manager Charles K. Bayang, and assistant stage manager Hannah-Jean Farris.

Director Desdemona Chiang says, “The set design for We Are Proud to Present … is a basic work space, a rehearsal and presentation room where our devised-theater ensemble can create and improvise for this project. It’s a functional, utilitarian space, with benches, stools, a ladder, a projector with a screen, and a table of props.”

She adds, “The play jumps back and forth in time between the company’s rehearsal process, and the final presentation that they perform in front of us (the audience). The lighting in performance will be heightened and theatrical, with strong aesthetics; and the lighting for rehearsal portions will feel like work lights in the rehearsal room. Lighting will serve as a big indicator of time and place….

Desdemona Chiang says, “I hope audiences will approach this show with an open mind and a willingness to be present. This play is unconventional in structure, which makes it delightful at times, and challenging in content, which will makes it frustrating at times. I think the real reward of this production is in our full engagement in both experiences.”

<em>We Are Proud to Present ...</em> stars (from left) Myles Bullock and Caroline Strange (photo by Jon Gardiner)

We Are Proud to Present … stars (from left) Myles Bullock and Caroline Strange (photo by Jon Gardiner)

SECOND OPINION: Feb. 13th Chapel Hill, NC Chapelboro.com interview with director Desdemona Chiang, conducted by Aaron Keck: http://chapelboro.com/news/arts/playmakers-proud-to-present-proud-to-present.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION ABOUT THE HERERO OF NAMIBIA, FORMERLY KNOWN AS SOUTH WEST AFRICA, FROM THE GERMAN SÜDWESTAFRIKA, BETWEEN THE YEARS 1884-1915 at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 24-26 Previews, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27 Opening Night, 2 p.m. Feb. 28; 7:30 p.m. March 1-4; 2 and 7:30 p.m. March 5; 2 p.m. March 6; 7:30 p.m. March 8-12; and 2 p.m. March 13 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $15 and up ($10 UNC students and $12 other college students), with discounts for UNC faculty and staff and U.S. military personnel, except $15 (general admission) Tuesday Community Night performances.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY, prcboxoffice@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/single.

GROUP RATES (15+ tickets): 919-962-PLAY (7529), prcgroups@unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.

SHOW: http://www.playmakersrep.org/show/we-are-proud-to-present/.

PRC NEWS RELEASE: https://playmakersrep.org/press/we-are-proud-to-present-starts-feb-24-at-playmakers/.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/, https://www.facebook.com/playmakersrep, https://twitter.com/playmakersrep, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayMakers_Repertory_Company, and http://www.youtube.com/user/PlayMakersRep.

PRC BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://playmakersrep.org/aboutus/paulgreen.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices will be available at all performances.

NOTE 2: There will be an opening-night gala performance, followed by refreshments, starting at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27th.

NOTE 3: There will be an All-Access Performance, with sign-language interpretation and audio description by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1st.

NOTE 4: There will be an Open Captioning Performance at 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 5th (for more information, click http://playmakersrep.org/outreach/allaccess/opencaption).

NOTE 5: There will be FREE post-show discussions with members of the cast and creative team following the show’s 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2nd, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 6th, performances.

NOTE 6: The Lucy Daniels Foundation and the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society will sponsor FREE post-show “Mindplay” discussion — led by David Smith, MD — after the 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12th, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 13th, performances.

OTHER LINKS:

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 (2012 Chicago and New York play): http://www.dramaticpublishing.com/p3819/We-Are-Proud-to-Present-a-Presentation-About-the-Herero-of-Namibia,-Formerly-Known-as-South-West-Africa,-From-the-German-S%C3%BCdwestafrika,-Between-the-Years-1884%E2%80%931915/product_info.html (Dramatic Publishing) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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%E2%80%931915 (Wikipedia).

The Script: https://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

Jackie Sibblies Drury (Brooklyn-based playwright): http://www.aoiagency.com/jackie-sibblies-drury/ (AO International Agency), http://lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/47151 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackie_Sibblies_Drury (Wikipedia).

Desdemona Chiang (Seattle/San Francisco-based PRC guest director): http://www.desdemona.org/blog/ (official website), http://playmakersrep.org/artists/desdemona-chiang/ (PRC bio) https://www.facebook.com/deschiang (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/deschiang (Twitter page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Robert W. McDowell has written articles for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, CVNC, and Triangle Arts and Entertainment, all based in Raleigh. He edits and publishes two FREE weekly e-mail newsletters. Triangle Review provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of local performing-arts events. (Start your FREE subscription by e-mailing robertm748@aol.com and typing SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) McDowell also maintains a FREE list of movie sneak previews. (To subscribe, e-mail robertm748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.)

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Categorised in: Features, Lead Story, Theatre Feature