Colonialism and racism are intertwined with notions of superiority, subjugation and reducing people to less than; sometimes driving them to extinction. Doing justice to even one of these two connected and complex, heart rending topics, in a short performance, is a massive challenge. But focusing on both, in one theatrical performance?
“We are proud to present” written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, currently playing at San Jose Stage, presented in association with the African-American Shakespeare Company, does just that. Art and life merge as White Man (Coleton Schmitto), Black Man (Edward Ewell), Another White Man (Brandon Leland), Another Black Man (Ae Jay Mitchell), White Woman (Lyndsy Kall), and Black Woman (Oluchi Nwokocha) encounter their own personal prejudices, while rehearsing for their roles for a performance focusing on 20th century genocide in a little known place in Africa.
History is most frequently written by those in charge and there exists little documentation about the episode that occurred between the years 1904 and 1907, in modern-day Namibia, then a part of German South-West Africa. The performers are trying to bring the episode to life, based on few letters. Dubbed one of the first genocides of the 20th century, this was a campaign of racial extermination and collective punishment undertaken by the German Empire. When the Herero rebelled, they were driven out into the desert, where most died of starvation. Then the Nama people rebelled and faced a similar fate. Between 24,000 and 100,000 Herero (about 80% of Herero) and 10,000 Nama died during those few short years. After defeat, thousands of Herero and Nama were imprisoned in concentration camps, where the majority died of disease, starvation, exhaustion, and abuse.
However, those looking for a deeper focus on the genocide episode will be disappointed. From the starting point of colonization and discussion on how to bring the episode to life on stage, art and life merges and the play morphs into impact of race in the current time. Given less documentation of the events surrounding the episode and thus given less structure, there is much discussion of where to put the focus and who should play which role. Tensions begin to mount and conflicts appear as their personal biases makes it a fully subjective experience. It is when one unravels the strands of history, that one finds that history is intimately linked with the present. And to those who experience life on different terms, peeking into history is often a stronger, more emotional experience.
On a little sidebar note, in the currently heated election 2016 season, candidate Donald Trump’s transgressions, reminded many women of their own encounters of sexual minimizing, leading to big gender gap in recent polls. For some women, events as far back as 30 years or more into their life, seemingly felt like they happened yesterday.
Directed by L. Peter Callender, the play gives a deep insight into the layered conversation that exists about race and subjective and deep feelings people have in society. Bitter and vehemently fought election campaigns this year, have often focused “bigly” on race and bigotry. The play will make you uncomfortable but also take you on a journey of self-reflection. Tickets can be purchased at www.thestage.org .