The questions underlying all written history — who gets remembered, who gets forgotten, and who gets to tell the story — are explosively propelled to the surface in Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “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.’’
Drury doesn’t let us forget that race has often tipped the scales when posterity gets around to answering those questions. It’s a message that lands with a visceral impact in a powerfully unsettling coproduction of “We Are Proud . . .’’ by ArtsEmerson and Company One Theatre, directed by Summer L. Williams.
Williams keeps her energetic, excellent cast of six — Brandon Green, Marc Pierre, Lorne Batman, Elle Borders, Joseph Kidawski, and Jesse James Wood — in constant motion, ranging across much of the space in the Emerson/Paramount Center’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre. For the purposes of Drury’s drama, the theater becomes a rehearsal room. Within that utterly mundane setting unfolds a complex series of steadily escalating, racially charged interactions that illustrate — on a small, personal, and chilling scale — how power can act as a kind of poison that could, when coupled with racism, lead to subjugation and even mass murder.
The premise of this play-within-a-play is that a group of actors are rehearsing a “presentation’’ about what scholars have come to view as the first genocide of the 20th century: the systematic, merciless slaughter of the Herero people by German colonial forces. Drury’s script identifies the performers only as “Actor 2/“Black Man,’’ “Actor 1/White Man,’’ “Actor 3/Another White Man,’’ and so on. A timeline on a whiteboard against one wall tells the grim tale; near a notation for the period 1908-1915, it reads “80% Herero dead.’’
Initially, as they warm up, the sextet is the very picture of youthful collegiality and common enterprise: joking and laughing and clapping, joining hands in a circle, and huddling up football-style, with heads leaning in and arms around one another’s shoulders.
The play draws considerable humor — for a while, anyway — from the subsequent slide into ego-driven, actor-ish disputes. Frequently talking over one another, they wrangle over who should play what part, how a character should be interpreted, whether they should speak in accents, what a character’s essential motivation is. Drury has some fun with pretentious, furrowed-brow actor-speak; one performer earnestly explains: “I’m just trying to get a sense of where I’m building my Best Friend character from. I’m perfectly comfortable with a character part. Obviously.’’ To which another performer replies, in what might be either reassurance or a subtle putdown, “You’re so good at character roles.’’
But bit by bit “We Are Proud . . .’’ moves into more combustible territory. The issue of whose version of history survives, especially when one side has left a more copious written record than the other, flares when two performers square off over the fact that the “presentation’’ relies heavily on letters written by white colonialists. “Where are all the Africans?’’ demands Actor 2/Black Man, played by Green. “I think we should see some Africans in Africa.’’ Actor 1/White Man, portrayed by Wood, insists they must “stick with what we have access to.’’
The temperature in the rehearsal room climbs still higher when the actors decide to improvise. The line between past and present, between the historical roles they’re trying to play and their own feelings — conscious or unconscious — begins to blur, and scenes of displacement, brutality, and terror start to feel very real in the ArtsEmerson/Company One Theatre production.
Drury has skillfully dramatized the ways that one segment of a population can be denied their humanity because another segment has lost their own, and she does not allow her audience the comfort of distance, be it geographic or temporal. By the time “We Are Proud . . .’’ reaches its harrowing finale, it has become painfully clear that America, then and now, is also on trial.