It’s a swaggeringly confident statement that questions its own right to exist. It’s a look at the power of language in which words eventually break down entirely. It’s a tightly scripted journey that threatens to go off the rails at any moment.
But it’s definitely a play. Or maybe a presentation.
Sure, the onstage entertainment that Company One Theatre is now producing in partnership with ArtsEmerson is indeed a play — previews began Friday — but even its director hesitates before using the word. (“Everything I feel is right about it is about not labeling it,” Summer L. Williams says.)
Its mouthful of a title is the first indication that multiple layers are working here, wrapped up in a sense of unedited, unfinished-ness: “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915.”
The action turns on the axis of six actors’ increasingly tense rehearsal for a drama of the same name, and the stutteringly articulated result of their efforts.
This is in many ways a play about its own failure. Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, 32, wrote it after abandoning an earlier effort to pen a sweeping historical epic about a little-remembered atrocity — the targeted murder of tens of thousands of Africans by German colonists in the early 20th century.
“The play was just awful,” she says, citing her difficulty getting a firm hold on the history itself, and the creeping influence of stereotypes when depicting both the German soldiers and the Herero natives. “Once I stopped freaking out about how terrible it was, I started thinking about the reasons why it was so terrible. And I tried to then write a play where actors fail in similar ways.”
She also had trouble addressing the issues at hand without lapsing into either the ultra-earnest attitude she’d observed among well-intentioned peers in college, or some level of ironic distance.
“Trying to put a neat, tidy ending on a play about race and genocide made it feel like,” she says, “genocide’s bad — but you’re OK! It just felt ridiculous.”
So with a deliberately heavy hand, Drury foregrounds the role of stereotypes and race in “We Are Proud to Present . . .” by withholding proper names from her characters; most of the six actors are given identities like Actor 1/White Man and Actor 4/Another Black Man.
Piling layer upon layer, Drury’s characters collaborate on a prologue, a historical overview prefacing the all-important presentation, and the presentation itself. Throughout the process they collide with more and more force against the difficulty of telling a true story with limited historical evidence, as well as more basic issues of identity and communication. One character’s response to a suggestion that the genocide of the Herero was a “rehearsal Holocaust” amounts to an ontological contention, with implications for the play itself: “It’s not a rehearsal if it’s actually happening.”
“It wants to feel discombobulating,” Williams says of the audience experience. “You want it to feel a little uneasy, like I’m walking into a space but it doesn’t feel like it’s prepared for me to be here yet. Am I here too soon? Have I made a mistake? It all doesn’t need to fit perfectly together. In fact, its imperfections are where it’s the most magical.”
Unlike in other theatrical explorations of similar concerns, the author’s voice here never intrudes to gobble up the space of the play; the action remains anchored in the vividly realized milieu of a sometimes hilariously awkward rehearsal. Even as sublimated aggression jerks unsteadily toward the surface, the rich, musical rhythms of the dialogue remain funny and fast-paced.
Overlapping assertions and passive-aggressive asides probe the rich group dynamic among actors who stop jousting for preeminence only long enough to show off their capacity for magnanimous deference. When Actor 3 seeks to imagine the back story of the German soldier he’s asked to portray, he demands to know not only the location of the man’s home city but its “quality of light.”
Given the knotty meta-theatrical layering, it’s perhaps no surprise that the play originated as Drury’s MFA thesis at Brown University. In 2012 it was produced at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago and then Soho Rep in New York. This is its first Boston production. When it’s published this spring, it’ll be Drury’s first play in print.
The script includes tightly choreographed passages of physical comedy, and meticulous instructions for sequences of rhythmic chanting; Drury admits to carefully revising the line “But, like” to “Like, but” in order to “make sure that it actually sounds as casual or as awkward or as inarticulate as it’s supposed to be.” But she’s deliberately mixed her fine touch for language with a belief that actors and directors must find their own way from Point A to Point B.
There are many points where the stage directions only offer a series of suggestions. “The text is asking for a laser-like focus in one moment, and then all hell can break loose in the next,” Williams says. Crucially, the play’s unsettling climax is rendered in an extended stage direction, including the warning that “the play might lose control,” and instructs that the “performers say and do what is in their minds.”
“It’s different every single time we run it in rehearsal, and I think it’ll be different every time we perform it,” says Elle Borders, who portrays Actor 6, a character who describes herself as “kind of the artistic director” of the onstage ensemble. “I think it’ll be exciting for the audience. Each night is a new adventure, and you don’t know what you’re going to get. Even we don’t know what we’re going to get.”
One imagines this will suit Drury just fine.