The new show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is wild and windy, living up to a title so long and full of fanfare that it practically demands its own paragraph. Ladies and gentlemen:
“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.”
Awkward, too, right? Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury embraces that, though she doesn’t always control it. The sharply staged play — a comedy, a near-tragedy and an all around provocative mess — is actually about an ensemble of six actors (three black, three white) trying to create a show about the Herero and their slaughter at the hands of German colonialists. It’s a powerful historical subject, but they keep smashing into brick walls as they labor to tell it.
Drury can be devastatingly funny as she sends up her oversensitive theater collective — in principle a high-minded troupe, but in practice a traffic jam of competing agendas. Who’s going to be the leading man? How romantically should they play scenes based on the trove of letters they’ve discovered from German soldiers to the folks back home? Are those letters really a good source?
And who’s writing this, anyway? Six actors never needed an author more than this bunch. Some of Drury’s most hilarious bits delve into the group’s improvisations as they grasp for meaningful scenes. At one point, just to get things started, the ringleader (played with bottomless reserves of wit and indignation by Dawn Ursula) tells a needy actress (Holly Twyford, riotously fragile) a gruesome story about a cat so that the performer can act sad.
“I’m just trying to make the role my own”: that’s the kind of thing these actors say to each other as they role-play, respond and bicker. (“I’ll support you!” is another rallying cry.) It gets a little thin at times; deft as Woolly’s cast is, Drury’s satire isn’t above making too-obvious jokes not only about theater but about race as the troupe draws boundaries around who can say what and who can portray whom.
Yet every now and then Drury lobs in a genuine thunderbolt. Simple facts stated plainly in the group’s opening lecture about the Herero land with arresting force. A scenario roughed in by the troupe distills the genocide to its heartbreaking essence.
The play can shift gears like that because you long for this theater company to be able to say something meaningful, and because director Michael John Garces shrewdly makes the whole thing look like a brooding Lorca tragedy. Designer Misha Kachman’s set is a harsh, arid expanse of dusty-looking floor with a gash of a drain cut into one side. On the opposite side, a high wall — the same drab color as the floor — looms. Actors tend to drift toward that wall whenever they’re feeling left out, which happens a lot during the play-making negotiations.
The set also places a few rows of bleacher seats at the back of the stage, so it’s practically theater in the round. Woolly used a similar arrangement for Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” last fall, and like “Detroit,” “We Are Proud” sometimes tears beyond language and into action scenes that scrape up something dangerous and primal and weird, like an “African” passage that evolves into a rap number with a white guy in the middle of it. (The similarity may not be coincidental; Drury studied with D’Amour.)
Though Woolly’s actors play nameless generic characters, each portrait is etched with clean, knife-like strokes. Ursula is a magnetic center as the black woman who pointedly identifies herself as the artistic director. As the two white actors, Joe Isenberg and Peter Howard vainly peck at each other like squabbling vultures.
Twyford shores up the script’s weakest role with a restrained turn that’s loopy and earnest, and you find yourself waiting for what will happen when the black actors, played by Michael Anthony Williams and Andreu Honeycutt, assert themselves. The surprise is that Drury doesn’t spare them. Williams soberly leaps into a deliriously wrong-headed improvisation, while Honeycutt’s frustrated character tries to bluster the company toward more accurate territory.
Explosive? Yes. Ungainly? At times. Audience members who need to visit the loo during the intermission-less two-hour show must toddle across the stage to get out, and Drury’s under-prepared characters belabor the difficulty of making true drama out of complex history.
That’s not a problem you’re likely to accept as inevitable, especially recalling how powerfully Danai Gurira’s three hour “The Convert” served up 19th century colonialism in Zimbabwe just last year at Woolly in another smart show directed by Garces, designed by Kachman and featuring Ursula. The theatrical stammering of “We Are Proud” — a play that shares an overt theme with Woolly’s recent Klan-in-the-attic drama “Appropriate” — most effectively reflects the linguistic discontents of the theater and of grad school, where Drury only recently finished this now-popular play.
“The Convert” set the bar high for clear, un-anxious, non-cliched thinking about history, yet Drury’s instincts bear watching. She’s certainly given Woolly a chance to release another primal scream about an American history that’s impossible for these characters to escape.
“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,” by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Directed by Michael John Garces. Costumes, Meghan E. Healey; lights, Colin K. Bills; composer, Christylez Bacon; sound design, Elisheba Ittoop; choreographer, Paige Hernandez; fight choreographer, Joe Isenberg. About two hours. Tickets $35-$97.50, subject to change.
Through March 9 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net.