The siren call of Africa inspired Jackie Sibblies Drury to write the heroically titled “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.”
But what exactly is that call? That’s a central question in Drury’s dark, funny, and unruly play, which is making the national rounds and is being produced here by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company starting Monday.
As Drury wrapped up her graduate playwriting degree at Brown University, she found herself drawn to the late 19th-century subjugation of the indigenous Herero people by German colonialists. But she couldn’t figure out how to mold that history into a show “in a way I was fully satisfied with,” the 32-year-old playwright says from New Jersey. “And I was thinking about why I could be failing at that.”
So Drury looked a little closer to home and began making a play within a play, focusing on an ensemble of black and white American actors collectively trying to tell a historically African story. Their efforts blow up in ways that resonate with other recent social friction dramas at Woolly, like Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park” (updating “A Raisin in the Sun”), Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” (on the corrosive effects of poverty and addiction), and Danai Gurira’s “The Convert” (exploring Christianity and colonialism in 1890s Zimbabwe).
“I think ultimately it ends up centered on America and how our concepts on race become confused,” Drury says. “Inescapable, and confused.”
Even so, its interest in Namibia puts “We Are Proud to Present . . . ” in a growing line of African-themed works on U.S. stages. Ready examples include Broadway blockbusters “The Lion King” (pious) and “Book of Mormon” (profane), plus Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning drama “Ruined” and last year’s “Beneatha’s Place,” the troubled response to Norris’s “Clybourne Park” by playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage.
Woolly alone can point to Norris’s satiric “The Unmentionables” as well as “In the Continuum” and “Eclipsed” by Gurira, now well-known as the katana-wielding Michonne on the AMC zombie drama “The Walking Dead.”
In Washington, the interest is partly due to the city’s international makeup. Miriam Weisfeld, Woolly’s associate artistic director, e-mails to say: “Whether a play is about Liberia or North Korea, we always discover a community here that is deeply knowledgeable about that area of the world.” Post-show discussions at Woolly are slated to deal with the Herero genocide and what is being billed as “performing blackness in the transatlantic world.”
But Drury’s script looks like another notable data point in the theater’s gradually expanding African awareness, and the interest in it is wide: Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are among the cities seeing “We Are Proud” lately. Drury completed her thesis version in 2010, and then it was picked up for the Ignition new play festival at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater. That company fully produced the premiere in 2012, with a New York staging at Soho Rep later that year.
“One of the most fascinating things about Jackie’s play,” Weisfeld suggests, “is that it’s about why artists attempt to tackle this subject, and how complex and clumsy our attempts can be.”
The play is even sweeping Drury to London, where she’ll sand off some of the Americanisms for a production beginning Feb. 28. What only recently was homework for grad school has quickly evolved into an efficient calling card as she enters the professional world.
“That’s incredibly rare, and I’m sort of dumbfounded by it,” Drury says.
It is comically shocking that even though she grew up near New York and saw shows on Broadway as a kid, Drury had the impression that “new theater” only meant musicals. It wasn’t until she majored in literature at Yale, she says, that “I understood that there were still playwrights. I think I thought the last playwright was dead.”
Her résuméhas quickly acquired familiar playwright bona fides, from a two-year Van Lier fellowship with New Dramatists to setting up residency in Brooklyn. She finished a commission from Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company to write “Social Creatures,” a zombie drama tailored for that troupe’s actors (it was staged there last year). New projects include “Really Really Really Really Really,” which she describes as being “sort of about photography and grief,” and “The Theory of Rational Choice,” which seems to be about adolescent YouTube confessional videos.
But everything is about to change as Africa tugs at her again, this time literally. Drury’s husband is pursuing a doctorate in anthropology, and together they will spend six months in Morocco, each digging into their own projects.
Stylistically, she’s not sure that she has a signature yet, or that she wants one. She’s more interested in making sure she finds topics worth an audience’s time.
“As a playwright, you’re not really an expert in anything except trying to write plays,” she explains.
In Morocco, Drury aims to look into the problems of de-colonization and forging a national identity after the imperialists have gone. In some ways, that question parallels the business of theater, she thinks, which is “about manufacturing culture.”
“I don’t think that anyone isn’t a political writer anymore,” she adds. “Or at least I don’t understand anyone who isn’t.”
After Morocco, her future is “a little bit open at the moment. Which is exciting, and terrifying.”
Is “We Are Proud to Present . . .” on some level a writer defending her turf? After all, part of it is poking fun at theater collectives trying to create work as a group.
“I hadn’t thought about it that way,” Drury laughs. “I hope so. That makes me feel like I have a lot more chutzpah than I really do.”
by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Monday through March 9 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Tickets $35-$77.50, subject to change. Call 202-393-3939 or visit woollymammoth.net