A potent mix of laughter and discomfort can be found in Jackie Sibblies Drury's thought-provoking play, 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, now at Soho Rep. The title may be lengthy, but it signals a playful pretentiousness that characterizes this metatheatrical play-within-a-play.
The work concerns an American theater company that attempts to create a performance piece about the early 20th-century genocide in Africa perpetrated by German colonizers on the Herero tribe. One actor calls it a "rehearsal Holocaust," to which another pointedly replies, "It's not a rehearsal if you're actually doing it."
That statement takes on even greater resonance when you consider the framework for Drury's play, which centers on the group's rehearsal process -- one that ends up exposing the anger, resentment, and prejudices of the company members.
Much of the comedy comes early, as the troupe improvises scenes and engages in petty bickering about the roles they're going to play and the history and motivations of their characters. The playwright pushes this a little too far at times, particularly in a sequence where one of the actresses (Lauren Blumenfeld) is directed to try to access a sad memory about her dead cat, and instead tries to actually play the part of a cat. (It's hard to believe no one in the company would let an actress get away with this without ridiculing her.)
Significantly, the company is split along racial lines with two Caucasian men (Erin Gann, Jimmy Davis) and a white woman (Blumenfeld), along with two African American men (Grantham Coleman, Philip James Brannon) and one African American woman (Quincy Tyler Bernstine).
None of the cast members are identified by a character name, with the exception of Blumenfeld, who is called Sarah in the presentation, standing in for all the women whom German soldiers wrote to while stationed in Africa. These letters are the only tangible documentation of this period – but none of them address the genocide, which becomes a stumbling block in the creation of the troupe's performance.
The conflicts that erupt over the course of the evening become more and more about race, as well as more and more personal, and less and less about Africa. As the play builds to its climax, Southern accents creep into the actors' vocal inflections as the dialogue takes a turn that seems more about the experience of slavery and racism in America.
Under Eric Ting's nuanced direction, all six of the actors deliver committed performances, and Coleman is particularly powerful as the sometimes sole voice of dissent in the way that Africa and Africans are being represented in the company-created work.
Bernstine is quite strong as the harried director who too often must also play the part of peacemaker, while Davis amuses as the character actor who seems to be angling for a bigger role to play, and who smartly turns a potentially offensive portrayal of a black grandmother into one of the more grounded moments of the entire show.
Set designer Mimi Lien has stripped away the trappings of a theater to transform (or perhaps revert?) the Soho Rep space into a large rehearsal room. Lighting designer Lenore Doxsee alternates between bright work lights and more theatrical stage effects, depending upon what scene is being played out.
The entire experience is a fascinating peek into the charged group dynamics that can play out in the creation of theater, and the work's conclusion is likely to leave audiences feeling stunned and unsure how to react.