Andreu Honeycutt, Dawn Ursula, Joe Isenberg, Holly Twyford. Photo courtesy of Stan Barouh.
The experience of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company‘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 starts as soon as you walk onstage. Yes, onstage. In another effort to explore integrating the audience further into the experience of Woolly’s 34th season (earlier in the season Woolly split the house in half for productions of Detroit), audience members are ushered into the house through the backstage. Drinks are served in the wings and there is a set of risers where patrons can enjoy the show from the back of the stage looking into the house. The new seating configuration for We Are Proud to Present… is very much theater-in-the-round. Placing the audience all around the actors also makes sense for a show where the actors are going back-and-forth between acting in a show and revealing the process of putting on the show. It’s a level of meta-physical that is beyond simple Frank Underwood-like asides.
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s piece isn’t really about the African history lesson described in the title but rather the process of telling that story, and how even true stories can be influenced by the people who tell them. It is within that process that We Are Proud to Present… finds both its most comedic and strikingly powerful moments.
The premise of the show is simple. In fact, it’s so simple that it is explained within a short introduction that lasts around 10 minutes and includes a few cobbled-together Powerpoint slides and gigantic stick-figure puppets. An ensemble of actors (Andreu Honeycutt, Peter Howard, Joe Isenberg, Holly Twyford, and Michael Anthony Williams) led by Dawn Ursula, who plays the show’s director, set forth to tell the story of a genocide that occurred at the turn of the 19th century in Germany-occupied Namibia.
The rest of the show takes place in between the actors performing the presentation and the actors discussing the right way to present the tale. Going off a collection of hand-written letters from German soldiers, there is a lot of space for interpretation and each actor offers their own angle as they explore the delicate process of staying true to history yet creating a piece that is moving.
The show has a sort of improvisational feel, with bells being rung as actors go in-and-out of scenes. Also seeing actors reveal their egos and blatant boredom in between scenes make for several hilarious moments. The ensemble shines, with Ursula putting on a strong performance as the show’s guide. Director Michael John Garcés certainly puts his own mark on the production, including some literal waterworks.
We Are Proud to Present… keeps you laughing for most of the show until it takes a dramatic turn in the final act. While it is certainly a very powerful moment, it feels somewhat out of place after the first two-thirds of the show. It certainly leaves the audiences with a couple of possible points to walk away with.
With so many stories on stage and screen described as, “Based on real events,” We Are Proud to Present… makes us think twice about accepting the story we see in front of us as cold hard fact. Even the most amazing real-life stories are filtered through another storyteller’s view.
We Are Proud to Present… performs now through March 9, 2014 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, located at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Archives/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines). Tickets start at $55. For more information call 202-393-3939.