Review: ‘We Are Proud to Present’ with misgivings

 JaBen Early and Aimé Donna Kelly  in InterAct Theatre Company's production of

JaBen Early and Aimé Donna Kelly in InterAct Theatre Company's production of "We Are Proud to Present..." (Photo courtesy of Kathryn Raines/Plate 3)

There’s not much difference between real life and acting — that’s what playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury ultimately suggests in “We Are Proud to Present…,” a stirring if flawed play that examines the nature of racism.

The play, now in the final part of its InterAct Theatre Company run, is theater that bends stage conventions – and for most of its 100 minutes, the result is fresh and magnetizing.

But the storytelling swings from an exploration of colonial racism in Africa to racism in the United States. That’s a wholly appropriate comparison. But in its morphing, “We Are Proud to Present…” draws attention to itself as a play and a piece of writing, rather than a developing situation we’ve come to believe.

What a pity, because all along the play has been subtly and effectively delivering a message it ends up hammering home. With its in-your-face epiphany, “We Are Proud to Present…” becomes a guilt-trip. Up until that time, it was something so much more valuable: a play that forces you to think.

The bulky and unnecessary full name of the play is “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the Geman Sudwestafrica.” It’s an overview of the colonial history of the African country of Namibia, particularly of the early 1900s, when Germany overtook the country and eventually exterminated about 80 percent of a native tribe called the Herero.

The play begins as a halting lecture, self-consciously delivered by the six cast members who then begin to enact a scene about the white takeover of the black people of Namibia. We are witnessing not just a rehearsal, but the arguments that divide the actors as they attempt to devise their piece from whole cloth.

They bicker about everything in the process. How historically factual must they be? Do they make up dialogue or must they use the scant historical documents available to them? Do they develop their own characters and back-stories? Do they have the chops to perform it?

Finally, one of them tells the rest: “The whole point of this thing is showing that these people are not so different from us.” By us, he actually means U.S. That’s when the cast begins to sell us acting as real life – their racism becomes tinged with southern accents and their notion of prejudice translates into an overwrought theatricality. That’s also the moment when “We Are Proud to Present” begins to intellectually mow the audience down.

The cast, under director Pirronne Yousefzadeh, is exceptional: Aimé Donna Kelly as the leader of the cast putting the show together; JaBen Early and James Ijames as the black characters, Kevin Meehan and Jamison Foreman as the white characters and Miriam White as the German wife back home. Elizabeth Atkinson’s sound design and Cecilia Durbin’s lighting are spot-on, both when the play is at its most worthwhile, and also when it’s not.

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“We Are Proud to Present…” is a production of InterAct Theatre Company, through Nov. 10 at the Adrienne Theatre on Sansom Street, between 20th and 21st Streets. 215-568-8079 or www.interacttheatre.org.

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