No One is Done Nothing is Over: Jackie Sibblies Drurys We Are Proud To Presentby Mark Armstrong
Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury didn’t set out to write a play about the German genocide on the Herero of Namibia in Southwest Africa around the turn of the 20th century. While researching a different play, she “Googled ‘black people Germany’ and all this stuff about a genocide popped up in my computer,” she says. “I didn’t realize that Germany even successfully had African colonies. I became obsessed with not knowing about that and started researching it.”
As an M.F.A. playwriting student at Brown University, Sibblies Drury initially planned to tackle the material through a more straightforward approach, as historical drama. “I tried to write a good play and I did not write a good play,” she says. “I wrote a very bad play.” (“I really want to read it!” interjects her director Eric Ting. “Jackie, you gotta share it with me!”) “I looked at that script and was really embarrassed by it and by its badness, and also by the presumptuousness of which I thought I could accurately represent this thing that is incomprehensible, let alone representable,” she says.
Sibblies Drury worked through her failure by developing a play-within-a-play about the event, “where a group of actors failed in similar ways.” The result of her push-through premieres at Soho Rep this month, under the title 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 and 1915. “Is it a presentation or is it theater?” poses Ting. “There, I just introduced your first quote from Jackie’s play.”
Well, it’s a presentation, it’s not theater.
It’s a presentation in a theater.
ACTOR 2 ACTOR 3
So it’s theater.
In the play, this question, along with what Ting calls “questions of authenticity,” befuddles a cast of white and African-American actors. Gathering at the behest of the character Black Woman (“an actor … also kind of the artistic director of our ensemble”), the actors explore, improvise, and otherwise bring forth the story of the genocide from the slightest of source material. Armed only with letters home from German soldiers (there is no existing primary material from the Herero), the actors falter again and again while trying to get at the truth of the event. What emerges instead from the attempt is something truthful and upsetting that happens between the actors as they grapple with who has the ability, the authority, and the cultural vocabulary to represent a given experience. This shadow story ultimately overtakes the Presentation, throwing conflicts between the actors themselves into sharp relief.
Can I ask a question?
What is it?
Are we just going to sit here and watch some white people fall in love all day?
I wasn’t going to put it like that—
Where are all the Africans?
We’re just reading the letters. I’m sure we’ll find something that has some more context.
I think we should see some Africans in Africa.
And I think we have to stick with what we have access to.
No nono. This is some Out-of-Africa-African-Queen-Bullshit y’all pulling right here, Okay? If we are in Africa, I want to see some black people.
He’s right. We have to see more of the Herero.
Although the actors’ explorations provide many a comedic moment, Ting cautions against a reading of the play where the acts they commit come from a place of ignorance or insensitivity. “We really strive to make these characters complex and sensitive and thoughtful individuals,” he says. “This is a company of actors that have come together to put an important story in front of an audience,”—a story, Ting says, that’s profoundly important in world history, “in terms of the way it entwines itself with later genocides.”
And everything we’re talking about happed to real people, a whole people, not just one family, thousands of families.
Right—we’re talking about something really big here—
An entire tribe of people—
I know I was just—
He knows that we’re talking about a Genocide.
Tortured, experimented on, enslaved—
Yes a German genocide. A rehearsal Holocaust.
It wasn’t a rehearsal.
It was real people, in a real place.
It’s not a rehearsal if you’re actually doing it.
“Jackie has this bravery and trust in the performers,” says Ting. “She puts an immense amount of trust in the collaborators with this play, which I think is a truly courageous thing.” Ting, the associate artistic director at Long Wharf Theatre, came on board the project in the summer of 2010 for a reading at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater, saying he was “blown away” by the script. “I was really quite taken with what she had to say, but even more fascinated by how she was saying it. It was something that fed the mind and left it hungry for more.”
While wrestling with the play’s climax in the middle of a Chicago snowstorm, Sibblies Drury brought in new pages. According to Ting, “she showed up one day and [said] ‘you know what? We’re just going to cut it here and I’m going to give you this page-long stage direction and we’re just going to let the actors find it.’” That stage direction culminates in the instruction, “The performers can say and do whatever is in their minds.”
In performance, the moment changed nightly even as they moved into a full production. “[At] Victory Gardens, what we found over and over and over again is that, you can tell when people are not being true on stage in Jackie’s play,” says Ting. The play demands a personal, naked honesty from the actors, even more so than if they were playing conventional characters.
We keep stopping and we keep talking and we just need to do it.
So I’m gonna push you to do it so Everyone is going Keep Going
And no one is stopping, no one is done nothing is over because
we’re going to stay in it until I say stop.
We are going to Stay In It until I Say Stop.
So let’s go.
The play, Ting continues, asks the actors to have faith, to create a space where they “hopefully feel safe enough that they can accomplish … that awkward, uncomfortable, complicated, complex, provocative healing thing. It heals. There’s so many things at once [that] the only thing you can do is ask the actors to be honest in that moment and share that in front of an audience. And that’s a kind of faith.”
And in that silence something starts to happen.
The actors start to process what just happened.
And there is something …
Soho Rep has a history of creating original work, so, despite artistic director Sarah Benson’s admiration for the Victory Gardens staging, the production New York audiences will see has been reimagined from its Chicago origin. “We had a remarkable experience up at Victory Gardens. Every team member, every collaborator, every creative artist was phenomenal,” says Ting. “[But] Sarah presented this really interesting opportunity to us [that] we could start from scratch. One of the great pleasures of working on Jackie’s play is finding that cast and inviting that cast to be themselves…that the characters that they’re playing are actually who they are. That’s really an amazing thing to be travelling through with a brilliant cast and re-living conversations that are both familiar and very different at the same time. And simultaneously the pleasure of just seeing the way Jackie’s play fits on everyone.”
That’s your story that’s not my story.
I told this deeply personal story because—
All we are doing is hearing the white version of the story / over and over—
Presentation arrives in New York in a moment when the American theater is embroiled in national conversation about diversity, particularly among playwrights, and Sibblies Drury and Ting are both reflective about the play’s complicated racial politics. “I sometimes get frustrated by what is [seen as] an appropriate story of color, about what is a representative story of color,” says Sibblies Drury. “Looking at the stories of people of color as a monolithic, unchanging thing is a huge problem. Diversity, I feel, needs to be diversified. I’m hoping for a diversity not just in terms of ethnicity, but in terms of art.”
Ting agrees: “I think there’s actually great danger in broad identifications of stories, especially because stories are always so anchored in unique individuals. It’s a dangerous thing because I think also when you say stories of color versus white stories … you’re creating a one-to-one relationship ratio. And that’s not representative of the country that I know. It should be one-to-one-to-one-to-one. There should be a table of voices represented and not just a duality or a binary.”
Sibblies Drury was actively working on the play during Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and says she’s very aware that Soho Rep’s production will open shortly in the aftermath of his 2012 reelection bid. “The reality of having a black president has brought out a lot of ugliness people didn’t believe was there,” she says. “Racial awareness is being talked about in new and interesting ways. People that have never taken an Africana studies class or thought about race critically are starting to talk about coded language, double standards, and affirmative action in different ways. I think I’d be the most thrilled if people that come to see this production are able to leave and have conversations about race that don’t fall into scripts of the appropriate ways to talk about it and can re-engage with it on a personal level. That’s, in some ways, what I hope comes out of this.”
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 and 1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury and directed by Eric Ting runs November 7 – December 2 at Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, New York, NY. For tickets and further info, visit www.sohorep.org.
About the Author
MARK ARMSTRONG is a Brooklyn-based theater artist and the Director of New Work for Off Broadway?s Keen Company.