Toronto’s Theatre Centre’s play We Are Proud to Present … pushes boundaries, unsettles
I’ve just returned from seeing Why Not Theatre‘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, playing at The Theatre Centre.
It’s a story about a group of actors uncovering truths about the Namibian genocide – and themselves – during stage rehearsals. Over two hours later and I’m still processing what I saw and heard. And I mean that in a good way.
I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like this show before. It was largely delivered as a rehearsal that we the audience were observing, complete with bright lighting, limited costuming, and a very informal, messy stage.
Initially, I found the flitting back and forth between “acting” and “rehearsing” slightly bothersome. But once I discovered (what I think was) the reason for it – to get at the root of the actors’ biases, and illuminate the ways in which racism and privilege are still hyper-present today – it became one of my favourite aspects of the show.
This method also allowed the Black Man character to continuously call out the other actors’ – White Man, Other White Man, and White Woman – inappropriate liberties in portraying Black and African characters. I feel like it allowed a dialogue about race – and who gets to claim which identities as their own – that may have seemed unnatural in a more traditional setting.
That’s not to say those white actors’ portrayals weren’t hilarious. They were, but in a joke’s-on-you way. The show started off with laugh after laugh then very suddenly changed into dark, sad, fraught territory. Just when it started to be fun, we were reminded that this was about the slaughter of the Herero by the Germans. That contrast was jarring, and I loved it.
Around this point, I started to feel ashamed and uncomfortable. Ashamed because I’d never heard of the Namibian genocide. Uncomfortable because of the emotions I was feeling – and exhibiting – in public. I suspect the discomfort was intentional, and as I scanned the well-lit audience, I’m fairly certain I wasn’t alone in feeling that way.
Having my emotional boundaries pushed, and feeling discomfort – especially around issues of racism and my own privilege – are things I most often welcome, and it was very welcome tonight. At times, it felt like they were reading my mind, and speaking the thoughts I was thinking.
I found the cast – led by the brilliant and talented Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, aka “Black Woman” – incredible: Giving, energetic, varied, funny, and nuanced. I loved that a powerful Black woman was the unofficial leader of the group – and that her unknown ancestry was a catalyst for the story.
When I asked my theatre companion what her favourite part was, she remarked that it was the intense emotions, and the dramatic contrast between humour and horror. For me, it was being educated about an atrocity I’d never heard of.
Our least favourite part was the way the show ended. I don’t want to give it away, but I will say it was – in my experience – unheard of. We both felt it lacked closure, though I suspect that may have been deliberate.
I also feel there was a deeper message in the ending, namely: the white actors, like all white folks, get to just walk away from the realities of racism and slavery. The Black actors can not, because these violent legacies endure to this day.
Overall we both really enjoyed this show, and found ourselves discussing and unravelling layer upon layer over dinner afterwards. I found it intense, real, violent, funny, jarring, enlightening, and very unique in its style. I’m so happy I went to see it, got to sit with the discomfort, and confronted it.
There is so much more that I could say about symbolism, lighting, singing, and more. Instead I’ll just gently suggest: go see it.
- 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 is playing until November 29, 2015 at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St. W.)
- See website for showtimes
- Ticket prices range from $17 – $30, and are available online, or through the box office at 416-538-0988
- Content warning: anti-Black language and violence
- Note: use of matches, candles, and loud noises
Photo of Marcel Stewart by Dahlia Katz