Courtesy of Nina Goodheart
Despite the Dramat’s recent plunge into the manicured opulence of its Fall Mainstage’s shiny wigs and busy dance numbers, “We Are Proud to Present … ” serves as the Yale theater community’s more authentic wild child.
The Spring Mainstage finds its power not only in a set populated with makeshift lights and furniture mimicking the perfect rehearsal room, but in the smooth development of a plot and characters that one never seems to expect. The show, fully titled “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915,” is most simply the imagining of an acting ensemble and its efforts to devise a performance about the world’s first modern genocide. What seems like an antithetical brother of the Dramat’s fall production draws strength from its lack of grandeur: there are six actors, all of them dressed plainly, and while the set may be ostentatious as a whole it is made up of only understandably negligible parts (a sheet music stand holds a clip-on lamp to act as focused lighting on the characters for the entirety of the play). The austerity of the production, however, is rivalled by the sheer commitment seen in the stunning ensemble of actors and what may be the most intelligent direction seen in a production this year.
The Yale University Theatre is not packed by 9 p.m. when the play is set to start, but behind a white screen, one can see the actors chat and giggle like the stage is part of some BBC “Behind the Scenes” documentary. The scene, though it may be staged, reflects reality so well that it is easy to forget that it is probably planned. There is an introduction consisting of the fire notice, content advisory and special effects warning, delivered by an amicable young lady, but the notice, it seems, is part of the play: five of the actors line up on one side of the screen while the sixth announces that they are going to start today with her small introduction, followed by an overview and then the presentation. It is made clear to the audience that no character is explicitly named: there is Black Woman played by Mikayla Harris ’17, White Man by Paul Gross ’20, Black Man by Branson Rideaux ’20, Another White Man by Isaac Scobey-Thal ’19, Another Black Man by Nick Brooks ’17 and the later-named Sarah by Molly Montgomery ’19. Everything at this point is open to skepticism and the play’s self-referencing within self-referencing almost seems like it will get old too soon. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
The overview is a historical retelling done through an intelligent, vivid and masterfully fast-paced shadow-projection that details the events of German colonialism in Namibia. As the phenomenally executed overview comes to a close, the actors of the ensemble inquire whether there is any need to ‘present’ the story after the overview since their only factual sources are the letters sent home by various German soldiers. In between the free-flowing and tenuously choreographed montage-like scenes recreating the contents of these letters, Rideaux delivers the show’s first charged dialogue: “Are we just going to sit here and watch some white people fall in love all day?”
This is when the production takes off and becomes the rollercoaster ride of simultaneous delight and uneasy but authentic pain. Though the contextualization and plot growth may tire the casual viewer, the little oddities and arguments between the characters develop until a point of eruption that brings the play to its climax. All the characters seem new, awry and easily dislikeable, but something in this stripped representation of reality makes them all incredibly believable. Growing tensions are represented by intense cut-scenes assisted by step dance moves that make stomping and clapping a routine part of most of the dramatic scenes of the play. There is marching, a little bit of rapping by Gross, strenuous, gut-wrenching and still somehow hilarious belting by Montgomery and plot schemes that never for a second let the production go stale. There are many scenes that use conversational cacophonies to their advantage but while some are recreations of daily crowd behavior, others use this dramatic technique to bring the lighthearted nature of the production to a halt. In these stellar maneuverings of directorial innovation, the play wavers between sublime comedy and incisive criticism on discrimination, representation and privilege. In the end, the play does best when it reminds the audience of the power and agency of the privileged narrative. If there was a weakness to the production, it rests only in how quickly and inconclusively the last scene ends, with a torn up Brooks left to hold the burden of an anticipating, unsure audience. But perhaps that was the point.
On that note, it is best to restate that the sheer brilliance and artistic integrity of the play lies in the skills and commitment the cast brought to the table. Harris’s performance as Black Woman is spectacular: she surprises the audience with a convincing yet genuinely unanticipated emotional evocation. Gross, Rideaux and Scobey-Thal deliver similarly honest performances where their characters are easy to despise but understand at the same time. Gross plays the unaffected, well-intentioned but “logic-driven” white man unafraid to be the devil’s advocate while falling victim to that same ideology’s privilege. Rideaux is never not on his A-game; his reactions off-focus are stunningly in character and each time he is angry, it seems almost offensive that any words of obvious provocation were ever allowed. Scobey-Thal’s know-it-all is so ridiculously accurate that everyone in the audience feels a primitive need to punch him in the face. Both Brooks and Montgomery are effortless in their portrayals, gracefully weaving different plot points together.
“We Are Proud to Present … ” is everything its Mainstage predecessor was not, but mostly it is an affirmation that a well-written script can use the avant-garde to its advantage, without hiding behind abstraction. The cast and director present this grandeur with pride.