This past semester I needed to fulfill my honors requirements by completing 3 s.h. of honors credit. I wasn’t in any honors classes, so I did this by contracting a creative writing class focused on time, by designing an additional curriculum of nine plays that I would read and respond to—all of them dealing with time in some way. Thus, Play Time—nine essays analyzing specific plays, pulling apart the way the playwrights are using the medium of theatre to manipulate or comment on or distort or theorize about time. The idea isn’t so much to definitively state What X Play is About, but more to point out what I find interesting in the play, and figure out how the artist—or how theatre as a medium—achieved it. This first post is on We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury, and I promise I will only use the abbreviation of that title from here on out.
We Are Proud to Present is a play about six actors putting together a theatrical presentation detailing the history of Namibia as a German colony, and the genocide of the Herero people. The play is as much focused on the conquest, exploitation, and extermination of the peoples of Namibia as it is on how the actors are portraying it, how they are trying to relate to it, how theatre operates as a medium, and how to tell the history of a people who were almost completely wiped out.
The play (that is, the theatrical work written by Drury) portrays this presentation (that is, the theatrical work performed by the characters in the play) from start to finish in chronological order, though it switches back and forth between “The Presentation” and “The Process” (7). Each scene is labeled as one of the two. “The Presentation” is an actual performance of the presentation, and “The Process” is a rehearsal of it (presumably early on in the production.) So while the audience (that is, an actual real world audience) is seeing the presentation about the Herero of Namibia from start to finish, they are also seeing the actors themselves in two different moments in time. This structure accomplishes a few things.
First, it’s an efficient way to show both the creation of the show and the show itself. The play could’ve been divided into two acts, the first The Process and the second The Presentation, but by interweaving the two into one continuous action, Drury can avoid repetition, and just show the most important pieces of each strand.
Second, it makes it very clear how The Process is being expressed in The Presentation. For example, at one point during rehearsal, the actors are doing an exercise, and Actor 3 is acting as Actor 6’s grandma:
“(ACTOR 3 smacks ACTOR 4 with his prop on each “Tell.”)
“ACTOR 3 (as Grandma): Tell me that you didn’t eat that cornbread. …
“Tell me that you didn’t eat that corner piece of cornbread.
“I don’t need you to Tell me that you ate that corner piece of cornbread.
“I can Tell the corner piece is missing so Tell me that you ate it.
“Tell me.” (58)
Later on, during the actual performance, the audience sees how the actors have repurposed this theatrical device for a completely different scene, with completely different implications:
“(ANOTHER WHITE MAN lands blows on BLACK MAN on each “Tell.”)
“ANOTHER WHITE MAN: Tell the man you broke the law …
“Tell the man you were gonna kill me.
“I don’t need you to Tell me that you were gonna kill me.
“I can Tell you wanted to kill me, so Tell the man.
“Tell him.” (102)
There are echoes, recurrences, like this all throughout the play, and by presenting the rehearsal and the performance in such close proximity Drury examines how the most contentious, the most bizarre, or the most seemingly useless ideas generated during rehearsal are reshaped, retooled, and evolved to express something in the presentation.
Overall, the intertwining of these two threads shows how Process and Presentation are always in conversation, and how the Presentation is still a part of the Process. As the play reaches its climax, it becomes unclear whether the actors are rehearsing by themselves or performing for an audience, with the final scene labeled “Processtation” (97). The actors are all still trying to process, and work out how to express this tragic episode of history, even in its rehearsed, presented form. Although they may be separated in time, Process and Presentation are in fact simultaneous components of one unbroken continuum.
The Tempo of History
When I said the presentation is presented chronologically, that wasn’t entirely accurate. The presentation is presented in the order that an audience (that is, an audience within the world of the play) would see it, but the presentation itself is not perfectly linear. It begins with an overview, a rapid summarization of each year of German South West Africa from 1884-1915. The overview utilizes a simple formula—Actor 6 announces the year, the other actors recite one or two key events, or express the overall sentiment of a certain demographic group, and then Actor 6 announces the next year. This creates a consistent rhythm—a tempo. Each year lasts two to four lines. And with this tempo established, Drury can explore how history is processed, communicated, and perceived.
The best example of Drury staging different perceptions of history is the history of the railroad. Starting in 1895, the Germans begin construction of a railroad. Actors 1 and 3 are white, and represent the Germans. Actor 2 is black, and represents the indigenous people of Namibia.
“ACTOR 6: 1896.
“ACTOR 1: We are building that railroad.
“ACTOR 3: We are building that railroad.
“ACTOR 2: We are building that railroad.
“ACTOR 6: 1897.
“ACTOR 1: We are failing.
“ACTOR 3: We are failing.
“ACTOR 2: We are building that railroad.
“ACTOR 6: 1898.
“ACTOR 1: We are really failing.
“ACTOR 3: Not good.
“ACTOR 2: We are building that railroad.
“ACTOR 6: 1899.
“ACTOR 1: We are fucked.
“ACTOR 3: So fucked.
“ACTOR 2: We are building that fucking railroad.” (18-19)
This portrayal of history shows how history can occur at a different pace for different groups. While the Germans are changing their reaction to the situation with each year, the African laborers building the railroad say (mostly) the same thing each time. History for them does not describe an arc in this time period, it is just a flat line as year in and year out they are performing the same labor. The consistent tempo underscores that, regardless of how the narrative is framed after the fact around those in power, the less powerful are still stuck doing the actual work propelling history forward.
Later during the overview, repetition is used to different effect. In 1904, the genocide of the Herero began, so from 1905 through 1908, the phrase, “The General Issues The Extermination Order” is repeated every year (20-21). The constant rhythm makes this phrase sound like death knell. Even though the extermination order was only issued one time in 1905, its repercussions are echoing through the years, inescapable, unending.
The final twist on the Overview begins with 1908. Actor 6 announces that “Eighty percent of the Herero have been Exterminated,” (21) and after a few more lines of summary, reads out each year from 1909 to 1915. None of the other actors recite lines during these years, and in the script, although there is no punctuation and it is all part of Actor 6’s announcement, each year is followed by a skipped line. After this frantic, high energy, persistent drumbeat of historical points and societal sentiments, the silence is incredibly pronounced. With eight in ten Herero dead, their voices, and their history, have been silenced, and Drury places great weight on this by contrasting the years following the genocide so heavily with the years preceding it.
Drury’s exploration of time is twofold in this play—there is the timeline of a theatrical production, which she plays with by alternating between Process and Presentation, and there is the timeline of history, which she deals with throughout the whole work (though I chose to analyze one specific instance of it with the “overview.”) The play is both an examination of these things, and the things themselves. The conversation between rehearsal and performance started within this play will continue into actual productions, as will the conversations surrounding the portrayal of history. What is so engaging about this play is the fact that it is constantly in dialogue with the reader or audience—in fact, the stage directions themselves are full of attitude, and often ask questions (for example, “ACTOR 3 becomes Grandma. Not OK. But … pretty good?” .) The play expresses the ping pong nature of history, the way it affects the present and the present affects it, and the plurality of it, and it extends this conversation out to the audience to be carried on after the curtain has fallen.