Berkeley play “We Are Proud to Present” tackles race, genocide

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“No one wants to hear the ‘white version’ of this story,” says a voice echoing through the tension-filled stage, referring to the atrocities of a little-known genocide that occurred in the early days of the 20th century.

In Just Theater’s production of “We Are Proud to Present…” playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury introduces the cast of six members, “three black and three white,” in an attempt to give insight into the people and the struggles within the Herero of Namibia in Africa. While doing so, Drury creates a striking and provocative piece on race and the sensitive barriers that still persist in contemporary America.

The play opens with introductions of the cast and then briefs the audience on the heavy historical plot. The show transcends feeling like a rehearsal and becomes a work-in-progress production; leering improvisations from each actor don’t feel scripted as they share ideas on how to narrate a genocide made by the German settlers on the Herero tribe.

Generic names are given to the characters, such as  “White Man” (Lucas Hatton), “Black Man” (David Moore), “Another White Man” (Patrick Kelly Jones), “Another Black Man” (Rotimi Agbabiaka) and “Black Woman” (Kehinde Koyejo). With an exception of Sarah (Megan Trout), the cast is nameless, making their struggles somehow seem universal. Sarah struggles to attain an identity amid all of these characters; she’s neither black nor given any background on her German character, so in this context the only named character is suddenly a colorless mystery. In the process, the cast delivers a challenging and thought provoking piece on racial relations and sensitivities.

The cast embraces the very awkward and tense moments that ensue in a multicultural, modern day world. The narrative revolves around the little arguments between actors that grow into larger questions on race and ethics. Boundaries are pushed as the characters tip-toe around their racial differences, while every subtle remark is questioned. Is it a benign remark, or a malicious attack? These are the questions the characters must ask themselves.

“You’re saying I’m not black enough?” booms Moore’s voice, silencing the laughter-ridden audience as the tension solidifies on a stage full of characters who have turned against each other. Moore’s “Black Man” delivers a versatile performance, somehow managing to quiet audience laughter while also provoking it in subsequent scenes. His character fights for what he feels is an appropriate mode of storytelling — African history told by African Americans. His performance has a very personal feel, providing insight on a part of humanity which he feels he can relate to. Heritage and ancestry settle as his and other cast members’ source of identity, but even that source remains questioned as the characters examine the reasoning behind its importance.

Can 21st century black Americans relate to a genocide distant from their current home and history? The cast asks this question with the privilege that they attain. The play runs as a series of uncomfortable conversations that come across more like biting arguments between diverse communities, but the soul and the heart of the play remains strong.

Although the actors — sometimes without intention — speak in an incredibly frank manner with one another, humor tends to save these moments, but only temporarily. Even with plenty of lightheartedness filling the room, awkward laughter at flippant remarks between characters keeps the audience slightly and intentionally uncomfortable. The stage becomes an all too real battleground. The conversations which made audiences feel uneasy are lighthearted banter compared to the drama and tension within the play’s final scene.

By the time the lights dim, “We Are Proud to Present” remains thought provoking in its execution, profoundly telling a distant story that has sentiments which hit close to home. The acting may be good, but it’s the subjects of race, ethnic barriers and identity that truly take the stage.

“We Are Proud to Present” will be playing until March 7 on Ashby Stage

Contact Melanie Jimenez at [email protected].