Jackie Sibblies Drury’s extraordinary We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915 gives the term false start a good name. Quincy Tyler Bernstine, reading nervously from note cards, gives an introduction that (if delivered) will act as a preamble to a promised presentation. She apologizes; the company’s trusty PowerPoint on German atrocities may not work (Lauren Blumenfeld shamefacedly adjusts a slide). Yet somehow, together with Black Man (Grantham Coleman), White Man (Erin Gann), Other White Man (Jimmy Davis) and Other Black Man (Phillip James Brannon), this funny, fractious little ensemble will show us a century-old horror, as well as one closer to home.
Soho Rep has been brilliantly undesigned: Mimi Lien converts the theater into a messy rehearsal room, since after the choreographed preamble, things revert to the devising process. Anxieties simmer; working from soldiers’ letters means using white colonizers’ words while trying to talk about an African holocaust. Who owns this story? Or any of them? Race flips from punch line to jawbreaker in almost every moment. Should Davis play Bernstine’s black grandmother? As the stage directions say: “Not okay.” But it’s a hilarious “not okay”; the actors crack up, silliness only souring at the last moment.
The very outer, metatheatrical layer of We Are Proud’s nesting structure succeeds most entirely. Director Eric Ting and the company turn history into Schoolhouse Rock for the genocidally aware. Once we’re in the thick of naturalistic practice-room bickering, though, occasional accelerations into heightened emotion can stumble—the first cracks in the superb performers’ virtuosity. Then, abruptly, the action gets very efficient and horrifying and clear again. It shocks, but it shouldn’t: It is a rehearsal of history after all.—Helen Shaw