Genocide is seldom a welcome topic. Of course, our first thought is of the six million murdered by Nazis at the mention of the word. “WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION ABOUT THE HERERO OF NAMIBIA, FORMERLY KNOWN AS SOUTH WEST AFRICA, FROM THE GERMAN SUDWEST AFRIKA BETWEEN THE YEARS 1884-1915” by Jackie Sibblies Drury is a very ambitious take on genocide and theatre and acting and not acting and what constitutes a worthy topic. As confusing as that might seem, the title alone of Drury’s ninety minute exercise is equally problematic. Joseph Stern’s Matrix Theatre is a well established Ninety-nine seat venue on Melrose that has featured some dynamite productions in the past. Dynamite in the sense that the shows have been explosive, thought provoking and professionally presented. WE ARE PROUD falls short: it’s a bit like quicksilver: difficult to get a handle on.
Director Jillian Armenante, an old friend of Stern’s, has her hands full with six entirely different actors. If it was her intention to have each of these actors present as though they were not in the same production, she’s succeeded. This is a harsh criticism, in that there are moments when the ensemble is an ensemble in the best sense of the word. The problem, for me, is that any competent actor who pretends to be incompetent or is ‘acting at acting’ is just a nuisance. There is no curtain on John Iacovelli’s essence of rehearsal space set. I love the bare bones, the brick wall that becomes an opportunity for projections and chalked on chronology of the events of the Herero massacre: a holocaust before the well known one. Thousands of the Herero were murdered by the Germans; lost to antiquity now awkwardly brought to the stage.
Julanne Chidi Hill (Actor 6/Black Woman) announces that she is the ‘artistic director’ of this experiment. The experiment being an attempt by four men, two black: Joe Holt and Phil LaMarr and two white: John Sloan and Daniel Bess and the two women, one black and one white: Hill and Rebecca Mozo to create a piece for the theatre. The conceit rolls on to discuss horrific events of over a hundred years ago.
The issue of how to present the massacre of these obscure Native Africans in a dramatic way is a problem. The sticky wicket of how each actor, three white actors who have little relationship to black culture and three black actors who have a connection, but defining it beyond the color of their skin, may be met. Attempting to bring facts and evidence into an arena where there is little to go on is sticky. As in any acting exercise, it is much more fun and interesting for the process being discovered by the participants than for a hapless audience. The Sunday matinee audience was made up of twenty very diverse patrons. This set up an interesting dynamic vis a vis how African Americans relate to a stage production compared to how I react. When something is funny, laughter is a good thing. When the laughter explodes into hooting applause and banging on the seat in front of you because you relate to the line… that can be distracting. It brought me out of the play. However, had I been the director, I might have planted that kind of activity into the piece and exploited it beyond the fourth wall. Unhappily, this audience was just my bad luck of the draw for this particular performance.
Whether it’s fair to review the audience or not is a moot point. The point, for me, was that the technical aspects of this ‘exercise’ to discover the Herero genocide were excellent. Hill told the audience straight out that this was a “lecture” and it was. The dates logged in chalk on the upstage wall with the four directions chalked down, up, left and right: North, South, East and West worked just fine. The dramatization of some of the events that led to the eventual decimation of the peaceful Herero worked in a few instances, but mostly the actors were playing at being actors with agitprop props: devices that made the “improvisations” more interesting for the acting exercise than for what the play was attempting to say. Real emotions percolated to the surface toward the end of the full length one act, as certainly they do for actors working towards a difficult goal. The personalities of the actors playing actors are scripted to the conflicts and the intense moments leading to a terrifying climax may have worked better if we had known the actual actors by their names instead of their character names which were no names at all. Quicksilver.
The challenge of doing ‘important’ theatre is to draw the audience in. From the first line of this play, I was wishing that it was over. Hill’s feigned fumbled instructions regarding cell phones and where the exits were could have been a terrific introduction to the piece, but it became all about the artifice, the pretending, instead of about the horror of conflict and the virtual destruction of thousands of simple agrarian people who believed that keeping a fire constantly burning in the back yards of their homes would keep their ancestors with them always.
“WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION ABOUT THE HERERO OF NAMIBIA, FORMERLY KNOWN AS SOUTH WEST AFRICA, FROM THE GERMAN SUDWEST AFRIKA BETWEEN THE YEARS 1884-1915” by Jackie Sibblies Drury
The Matrix Theatre
7657 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Parking advisory: street parking available. Meters may be problematic
Thursdays through Sundays through August 11, 2013
323 852 1445