To watch an actor in rehearsal is to be thrown into an intricate, complicated process. How does someone become someone different, acting on impulses and following a written line of thought and logic? Surely there must be more to acting than just saying lines.
PlayMakers Repertory Company's latest production, We are Proud To Present…, finds a group of actors exhausting themselves in discovering deeply rooted insecurities and passions as they rehearse a presentation on South West African genocide.
The entirety of the play's title describes the presentation: 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. The presentation will begin with an overview followed by a lecture followed by the actual presentation. Simple enough.
Beginning with the group's director (a subtle, restrained Caroline Strange) forgetting her notes, the actors attempt to present their work, which has been devised from letters sent by German soldiers who invaded Namibia and persecuted the Herero tribe, leading to a genocide of half of the population. The organized presentation unravels slowly as the sextet of actors question the authenticity of their source material; the two black actors (Myles Bullock and Genesis Oliver) wonder if it's really fair to only view history from the perspective of the oppressor. When the troupe abandons the source material, they are forced to rely on their own experiences and imaginations to fill in the blanks in an erased history of these people. This all builds to an intense climax that questions how far actors can immerse themselves in a role before it goes too far.
By forcing its characters to confront their own deeply rooted insecurities and prejudices, Jackie Sibblies Drury's script turns out to be something of a warning to anyone wanting to become an actor. Director Desdemona Chang, though, does not give this show the bleak, nihilistic tone the script sometimes presents. Instead, Chang crafts a pitch-dark valentine to acting that celebrates the strength and scope of the human spirit. Her own troupe of actors-playing-actors looked to be wrestling with their own thoughts throughout the entire show, when they were not wrestling with one another's. It was clear, the night I attended, that each actor of the fictional troupe was processing what was coming next. Fear of uncertainty and what each person was capable of was in everyone's eyes. But the show must go on, and it did for these actors with revealing, sometimes scary results.
In an unusual fashion, the stage of the Paul Green Theatre has been stripped to nearly nothing. Intricately detailed and aesthetically appealing sets are trademark for PlayMakers, which makes the contrast of Junghyun Georgia Lee's ground-level set, dressed modestly with multiple ladders, benches, and desks feel like an intimate rehearsal room.
Even though this production doesn't fashion the Paul Green Theatre with an eye-popping set, the performances from all of the actors filled the space in the play's most theatrical moments, such as during an impromptu hip-hop dance. When they weren't performing the presentation, it felt almost voyeuristic to watch such revealing behavior from the actors. These moments were accented by Porsche McGovern's lighting effects, which help the audience distinguish between when the actors are in rehearsal or in the presentation. Sometimes it is indistinguishable what is real and what is just "acting." Through this, Chiang's production becomes a thrilling homage to the power of theatrical storytelling that provokes discussion long after its unsettling final image.
We Are Proud to Present… continues through Sunday, March 13. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.