We enter a stark, oblong rehearsal space immediately behind the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theater in the Paramount Center at Emerson College. Our chairs are arranged around the perimeter, horseshoe-style, with the center space empty, save a few props. We’re there to see Company One-ArtsEmerson’s much heralded, co-production of Jackie Sibblees Drury’s one-act play with the incredibly long title, “We Are Proud to Present A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915”.
An actor circulates among us, handing out colorful brochures, not programs. (Those were given when we exited the theater). The brochures are important timelines, much like the two large, white information boards the cast uses for reference as they strategize a game plan on how to present this play-within-a-play.
Drury’s unusual play, listed among the New York Times’ top 10 plays of 2012, isn’t so much about the horrific German colonization and little-known genocide of the Herero tribe of Southwest Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s more about the profound effect its little-documented information has on its vibrant, talented cast of six as they strategize how to portray it. Their emotions escalate, producing a haunting effect on every member in the audience.
The play starts off lighthearted, as the cast huddles on the sideline, arms and heads intertwined, anxiously waiting to embark on this new presentation.They have no names. Instead, Elle Borders is identified as Actor 6/Black Woman, around whom the action pivots.Brandon Green is Actor 2/Black Man; Marc Pierre, Actor 4/Another Black Man; Jesse James Wood, Actor 1/White Man;,Joseph Kidawski, Actor3/Another White Man; and Lorne Batman is Actor5/Sarah, a German soldier’s sweetheart and object of his letter-writing back home, describing his stint in colonizing - terrorizing and eliminating - the Herero tribe, as they force them into the desert while the Germans usurp their land. Under the compelling direction of Company One’s Summer Williams, this cast delivers an electrifying, sometimes explosive presentation. The moody sea change during their planning occurs abruptly, as individual actors become swept up in their own politics and emotions.
The sole proof of the 20th century’s earliest genocide is those letters to Sarah, and historic events occurring in the US and Namibia, which they have documented on those large white boards as their guideline.
Jason Ries’ sparse set is designed to be all-encompassing, as the actors move among us, nearby, their eye contact and individual encounters ranging from brief, fun, and impromptu, to increasingly intensifying and soul-searching. Unfortunately, much action occurs on the floor, leaving some theatergoers unable to see key scenes. The first half-hour of the play seems frivolous, almost unnecessary, during the group’s banter and lighthearted suggestions and disagreements, but serves as a startling contrast to its silent, introspective conclusion.
Postscript here - The real subject is so gut-wrenching, I hope Drury will research it further and write a play depicting this cruel, inhuman history. It’s a tale that must be told and never forgotten.
BOX INFO:ArtsEmerson and Company One co-production of the New England premiere of Jackie Sibblees Drury’s one-act, 90-minute, play-within-a-play, appearing at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theater, Paramount Center at Emerson College, 559 Washington St., Boston. Recommended for audiences 14+ years old. Performances through Feb. 1: Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday,4,8 p.m. Information, tickets: call 617-824-8400, visit artsemerson.org, or www.companyone.org.