There are two intense productions onstage in Boston right now–the first is an eye-opening, “in your face” piece of theater by that frisky but serious COMPANY ONE, now doing its first show at Arts Emerson’s Paramount Black Box. “WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT….” tells the story of the first genocide of the 20th century, the annihilation of the Herero people by the Germans who colonized what is now Namibia between 1884- 1915 and named it German Southwest Africa. It was a shock to me to learn of this holocaust which clearly prefigures a later genocide by the Germans, that of the Jews in Europe, and fills in the history of Africa re-iterating the corrosive effects of colonization on that continent and its people.
The play by Jackie Sibblies Drury and this production directed by Summer L. Williams takes place in a huge, wide open, naked rehearsal space, the audience scattered about the perimeter in folding chairs; it feels like anything can happen –and does. It’s life and death and imagination and questioning, and we are left on edge together, audience and actors, exploring the story, its meaning, and repercussions. The show takes the form of a lecture, an overview, a presentation, and eventually a play within a play as a group of young actors “workshop” the story, improvising in order to figure out how best to tell the truth. There are white and black actors, two women and four men who role-play in order to get at the truth. And that’s the nugget– WHAT IS THE TRUTH?
All the players have to go on are the words in a batch of benign love letters written by a German soldier stationed in Africa to his sweetheart back home, and the concurrent facts of what happened. So, what is history? Suppose that history has been suppressed–how then do we fill in the blanks and come to know and understand it? Can we rely on our empathy, our humanity to guide us? How much is fair to imagine? Does theater play a role in helping us bridge that chasm? Is it the lie that tells the truth?
The show starts slowly and feels a tad gimmicky at first, but gradually, something really powerful gets going until the production erupts in a potent psychic and emotional cataclysm that leaves us stranded with our own prejudices. What’s real? What isn’t? How much does our past affect us? How deeply are we wired to our lineage–consciously and unconsciously? And what is its impact on the roles we play in our culture now? WHO ARE WE?
It’s heady stuff, and this production audaciously tackles it all. Prepare to be uncomfortable. “WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT” only through FEB 1/ The Jackie Liebergott Black Box at the Emerson/Paramount Center.
The mood is no lighter over at the NEW REP in Watertown, but THE WHIPPING MAN is also well worth the pain. This movingly acted, well directed (Benny Sato Ambush), and beautifully designed (Janie E. Howland) New England premiere by Matthew Lopez, tells an unusual tale, a concatenation of tragedies, if you will. Set at the conclusion of the Civil War, a confederate Jewish soldier returns to discover that his home has been destroyed, but his two slaves, now free– both raised as Jews(!)– are still there. Together the three attempt to have a Passover Seder assembled from the scraps of what remains. In the course of this ritual, painful truths are revealed, and the meaning of freedom is amplified.
Certainly the irony of a Jew enslaving anybody is theatrically rich. A Passover Seder commemorating the release of the Jews from captivity in Egypt and its parallel in “Father Abraham” Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves in the new world is just the beginning. The notion of what it means to be free, what has been and needs to be sacrificed, and how slaverholders and those they enslave are inextricably entwined are pretty literally explored here.
But the play is primarily compelling because of its fully committed, emotional, and resonant performances. Jesse Hinson as Caleb the returning, wounded soldier is flawed yet sympathetic as he struggles to find his place in the new social order. It’s a tricky role that Hinson makes deeply engaging. Likewise Keith Mascoll as John a rascal of a character, a former slave who has been continually abused and in trouble and is clearly vulnerable beneath his swagger. And then there’s the astonishing Johnny Lee Davenport, who brings yet another nuanced performance to a solid repertoire of powerful, good men laid low by circumstance, but who loom large by virtue of their abiding humanity. Davenport never allows his character– the forbearing Simon– to lapse into sentimentality, but keeps a strong hold on his dignity and his rage as he comes to grips with the mighty truth.
See THE WHIPPING MAN at the New Repertory Theatre through February 16!