(Photo: Julieta Cervantes. Pictured: Lauren Blumenfeld, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Phillip James Brannon, Grantham Coleman)
How going back to the drawing board with a tough playwriting challenge gave Jackie Sibblies Drury the shape of her form-breaking play, “We Are Proud To Present a Presentation…”
A giddily nervous Jackie Sibblies Drury dodges from the rain into the Le Pain café in Soho only an hour before curtain of 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 (running at Soho Rep through Dec. 16th). She hasn’t seen her play-baby in a week, and this production proves to be particularly nerve-wracking for her, as the audience is positioned around the actors to see and be seen.
“Audience members who recognize me will often look my way to catch my reaction,” Drury says. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
The current production is dually set in a rehearsal room and onstage, continually bouncing between the two. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that the play was originally staged in a 400-seat proscenium, as it was for its first run at Chicago’s Victory Gardens, because at Soho Rep, the audience seems as much a part of the rehearsal room as the actors. Drury describes the Chicago production as “having the opposite effect—the ‘onstage’ scenes were presented more to the audience, where the rehearsal scenes were distanced by the fourth wall.”
Director Eric Ting’s choice to situate the audience into the action of the play can be read as a metaphor for the process of theatre-making—an art where stories are told in infinite forms and genres. The spectators are allowed agency by choosing their own seat, determining their particular angle into the play, in much the way a playwright and director are bombarded with choices while creating—and not just aesthetic choices.
The playwright has perhaps the most challenging task of all, as the ethics of theatricalizing another’s story are difficultly sensitive. How do artists accurately reimagine narratives with the limited perspective of their individual experience, within and apart from their community? How are trauma and memory reenacted when the actual happening is unspeakable? And lastly, can the artist faithfully rely on history and already available narratives of trauma, biased or not?
On this matter, Drury warns, “It’s important to always be self-reflective and respectful—and to include multiple perspectives when playwriting.” She learned this the hard way during her years as a graduate student at Brown. “I felt unable to authentically talk to the subject. My first draft was terrible and embarrassing because I felt ill-equipped. There wasn’t even an American presence. I basically trashed the whole thing after the first workshop!”
While many playwrights might have easily felt defeated, Drury used the experience as a learning curve—using her own rewriting process as inspiration for the framework of revision that gives the play its shape. Still committed to telling the story of the mass genocide of the Herero tribe of Namibia by German imperialists, she directed her focus to the near impossibility of doing so—a hurdle she had faced herself.
Drury continues, “I became more interested in the failures of everyday actors and theatre-makers due to the inaccessibility of research.” She was humbly aware of her privileged access to resources while compiling dramaturgical data for the play. She jokingly pointed out how Wikipedia has become one of the primary sources for most actors (not that they’re alone in this). But even the rare archives she sifted through at the University of Chicago’s library were unreliable, as they consisted mainly of German propaganda and one-sided information.
Indeed, the Soho Rep production of We Are Proud calls attention to how inescapable we are from ourselves. Embodying another is hard work—and so is empathizing with another from the audience.
Sydney Arndt is a New York City-based arts journalist, director, dramaturg, and performer. She is currently a Performance Studies graduate student at Tisch NYU—focusing on theatre as activism, resistance, and empowerment (especially for women). Sydney was also the editorial intern for American Theatre magazine during the fall of 2012. If interested, you can reach her at SydneyNArndt@gmail.com for inquiries.