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Extermination lite

We Are Proud to Present . . . doesn’t do justice to its horrific subject

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This is supposed to be a season for expansiveness. For conciliation and transcendence. Easter comes to show us we can all conquer death. On Passover we're all slaves crossing over to freedom. Nobody wants to be a Pilate or a pharaoh. Not just now.

But, of course, the urge to crucify and enslave won't be denied. And when the organizational talent is there, neither will the urge to exterminate. Although coy, cloying, and too clever by half, Jackie Sibblies Drury's play with the (coy, cloying, too clever) 25-word title—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—at least supplies a corrective to the general mood of false hope, reminding us that if we can rediscover the noblest aspects of our humanity at church or around the seder table, we can also forget our differences long enough to get together and commit some atrocities.

And Drury has found a great historical meat hook on which to hang her case: the little-remembered genocide against indigenous peoples in what's now Namibia, carried out by imperial Germany during the first years of the 20th century.

Germany declared sovereignty over that diamond-rich territory in 1884. It was mainly occupied by members of the Herero and Nama tribes at the time, and the Germans started abusing these cattle herders right away, playing them off one another, exploiting their labor, and enacting laws that took advantage of their ignorance of concepts like "private property" to put more and more land in imperial hands.

Not that the natives didn't get wise. Both tribes raised rebellions, and the Herero actually held the advantage at one point during theirs. But Germany sent Lothar von Trotha down with thousands of troops. He beat the Herero at the battle of Waterberg, forcing them into the eastern desert, where he saw to it that they were denied access to food and water. When they dropped, he had them killed. He established slave labor camps, as well as a death camp called Shark Island. And he issued his Vernichtungsbefehl—"extermination order"—which said, in part, "Any Herero found inside the German frontier . . . will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them." He did pretty much the same to the Nama. Estimates of the total dead range up to around 110,000.

The parallels to the Nazi Holocaust are obvious. It's as if von Trotha had been sent out to workshop techniques that would later be applied on an industrial level. (Indeed, the Nazis named a street for him as soon as they came to power.) The genocide in Sudwestafrika provides proof, if proof were necessary, that annihilation-as-policy isn't an aberration but a motif of history.

Drury aims to make serious use of this horror but goes about it in the oddest way possible. We Are Proud to Present starts cute with an "overview" of German colonial rule in Africa, supplied by six fresh-faced young actors whose leader assures us that what we're about to experience is "not a lecture lecture. We made it fun. Ish." In Eric Ting's world-premiere staging for Victory Gardens Theater, that means they do a lot of high-energy, precision mugging and choral declamation ("Afrikaans!" says one, "Afrikaans!" say all). Why, I don't know. They don't seem stupid or oafish, yet they've somehow decided that a chronicle involving thousands of deaths should be performed as if it were introducing a new letter on Sesame Street.

Then comes a change. The scene shifts abruptly to a meeting of the same ensemble, at which they're trying to develop a theater piece based on the events they've just reviewed for us. The group breaks down neatly along racial and gender lines (two black men and a black woman, two white men and a white woman), and each member fills out a clear theatrical type (bossy girl, frustrated character actor, etc.). Since the only first-person documentation they've got is letters written home by German soldiers, they find themselves doing scenes centered on the tender feelings and day-to-day tribulations of uniformed murderers. Naturally, the black ensemble members start calling bullshit. The attempt to right the imbalance builds quickly to a moment of hysteria out of Lord of the Flies, when these seemingly amiable souls find out what it might be like to forget their differences and commit an atrocity.

It's a powerful passage, sharply orchestrated by Ting. But it's also contrived and ultimately empty—as arbitrary in its way as the overview segment. Built out of mechanisms rather than realities, it seems to get where it's going because that's where Drury determined it should go, not because she followed it there. We Are Proud to Present carries the scent of significance because it deals in significant materials. But this is basically a showcase play, written by talented, canny young artist to demonstrate how well she can deploy her skills.

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