Oral histories are only as good as their sources. So the amateur actors researching the systematic extermination of the Herero tribe of Namibia by German colonial occupiers in and around 1907 have a crippling problem.
These well-meaning thespians, characters who live inside the intriguing new play at the Victory Gardens Theater, have got a bunch of letters from the German soldiers — the persecuted Herero having had neither the time nor the opportunity to write home for posterity. But as this little theater company puts its new company-devised "presentation" together, it comes to see that many of the letters are boring ("I miss you, sweetheart") and that all of them are a tad one-sided and light on any discussion of genocide. They think about making stuff up, but that would mean risking a Mike Daisey problem, not that these apparently naive actors would have heard of the monologuist who played it loose with the truth aboutApple Inc. And then there is the question of who has the right to play whom. There are white and African-American members of this company; none of them has ever been to Africa.
So does that mean that all the whites should be stuck playing the exterminating Germans? Some of the African-American actors certainly think so, even though the white actors say they find it almost impossible to get inside the heads of anyone would do such a thing to an entire people.
Those are very good questions, or course, and, aside from having the longest title in the known theatrical universe — "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" — this is a very stimulating and exciting piece of new writing. The gripping last 20 minutes are blistering good, enough to help one see past the work that still needs to be done on the script and the production.
Penned by Jackie Sibblies Drury and developed through the Victory Gardens Ignition Festival (which also launched "The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity"), this gutsy and substantial 90-minute play wades into some searingly crucial issues in culture and education, including who has the right to say they know a person, who controls the recording of history, how we tend to look at the horrors of the past through the prism of the horrors of the present, and even the effect on actors and audience of any play that deals with a mass extermination, an event that any piece of art must inevitably trivialize.
To a large extent, neither the script at this juncture, nor director Eric Ting's interesting but sometimes loose production, go far enough. The play's use of amateur actors — as distinct, say, from a professional or university-sponsored group more in mode of the Tectonic Theatre Project ("Laramie Project") — strikes me as something of a cop out. It allows for some easy laughs at naive folks, but also adds a problematic note of smug condescension, given the very self-aware and meta-aware nature of Sibblies Drury's actual play, which is very trendy and academic in its sophistication.
It does not help her point to allow her audience to feel so superior to these actors (or feel that the play is similarly superior). And even if one buys that choice, Sibblies Drury still skips over some very necessary details: Who are these actors? Why are they doing this? What theater group puts on a "presentation" rather than a show? Are these relative strangers or longtime colleagues? She seems to want it all ways: cartoonish actors when there is a need for humor and the scoring of points; more realistic characters when the script so demands. Truth is the better option here, yet time and again, you're pulled out of your engagement by a moment of disbelief.
Part of that is an issue with Ting's production — it's a passionate and varied staging with many visual pleasures attached and some really exquisite little physical details, but its edges are insufficiently sharp and it brushes too quickly past some moments of revelation, giving fine actors like Leah Karpel insufficient time. Ting has a strong, game-for-anything ensemble cast at his disposal (Bernard Balbot, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Tracey N. Bonner, Jake Cohen, Travis Turner join the raw Karpel), and when you believe the earnestness of these actors, when you see them as surrogates for ourselves, when you believe the patterns of behavior into which they inevitably slip, as we all slip, the play develops an organic kind of force.
This is a very promising new play about race, history and the demons we're apparently unable to banish; it is precisely the kind of new work Victory Gardens should be developing. But Tang and Sibblies Drury have yet to show us they have every inch of their own skin in the game.
When: Through April 29
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Tickets: $20-$50 at 773-871-3000 or victorygardens.org