I left the Bush Theatre tonight quite convinced that I hadn’t enjoyed what I’d seen. It wasn’t just 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’s overly elaborate title that I found confusing and problematic. I thought Gbolahan Obisesan’s piece (hereafter known as We Are Proud you’ll be thankful to read) was a little tiresome and frustrating, a story of a group of actors in a rehearsal room gathered to uncover the truth regarding the first genocide of the twentieth century.
It slowly dawned on me on the tube that I was wrong to dismiss We Are Proud. It is a piece that you need to simmer, and return to after some thinking time, as acts which appear blunt on stage suddenly take on nuance and deeper meaning once they are dwelled upon. My principal instinct to reject the laughs presented to me over 90 minutes were replaced by a greater understanding of the thought and intricacy of the work, and the idea that perhaps I wasn’t meant to laugh in the first place.
Six actors are brought together to shed light on the genocide of the Herero people of Namibia, a shamefully anonymous episode of the world, and the West’s, history. They bicker and squabble (a bit too often perhaps – these faux arguments seem a little over-laboured…) about how best to inform the audience, about the black appropriationism on the part of the white actors, and what historical sources to draw from (history is written by the winners don’t forget, therefore expect heavy reliance on letters from the German soldiers that perpetuated these crimes).
We Are Proud flits between a number of highly interesting sociological concepts. Notably, the idea of universal black empathy, the notion that the black actors in the cast understand the plight of the Herero people through the simple shared experience of being black, (indeed, the racial inequality prevalent through all societies would lend merit to this argument), and on how soldiers can lose their individual consciousness when joining the army, and simply become a small cog submerged within the military machine: Joseph Arkley’s character White Man wouldn’t necessarily choose to shoot Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Black Man, yet he is ordered to by the powers-that-be. Also interesting is the deeply offensive idea that the Namibian genocide was ‘a rehearsal for the Holocaust – ‘it’s not a rehearsal if it really happened’ points out Isaac Ssebandeke’s Another Black Man – as if black lives and deaths are intrinsically worth less than their white counterparts.
It is the rehearsal-process structure of We Are Proud which is just as compelling as the story they are trying to create. All hot-seating and Stanislavski processes, the frayed tempers and exhausted routes into character help to explain just how and why the genocide is so difficult to translate onto stage. It also caters for a bit of down-time on the part of the audience, we are provided with much-needed head-space which insulates us just enough from the otherwise all-too horrendous true story. Yet, We Are Proud is cleverer than this; the lack of a curtain call means that there is no closure. We still need to reflect on the horrors of a none-too-distant history. We are not off the hook yet.
We Are Proud is playing at the Bush Theatre until 12 April. For more information and tickets, see the Bush Theatre website. Photo by Keith Pattison.