Theatre Review: Available Light’s We are Proud to Present…
After witnessing Available Light Theatre’s We are Proud to Present…, the audience kind of just sits there for a moment, unable to move, as though punched directly in the stomach. I thought about this for a while for I felt unsure what to write. This play leaves the audience with everything to say, yet no one speaks because there is nothing to say. The show ends with about three minutes of silence that pulse with every emotion yet remain a deafening quiet because no words work. Words no longer exist.
Properly titled 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, the show takes an idea — a presentation about, well what the title says, and gives a group of actors freedom to present it. That is, the AVLT actors portray actors endeavoring quite a unique project. For starters, few plays consist of pure devising, improving, artistic conversations, and “play” to tell the tale. This show consists of approximately 100 minutes of watching actors work. Secondly, nobody talks about this. In fact, the playwright, Jackie Sibblies Drury, never knew of the subject until she stubbled upon it while researching something else entirely. For a bit more context and an interesting read, see this interview with the playwright.
The show begins as a group of six actors steps onstage and nervously yet delightedly introduce the presentation. They then break down their roles by race to help facilitate the acting in the presentation. Ben Jones and David Glover portray actors playing Black Man and Another Black Man respectively, while Jordan Fehr and Matt Hermes do the same with White Man and Another White Man. Acacia Leigh Duncan takes on the white woman/other category (she plays a mean cow). Shanelle Marie captivates in the leader role of the ensemble and plays Black Woman. Throughout their telling, tempers fly as the actors struggle to tell and act out the tale of something (a genocide) that remain so foreign to them.
The pacing is impeccable. This show ranges from rapid-fire spurts to careful moments of calm, creating an exquisite and real ride. Audiences see and feel the work the ensemble and director Matt Slaybaugh did to bring this show to life. They create an enthralling show that proves difficult to watch yet stunning.
While watching, especially early on in the production, I realized the fascinating situation the playwright devised. These six actors represent an ensemble that, presumably, existed before this presentation. I doubt they came together solely for this presentation. Interestingly enough, the six actors represented in We are Proud to Present do not typically coexist in a theatrical ensemble. The man devoted to African roots and culture rarely works with a Caucasian man and white theaters usually only use African American actors when their race remain necessary for the play. We see this all the time in theater and film. Black theater is a genre of theater, and black theater companies exist. So do white ones, but no one calls them that. Those are just theater companies. Sure, some actors of both races float between both, but, for the most part, it seems that they remain fairly segregated.
We’ve all seen “racism” or race plays before. This happens on a yearly basis. It remains an important subject in a post-race society… on and on, but nothing changes. Events happen in the real world. Sparks fly; debate ensues. Nothing changes. In the ashes of these media storms, people sit up feeling angry, confused, guilty, and a myriad of other emotions, but where do we go? What do we do?
This play makes no attempt to answer any questions, and I love that. No one has the answers anyway. It simply brings to light a subject few, if any, knew about and poses questions in a different way. Conversations will occur. Questions will multiply. The only answer from this is to continue conversations until lasting change takes place.
We are Proud to Present runs until April 12, at Studio Two in the Vern Riffe Center, 77 South High Street, Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm. Talk backs occur after every Thursday and Friday performance. Pay what you want.
More information can be found online at www.avltheatre.com.
Photos by Matt Slaybaugh.