A SUCKER PUNCH. That's how I considered describing Artist Repertory Theatre's latest production, 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, in this review. I intended it as a compliment, but how valuable are intentions? Not very, given that we're talking about a play that takes on decades of systemic violence and racism from an elliptical, almost painfully intelligent script by Jackie Sibblies Drury, and with direction from Kevin Jones, who translates Drury's controlled chaos to the stage with precision and pathos.
We Are Proud to Present isn't a sucker punch, and it would be unfair to call it one. However tempting it might be to use a cultural shorthand for jarring violence to describe a play that often punctures the more comforting aspects of theater, that phrase is much too sensational to accurately describe the feeling We Are Proud to Present produces in its audience: one of subtle yet undeniable dread, of intense, durational discomfort. It's a feeling triggered by the best performance art, by unexpected moments of interpersonal conflict that arise during an otherwise mundane day, by the realization that a place you thought was safe isn't. If I told you how we got there, I worry I'd be giving away too much, a predicament I don't often find myself in as a theater reviewer, and one that leaves me summarily unprepared to even begin to know how to write about We Are Proud to Present with the care that task requires.
Here's what I'll say instead:
You should absolutely see it.
It's unlikely that you'll see an ensemble of actors this good take on material this risky again during this theater season. (The cast includes Vin Shambry, Rebecca Ridenour, and Chantal DeGroat.)
The house music includes Kendrick Lamar's unlikely protest anthem, "Alright." A small exhibition of archival images on the way into the theater makes reference to the Vanport Flood.
I wish that Artists Repertory Theatre would produce plays with the real tension of We Are Proud to Present more often. I wish more Portland theater companies would consider it. One of the local theater companies I've seen do this time and again is Portland Playhouse; unsurprisingly, a number of the people involved in We Are Proud to Present have ties to that theater company.
Without disclosing what it is, I can tell you that the play's final image is powerful, not because it comes as a surprise, but because even though its arrival is disturbing, once you see it, you realize you were expecting it all along. A punch in the face hurts for an instant, but it's easily dismissed. The same cannot be said of palpable discomfort that seems novel, until you realize it's the thing that's always there, unnamed and perhaps kept quiet, but nonetheless underlying our collective experience—and our history of violence.
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
Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison, Tues-Sat 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm, through April 10, $25-48, artistsrep.org