To break in their new North Lawndale space, Kezia Waters directs Theatre Y’s production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 2012 meta meditation on colonialism, genocide, and racial trauma. (The play received its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater.) Structured as a rehearsal for a play about the massacre of the Herero people of Namibia by the German occupying forces in the years preceding World War I, it is in fact a barely veiled exploration of racial dynamics in the U.S. The cast—three Black, three white, none named aside from reference to their respective skin color—struggle to dramatize a tragic historical event whose only apparent documentation is a stack of German soldiers’ letters home. The Black actors chafe against their lack of agency or voice, and the white actors testily defend their attempts to inhabit monstrous villains.
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
Through 5/21: Fri 7 PM, Sat 3 and 7 PM, Sun 3 PM; Theatre Y, 3611 W. Cermak, theatre-y.com, free, but reservations requested
The strength of this piece is the emotional truth of the intractable dynamic between subjugated peoples and those who oppress them. There are no letters home from the Herero because theirs was a largely oral tradition, and the Germans obliterated generations, thereby severing the storytelling thread that kept the culture alive. The pain evoked onstage by this talented ensemble is palpable, and the sparse set leaves little place to hide or seek refuge or comfort.
My one hesitation or question is about the implication that the events in Namibia over a hundred years ago are a direct one-to-one mirroring of the racial dynamic in the U.S. in 2023. Three-quarters of the way through the running time, a German flag is positioned at center stage with U.S. flags to its left and right, and the play’s dramatic peak features a lynching noose. Using these objects takes the audience out of colonial 19th-century Sudwestafrika (as it was then called), where a railroad is being built by force, and puts us in an undated but contemporary-feeling America, where cell phones film police violence. Are these two places and times exactly the same?
The heart of the piece is a tone-perfect summoning of the grief caused by the subjugation of one tribe by another. But the blurring of historic particulars may lessen the potential impact of a presentation aiming for catharsis through fire. Suffering is suffering, but making distinctions and keeping particular times and places intact doesn’t lessen the impact; it can only enhance it.