By Zach Ienatsch & Kelly Newton
Photos by Kelly Newton
Audience reads the program while waiting for the play to start. Six actors stand before the audience, poised to deliver a presentation through music, education, and heartbreak. The patrons wait with bated breath as the story of the Herero genocide unravels into a bloody saga of loss, exploitation and a commitment to “never again”.
The Texas State theatre department concluded their run of the controversial, topical production We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, or We Are Proud to Present for short. The play is a presentation by a half white, half black cast about the colonial history of Namibia by the German Empire. The presentation starts light-hearted and comedic, but slowly turns ugly when clashing narratives reveal systems of racial injustice and violence.
“This show is a presentation,” Michael Moody, who played Actor #4, said. “It’s not about guilt. If you do feel guilty, fine, but that’s not the point. The purpose is to avoid anything like this ever happening again.”
We Are Proud to Present was staged in the Foundation Studio with a minimal set. Instead, visual depictions and components were more reliant on the actors themselves. The fluid characterization of the scripted parts gave the actors freedom to serve the needs of the narrative as a whole, rather than following typical plot structures.
The director, Isaac Byrne, decided to utilize the unconventional nature of the play into an unconventional style of direction.
“We actually started blocking with the last scene,” Byrne said. “It felt like it needed to be really tight.”
This last scene, featuring a dramatic sequence of events that echo present day racial tensions, featuring a noose, a KKK mask and racial slurs, generated vocal reactions of disgust from the audience.
For the Black actors of the cast, the show was more than a presentation of race relations in Namibia, but rather self-reflections on the hate and prejudice they personally experienced, something that made their participation in the production even more poignant.
Special care was taken to tackle these moments respectfully. Every single aspect, no matter how small, required deliberate consent from the actors and after every rehearsal, the actors decompressed before leaving the space.
“A lot of the difficulty was [that] we realized really early…that they had to give the white actors permission to do and say those things,” Byrne said. “And we talked a lot about, like, if we don’t really do this, we’re not honoring what actually happened. Happens.”
Jada Owens, who played Actor #6, was able to compare certain aspects of her performance with her own experience as a black woman in America.
“I didn’t know how I really felt until I experienced it,” Owens said. “I really didn’t know where my family or my identity came from. Isaac really pushed for us to channel that in the show. I walked away crying each night because of what I learned as an African-American.”
Multiple performances of the four-day production sold out. Every performance had a packed house of audience members reeling from palpable tension in the room. Following the final explosive scene of racial violence, there was five to ten minutes of complete silence while the white actors grappled with what they had just done.
“I wanted people to walk away with the truth,” Owens said. “I want people to not be afraid. These are things that happened and we can relay that commentary as Black actors.”
Cambria Denim, a senior acting major, was visibly affected after seeing the production.
“This is the best thing I have ever seen at Texas State,” Denim said. “This should be required viewing for every American.”
Following the show, actors greeted the audience, many of whom were family and friends. The atmosphere was different than a typical performance. The audience was more somber, and several of the cast members were crying.
“I want to thank Isaac for putting me in this show,” Moody said. “If this is the last show I do here, I’ll be ok. It’s been very full hearted and I’m thankful.”
However, both cast and audience seemed happy to embrace each other, coming together after the shared experience of either seeing or performing such an affecting piece. The importance of performing works such as We Are Proud to Present has arguably never been more obvious.