Review: ‘We Are Proud to present…’

The set of ‘We Are Proud to present…’ being just a map of Nambia outlined on the floor of the Bush Theatre looks unpromising at first, and the first few minutes of this brilliant production come across as a very awkward, amateur drama production.

But this disarming ruse belies the incredibly forceful brilliance of the play and this production.

‘We Are Proud to present…’ makes for genuinely uncomfortable viewing, a feat so rarely achieved in british theatre nowadays. The production benefits from a strong cast, all put to good use – but of particular genius were Kingsley Ben-Adir, Joseph Arkley, and Isaac Ssebandeke.

In the second half of the play, the comic, occasionally ponderous (and tedious) negotiations of a bunch of hammy actors gives way to a searing interrogation of race and representation, which turns on the question of how to represent the experience of black people, and Africans in the story of colonialism and genocide. When the centrality of white people in narratives of black and African history is challenged in the play – the frisson of familiarity with current debates on representation in theatre and politics are not far from the surface.

The cast is helped by an intelligent and funny script; occasionally one feels  the genocide of the Herero is merely a skeleton on which the playwright hangs her real subect – the contorted politics of racial perceptions of history, and the playing down of African historical experiences of genocide; at times the comic turns of the play last too long,  particularly in the early parts of the play where the six actors hand-wring, and have contorted conversations about their motivation – and play the issues drawn out for cheap laughs.But even this rewards the audience’s patience as the dissatisfaction amongst the cast builds up to uncomfortable, and riveting confrontations between white and black cast members. Those issues aside, on the whole, the writing is tight, poignant, provocative and funny.

One sees in the playwright, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s work the possible influence of her fellow American Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s style of using the archicture of the play itself as a dramatic device, and the cadence and language owe something to spoken word and performance poetry.

The director, Gbolahan Obisesan has made some clever and relevant adaptions to the script, placing the complexities of victim and perpetrator squarely in a local context, most strikingly in a scene between Arkley (White Man) and (Ben-Adir) in which both flip seamlessly into Northern Irish, South African and North American accents. One of the most electrifying moments in this play occurs when the cast divides on racial lines as ‘White Man’ declares the herero genocide as different, and implicitly, less grave than the jewish holocaust because ‘these people wrote down their history. Cue an explosive sequence of events in which the black characters seize the narrative, and insert the experiences of the herero into the narrative.

The subsequent playing out of the genocide itself is gut-wrenchingly powerful, and the conclusion of the drama deeply uncomfortable.

In a brilliant directorial decision, we’re not given an easy resolution as an audience – rather we are invited as complicit observers to experience the same emotions as the performers when the play reaches its fevered conclusion. ‘We Are Proud to present…’ is funny in the way only the worst of tragedies can be.

You must see this play.

We Are Proud to present….’ is at the Bush Theatre until 12 April