Presenting Histories Past, Present, and Future

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By Lauren Quinlan, Chief Critic
Graphic by Danielle B. Szabo

Teching a show is a grueling process. As a dramaturg, I am not always sure what my role is in that process. I am not always seeing a full product, so I struggle with how to evaluate it effectively. In the downtime between fine-tuning scenes in the dark theatre that is steadily coming alive with light, I read James Baldwin’s essay “Many Thousands Gone” for an essay I’ve been putting off. I am struck by Baldwin’s poignant words on the shortcomings of literature that feigns to oppose racial inequality and ends up strengthening it. His thoughts on the role of African-Americans today has so many layers that I often need to take a minute and gather my thoughts. Reading Baldwin’s sprawling text that seeks to discuss all areas of life, I feel overwhelmed at the prospect of constructing an intimate play about monumental issues.

I think about how, even though Baldwin wrote these essays in 1955, his underlying principles remain more relevant than ever.

And then I am pulled back into the world of We Are Proud to Present…. Lights and sound are being added to a particularly sobering moment in the play, and I am stunned at the visual impact of it all. Switching between Baldwin’s density and the substance the playwright, Jackie Sibblies Drury, weaves throughout We Are Proud to Present…, a strange fusion of ideas forms in my head as I return to a play that forces me to reexamine my worldview with every new examination. In We Are Proud to Present…, Drury complicates notions of tribalism, identity erasure, and storytelling, combining and convoluting them so as to not let anyone off the hook – including herself as a playwright. Considering how this play is being performed in a theatre conservatory where actors know each other well and spend much of their day together, these themes take on a heightened meaning.

In “Many Thousands Gone,” Baldwin addresses the role of the artist and the importance of championing complexity over simplicity. He explains this through the lenses of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son, which he argues reinforce rather than challenge the American fantasy of racial difference. Baldwin believes that these texts are complacent to the power of racism and, in the long run, do not create the change they may have hoped for, and I am brought back to We Are Proud to Present….

In this play, our group of actors (who play actors) strives to create a meaningful piece of art about a little-known genocide of the Herero people in Africa, armed only with letters from German soldiers and their own good intentions. The script can be marked through its microaggressions – fractures that build to the realization that to tell the Herero story, they must first acknowledge and dismantle the American equivalent. In our tech rehearsal, a scene with a German soldier is being worked on. The actor playing the soldier is writing to his imaginary wife Sarah about his experiences among the Herero people – omitting the parts where he and his fellow soldiers murder the Africans en masse. In the background of this moment, a black actor is pretending to work the fields as idyllic orchestral music plays, evoking the white African fantasy that is displayed more often in popular culture than the brutal reality of colonialism. The moment is broken when another black actor questions the group’s unconscious decision to not feature Africans in Africa. This creates an immediate rift in the group, with some swearing fidelity to the content of the German letters and others demanding that the Herero story be told, even if they have to reimagine it.

The stage manager pauses the action and I return to my reading. Baldwin is delving further into his ideas on the great American delusion of whiteness. In “Many Thousands Gone,” he explains how denial is built into the lives of white Americans and how their historical amnesia about atrocities their ancestors committed has fueled their blind sense of reality. The white Americans of Baldwin’s time were not ready for the true and uncensored story of American inequality, and that truth has only changed somewhat in the present day. This is also true for the actors as characters that are portraying in We Are Proud to Present… – the casual ability to reject and deflect throughout time is the connecting thread between these people of the past, present, and the here and now on The Theatre School’s Fullerton stage.

As the dramaturg on this production, I struggled with how to condense the enormity of what playwright Drury captures into short dramaturgical sessions. The histories of genocide and of racism in America are not brief, and I was not sure how I would effectively convey this information. I decided to start small – something I’m not really good at. Usually, I gather huge amounts of research in a frantic attempt to get at meaning, but I knew that this show needed a more intimate approach. Much of the first rehearsal week was spent emphasizing self-care, so keeping the dramaturgical context focused was imperative to keep us all moving forward with a clear mind.

Drury is a bit of an enigma – in all my research, I could only find a few strong sources on her work and background. This makes sense – she is a relatively young writer, and her plays have largely flown under the radar. However, I was able to pull a few key interviews with her, and one in particular really resonated with the team. The interview is a sprawling account of a compressed play, and the discussion the cast had about it took on an elevated status. As they worked through Sibblies Drury’s thoughts on being an artist and on the reasonings behind We Are Proud to Present…, each actor morphed into the kinds of behaviors and thought processes the actor they were portraying would embody. A strange mixture of Process and Presentation happened in that rehearsal room in December, and I could see the beginnings of a show that I had a difficult time conceptualizing in the months leading up to rehearsals. I was confident that in that discussion, we had all come closer to getting at what this strange, horrifying play was all about.
A lot of the time, I find the idea of me going to an art school during a time when the world is falling apart a little frivolous. Most of the time, I am not sure how I can really affect what’s going on outside of The Theatre School’s walls. My process of working on We Are Proud to Present… hasn’t been easy or clear-cut, but it has made me realize that art can matter, and even, maybe, make a difference. Sibblies Drury wrote this play out of an inability to craft a straightforward account of the Herero genocide. She realized as Baldwin realized when writing “Many Thousands Gone,” that history cannot be viewed in a vacuum – it demands to be examined in its full context. The process of dramaturging We Are Proud to Present… and wrestling with the uncomfortable questions it raises has made me realize that I and other like-minded people are all implicated in the frayed fabric of American history, whether or not we were intentionally cruel or complacent. In handling this play with the full weight it deserves, I have found that history must concern itself with its future and past, along with its present – all with a renewed sense of importance and urgency.

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