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Stellar cast delivers potent history lesson in ‘We are Proud to Present …’

Michael Holding (from left), Jennifer Latimore, Taylor Blim, Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr., Terry Bell
and Will Allan star in the Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ production
of "We Are Proud to Present a Presentation…" by Jackie Sibblies Drury at the Upstairs Theater at Steppenwolf Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Last week, the president of the African nation of Namibia made a speech calling on Germany to formally apologize for the massacre of its Herero and Nama tribes over 100 years ago.

You’re forgiven if you missed that news; I couldn’t find evidence of any American news outlet or wire service covering President Hage Geingob’s remarks on Thursday. Most Americans, in fact, are likely unaware of the events to which he referred. But dozens of Chicago high schoolers learned about them that same morning at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, attending a performance of the latest production by the theater’s Steppenwolf for Young Adults arm.

‘We Are Proud to Present a Presentation …’

★★★1⁄2

When: Through March 16

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets: $15 – $20

Info: steppenwolf.org

Run time: 1 hours 40 minutes, with no intermission

Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s compelling piece of metatheatre bears an unwieldy title: “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 – 1915.” But that mouthful reflects the complexity of what it covers — both the historical material and Drury’s inventively oblique treatment of it.

Germany planted its flag in what is now Namibia in 1884 at the height of the “scramble for Africa,” when the major European powers carved up the continent among themselves with little regard for the African peoples or the social and political boundaries that might already be in place. The German colonial government initially treated the Herero as its most-favored tribe, but after two decades of encroachment, with the natives treated as free labor and their land and cattle confiscated for German settlers, relations had become hostile enough for the Herero to mount a revolt.

The response by the German forces was to drive the Herero into the desert. German General Lothar von Trotha issued an “extermination order” to prevent them from returning to their homeland, now claimed as an extension of Germany itself. “Within the German borders every Herero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot,” the order stated. Those Herero who didn’t die of thirst or starvation in the desert were rounded up and placed in work camps. Around 80 percent of the Herero population was killed in the course of a few years.

Terry Bell (from left), Taylor Blim, Michael Holding, Jennifer Latimore, Jeffery Owen Freelon, Jr. and Will Allan star in the Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of We Are Proud to Present a Presentation… ” in the Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted. | M
Terry Bell (from left), Taylor Blim, Michael Holding, Jennifer Latimore, Jeffery Owen Freelon, Jr. and Will Allan star in the Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of We Are Proud to Present a Presentation… ” in the Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted. | Michael Brosilow

The bones of this history are offered in the first few minutes of “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation” as the “overview” portion of said presentation. Drury’s conceit, you see, is that we’re gathered to watch six actors — importantly, three black, three white — perform a brief history of the Herero and their fate under German occupation. But the overview is all we see of the final presentation; from there, the playwright takes us back to these actors’ initial rehearsal, and we’re privy to their frustrating and increasingly fraught efforts to collectively devise a presentation they can all be proud of.

Initially the characters (who remain nameless in Drury’s script) attempt to adapt the only primary source material available to them: letters home from German soldiers. But some of the black actors chafe, rightfully enough, at centering the colonizers’ perspective, while their white counterparts don’t see much to play in the banal correspondences anyway.

Trying to find their way into the mind-set of the Herero on the one hand, and those who would condone and participate in genocide on the other, the group moves into improv exercises. From here, the interpersonal dynamics shift again and again as tensions ratchet up and sensitivities get trampled.

But this Steppenwolf production, co-directed by Hallie Gordon and Gabrielle Randle and featuring a top-tier set of young professional actors (Will Allan, Terry Bell, Taylor Blim, Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr., Michael Holding and Jennifer Latimore) portraying the amateur actors, sensitively handles the topics it touches on. Those include thorny questions about heritage and identity, and who gets to control the narrative.

Drury’s play, which premiered in 2012 as part of the mainstage season at Victory Gardens Theater, isn’t explicitly written for school audiences. (There are open-to-the-public performances on Fridays and Saturdays through March 16 at Steppenwolf; the production then tours to libraries and park district facilities in six other neighborhoods through March 23.) Of course, declining to talk down or condescend to its audience is one of the Steppenwolf for Young Adults program’s finest traits. Instead, it’s proud to present a first-rate staging of a smart and challenging play, one that feels ideally suited to prompt vigorous classroom discussion.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.