I had the privilege, on the penultimate night of its six-week London run at the Bush Theatre, of seeing a truly outstanding play. Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury, directed by Gbolahan Obisesan, the production took a look at one of the 20th century's forgotten genocides. (The play's full title - "We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero Of Namibia, Formerly Known As Southwest Africa, From The German Sudwestafrika, Between The Years 1884 And 1915" - is so long that it needs a sentence of its own. From now on, I will refer to it as "We Are Proud.") The funny thing is that, though it had been vigorously recommended by Anthony Anaxagorou, one of London's leading poets, I only ended up seeing "We Are Proud" on a whim. Having absent-mindedly made a note to buy a ticket, but then procrastinated in doing so, I stumbled across an extremely negative review in The Daily Telegraph. In the course of a two-star excoriation, Dominic Grieve wrote that the play was one of "shockingly inadequate dramatic power" and stated that its "mouthful of a title was the closest the evening [came] to being succinctly informative. The play, he continued, "might equally be restyled: 'Ladies and Gentlemen: Prepare to be Bludgeoned over the Head with some Racially Loaded Dissension Between a Group of Actors Who Seem Insufficiently Prepared for Rehearsals Let Alone a Public Scratch Performance."
Well, wow. Grieve's opinion was so at variance with the reviews given by both my friends and mainstream media that I had to take a closer look, and so within minutes of reading his withering dismissal I had booked myself a seat. As a result, I ended up witnessing a production almost every bit as moving as "The Season In The Congo". "We Are Proud" was superb. Its premise was a clever one: it followed a cast of six actors - three white, three black - as they attempted to make an improvised reconstruction of the brutal repression of the Herero people by the German army. As the action progresses, the four men and two women begin to fall out over the form that their work should take. The white cast members are increasingly determined to tell the story from the perspective of a German soldier writing tender letters home to his loved one, whilst the black cast members begin to express discomfort that the narrative of the slaughtered Africans is being abruptly shunted into the margins. "Are we just going to sit here and watch some white people fall in love all day?" askes one of them, exasperated. "This is some Out-Of-Africa-African-Queen-bullshit you are all pulling here right, OK? If we are in Africa, I want to see some black people." The metaphor of Germans telling the tale of empire through their missives was a fitting one: Africa's sands were merely a parchment across which they could scrawl the carefully-edited versions of their heroism.
As the actors navigate the emotionally fraught territory of just how we tell the story of the past, their conversations become more tense; the black actors asking that the action addresses the uncomfortable truths of bloody conquest, the white actors looking to embrace denial wherever they can find it. This dynamic is perfectly expressed in a scene where a German soldier, having shot a Namibian man dead for trespassing on land that was only recently his own, then writes home to his girlfriend as if nothing untoward has happened. "Dear Sarah", narrates the white actor, more and more anguished, "I'm writing to you today. Today is a day. Just a day. Like any day." Eventually, overwhelmed by the scale of this falsehood, the actor falters and turns to his colleagues, breaking character. "Can I have a minute?" he pleads.
This scene, and this play as a whole, goes to the very core of imperialism: that it was crucial for the Germans and their European counterparts to deny the humanity of Africans. If they had not done so, then it would have been unbearable to murder them in such industrial quantities. In this context, it is fascinating and disturbing to hear the soldiers making jokes casually featuring the word "nigger" as they go about their daily genocidal business. These jibes, the type you might now hear in a private members' club after too many drinks, are the direct descendants of those first racist instincts which seeded the Empire. A few years later, of course, this racism was to find horrific expression in the Holocaust: and there was something poignant here in the fact that the Herero, regarded as the bravest and strongest of all the tribes in Namibia, were almost wholly exterminated with barely a whisper beyond the continent. Eight in ten of them perished either under German gunfire or out in camps in the unforgiving desert: eight in ten.
Revealingly, Grieve writes in his review that he thought the cast's "contrived in-fighting might carry a greater charge [in the US] than it does in a country that experienced the terror of German imperialism at closer hand." This is a curious form of one-upmanship, given that Drury is African-American, and that the continent of her heritage experienced the terror of German imperialism at closer hand than anyone. Ironically, Grieve has apparently fallen prey to the same myopia as the white actors in "We Are Proud": he takes a discussion of black genocide and focuses it around white people, lapsing into an analysis of which Western nation suffered more from the advances of the Nazis. To quote one of the black actors, "that story doesn't have anything to do with Africa".
Moreover, I think that Grieve's central contention, that Drury's script is guilty of sensationalism, is unfair. If anything, the unparalleled sadism of imperialist white supremacy was somewhat understated in this play, only represented at timely moments: and, in between these, there were several welcome passages of comic relief. The play's closing scenes, by contrast, were utterly unsparing, pervaded by silence and leading to a finale as unsettling as I can recall. There is no catharsis here, no rousing Morgan Freeman-style voiceover to make it all better. The truth is there, as terrible and bitter on your eyes as the noonday sun, and good luck if you have the guts to take a look.
In her introduction to the play, Drury writes that "I sometimes think that the most tragic death is the death that is elided over as history is canonised. That elided death doesn't participate in the process of metaphysical care that creates culture. It is not remembered, studied, imagined. That death is stripped of its humanity, which seems to be, if not a fate worse than death, perhaps a death worth than death. And perhaps, in turn, allowing that death to remain unimagined makes us a bit less human."
Drury's work, brought to life by these actors, is a beautifully overwhelming tribute to Namibia, and the Herero people in particular. Due to the racism that has shaped our society, there are children not yet born whom our world has already decided are less equal than others. "We Are Proud", in all its cantankerous and challenging magnificence, is one more vital tool in reshaping this dangerous narrative.