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REVIEW: We Are Proud To Present Stabs You With Feels (Guthrie Theater)

Lamar Jefferson (Actor 4), Nika Ezell Pappas (Actor 5), Sam Bardwell (Actor 1), Nike Kadri (Actor 6), Quinn Franzen (Actor 3) and JaBen Early (Actor 2) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of We Are Proud to Present a Presentation. Photo by Dan Norman.

A calmer moment in We Are Proud to Present. L-R: Sam Bardwell (Actor 1), Nika Ezell Pappas (Actor 5), JaBen Early (Actor 2) and Quinn Franzen (Actor 3). Photo by Dan Norman.

The first hint that We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 is not theatre as normal is the play’s very, very long title. The next hint is just about everything else about this striking play by Jackie Sibbles Drury.

On December 28, 2013, I moved from Boston, MA to Minneapolis, MN. At the time, the big advance buzz in Boston was about Company One’s upcoming production of We Are Proud to Present. Strangely enough, I knew little about why people were so excited – the most common superlative was “mind-blowing”, which was rather unhelpful – but a moot point for the next three years. Four days later, I saw my first show in the Twin Cities at the Guthrie, starting my journey into a theatre scene with a different flavor than Boston’s experimental theatre. (For the curious, that first show was Born Yesterday.)

Returning to the Guthrie last Friday, however, I was finally able to see what exactly the buzz is about. “Mind-blowing” was certainly used by other audience members, along with a cavalcade of other vague terms.

Quinn Franzen (Actor 3), Nike Kadri (Actor 6) and Sam Bardwell (Actor 1). Photo by Dan Norman.

It’s not that fans of this play aren’t effusive – quite the contrary, as a matter of fact. What is hard to describe is how this play is designed to bust theatrical conventions and wrestle with issues of storytelling, historiography, perspective, and bitter wrongs. The result is tightly scripted, but with an improvisatory air and a whole card catalog of plays-within-the-play. Many parts are designed to test the audience’s perception of the boundary between what is scripted and real, leading right up to and including the end of the play.

In some ways, We Are Proud to Present is a perfect candidate for the Level Nine Series at the Guthrie. It’s something different, something that people might not take a chance on except at this low price point. It’s a full 90 minutes, but at the end, you’ll be surprised that only that long has elapsed. If you’re a stress drinker, you might want to have one before staying for the show’s nightly talkbacks and post-show discussions – while hilarious at the beginning and often funny in the middle, the end of the play leaves a weight in your stomach. Taibi Magar’s direction pulls no punches.

Things heat up in the rehearsal studio. L-R: Sam Bardwell (Actor 1), Nika Ezell Pappas (Actor 5), JaBen Early (Actor 2), and Quinn Franzen (Actor 3) Photo by Dan Norman.

We Are Proud to Present plays through March 12 at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio.

Basil Considine