How far is too far? Do different rules apply when you’re discussing the subject of race? Can you truly ever walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company continues to boldly push the envelope in ground-breaking theatrical development with their evocative presentation of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud To Present… A culturally shocking and equally emotionally stunning play that begs the question of walking in the shoes of another race, culture, and heritage; this intense theatrical endeavor will strike you in a most unexpected fashion. Directed by Michael John Garcès, the production is a metaplay within a developmental environment that speaks to audiences of all races, creeds, and cultures.
As a great deal of the performance is spent flashing in and out of scenes of the ‘presentation’ and scenes that occur organically in the rehearsal space in preparation for said presentation, it is Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills and Sound Designer Elisheba Ittoop that ease this transition for the audience. Bills and Ittoop actually use jarring, sharp shift tactics, with sudden dramatic changes in lighting and sound when snapping a transition from one scene to the other, but this effectively keeps the audience following along with every change in the show. Ittoop’s subtle moments of sound, though sparingly used, are striking and effective because of their scarcity.
Conceptually the play speaks first to actors and then to the theatergoer audience as a whole. Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury has captured the essence of a rehearsal space with actors in progress as they attempt to develop a concept, nurture one another, and work through the differences of opinions and egos in an ensemble-based piece. Drury has every nuance epitomized in her work; from the way the actors not actively participating in a developmental moment are off doing their own thing to the way tempers flare in closed quarters after one member of the ensemble asserts themselves as the dominant leader. This ingenious reproduction of an ensemble growing a concept for performance even adds moments of levity to the very serious topic at hand. Anyone who has ever been an actor, or acted as a part of something will relate to this and even enjoy these moments of the production for their striking resemblance to real life.
That being said, Drury’s ability to make the show relatable to those outside the acting/show community is astonishing. Bringing together the broad strokes of race and culture under a common yearning to communicate lost stories of history, Drury delves into the intricate reality of the imbalance in cultural perception. This play was practically written for the 34th season at Woolly Mammoth as it fits so flawlessly into the concept of unearthing the sordid secrets of the past, and showing the audiences how people cope with those discoveries.
Director Michael John Garcès constructs an authentic reality in this show that draws the audience into the existence of these actors. You go from watching a play to watching the lives of actors coping with creating a play inside the play itself. The metaphysical concept is both mind-blowing and dangerously-confusing but is so well executed that you find yourself hanging on your seat for every moment of the production. Garcès pushes this ensemble of performers the way the material pushes the audience; forcing everyone to think, to own up to cultural misconceptions and to embrace our inner convictions when culture, heritage, and race come into play. A brilliantly directed piece; Garcès has a comprehensive knowledge of how these topic interweave in this performance and makes it an emotionally harrowing yet deeply stirring experience for everyone.
While the piece is truly that of an ensemble, company member Dawn Ursula asserts her presence early on as the self-proclaimed leader character. At first her constructed character is brassy and annoying, fitting perfectly into that figurehead of pushy domineer; but ultimately Ursula gives an incredibly stunning performance that really blows the audience out of the water when watching her. Her snappy personality infused into the rehearsal and developmental moments of the show gives way to a more somber and deeply disturbed side of her character, especially as the play throttles toward its drastic conclusion.
There are moments when the ensemble speaks as one unit of performance, and not just when they are literally speaking in unison. There are carefully crafted pauses where full silence reigns over all six members, and other moments of dancing and rhythmic chanting to unite their existences in a way that seems almost impossible and yet strikingly realistic. Each member of the ensemble has a distinctive character that they bring to the table, both in and out of the metaplay. It is their interactions with one another, especially once tension builds, tempers flare, and pressures set in that really keep this performance moving.
Joe Isenberg and Andreu Honeycutt draw light to the everyday struggles of race in their fierce and frenetic exchanges; shedding light on the monsters that live within us all when it comes to delicate subjects. Their performances, particularly once Isenberg teams up with Peter Howard toward the end of the production, are so shocking, and so horrific at times that you may be tempted to close your eyes, hold your ears, and try to think of something more pleasant. This is the mark of superior talent at work as they push the audience well out of their comfort zones as they utilize their bodies, their mannerisms, their words, and more to expose the dark and disgusting truth of history.
It is nearly impossible to explain more of this performance without having to start over and give a play-by-play of the epic phenomenon. We Are Proud To Present…should be witnessed, experienced; it should be felt in person. A stronger recommendation for such exciting, evocative, bold work could not be made; this is the show to see, regardless of your personal feelings or involvement with race, culture and heritage.
We Are Proud To Present… is the must see show of the season, perhaps in all of DC.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with no intermission.
We Are Proud to Present… plays through March 9, 2014 at at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company—641 D Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 393-3939. or purchase them online.
An interview with cast member Dawn Ursula.