Symbolic Gestures: Two New Plays Interrogate Race Relations in Novel, Powerful Ways

It's hard to know how to read the theater ensemble putting on a play-within-a-play — or, as it would insist, a “presentation”-within-a-play — in Just Theater's complicatedly named 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. The players, who are struggling to put together a presentation about African genocide, suggest they're creating ideas for scenes for the first time, yet when they enact those ideas, they magically deploy choreographed movements. They can seem adolescent, opening their presentation about the Herero tribe and its German colonizers with a PowerPoint, written in Comic Sans, that surveys the topic with all the depth of a Wikipedia entry. Yet, as they shift from a stand-and-deliver book report style to a more theatrical performance, the quality of their work rises dramatically; they construct sophisticated, gorgeous scenes between tribe members or colonizers or between colonizers and colonized that are at once mythic in stature and deeply human in their simplicity.

The troupe members sometimes display a nuanced, academic understanding of European colonialism in Africa and its long shadow, as well as the difficulty of talking about that shadow, particularly among a group of different races and backgrounds. Yet at other times, they talk to each other like brutes or make simpleminded statements that any educated, compassionate person would deem simplistic at best and heinous at worst: “[Genocide in Namibia] is not like the Holocaust.”

The ambiguity of these characters is part of playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury's point. Just as the characters in the presentation-within-a-play have no names, just “black man” or “other black man,” so Drury de-emphasizes the personalities of their performers, the better to show that within every person lies a multitude of impulses about race: to betray profound biases in tiny slips of language, to assume the ability to speak for a group when one might not have that right.

“We all know this ends in genocide, so let's get there,” says the ensemble's facilitator (Kehinde Koyejo). The quest to somehow reach the story's gruesome end lends the show a contagious kinetic energy. It's thrilling to watch artists create, seemingly in real time. It gives the play the good, old-fashioned joy of a “let's-put-on-a-show” narrative but also the tension of a wildly fraught intellectual debate. How do you truthfully represent a horrible story that, as the white artists repeatedly point out, doesn't have the documented history that Westerners typically rely on in storytelling — especially when the different actors approach the project not just with the usual competing egos but with different assumptions about what truthful storytelling means?

The moment they finally glimpse at that truth is among the most harrowing moments I've seen in Bay Area theater. The six-person ensemble (Rotimi Agbabiaka, Lucas Hatton, Patrick Kelly Jones, David Moore, and Megan Trout, along with Koyejo), under the direction of Molly Aaronson-Gelb, achieves the kind of total commitment and openhearted communication with each other that, at core, is what we go to theater to see. With this production, Just Theater once again proves itself to be an arbiter of the bold and the raw in new American plays.

Xtigone, a world premiere adaptation of the Sophocles tragedy Antigone, is every bit as harrowing — at least in its premise. This African American Shakespeare Company production, written by Nambi E. Kelley and directed by Rhodessa Jones, sets the ancient Greek story in the gang world of contemporary Chicago.

As with the original, there are still two brothers (Drew Watkins and Aejay Mitchell) who both die, one in ignominy, the other as a favorite of their uncle (Robert Fisher), who's the head of state. But instead of killing each other in war, they both die in a drive-by shooting. Their sister, here called Tigs (Ryan Nicole Austin), still defies their uncle's edict about how the dead bodies be dealt with. In the ancient Greek tragedy, Antigone wants to bury her cast-out brother with the full rites prescribed by their religion, instead of leaving him to rot in open air on the battlefield. In Xtigone, Tigs wants to do the opposite. For her, burying the brothers as her uncle wants means burying the truth about violence in their city. She seeks to leave their bodies in the open, as a way of protesting inhuman conditions. (She twice refers to both Emmett Till and the Liberian Ebola protesters.)

Kelley's script employs clever, evocative verse that channels both the Greek original and the rhythms of rap; it offers many opportunities for Tea Flake (the clarion-voiced Naima Grace Shalhoub) to tell the story in haunting, lovely song. But Jones' direction dilutes the power of the piece. Too often actors dither about the stage, as if their movements remain in storyboard. Poorly paced death scenes seem to comprise the majority of the play — as opposed to the evenly matched debates the original is famous for.

If Joseph Stalin once said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” Just Theater's and Af-Am Shakes's productions show that theater can make the reverse feel true.

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