Theater entertains. Theater inspires laughter. Theater provokes thought. Theater tackles tough topics. Theater makes you uncomfortable. Theater makes you think.
These are standard truisms about stage presentations — as well as choices on a typical Drama 101 mid-term. (Hint: It’s all of the above.) But can all of this transpire simultaneously, within the same play?
Trustus Theatre guest director Andrew Schwartz believes it can. He’s seen it happen before.
Two years ago, Schartz directed 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 at Coker University, the small, private liberal arts institution in Hartsville where he is an assistant professor of theater.
“It caused quite a stir,” he recalls, “even in our little community at Coker.”
“It asks a lot of difficult questions,” the director says. “Up to that point, I’d been playing it safe, trying to create more of a bond with the community.”
By this he means efforts such as staging productions of name-brand, well-known, family-friendly works such Our Town, Little Shop of Horrors and recently Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Coker’s student body, however, is approximately 40 percent African American, and Schwarz knew his actors were up for a challenge, and eager to perform in works that might speak to current societal issues.
He explains that playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Fairview will be presented at Trustus in April, was researching genocide in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as potential material for a play. She realized, however, that as disturbing as the attempted extermination of the native Herero people by imperialistic, colonial Europeans might be, an even more fascinating topic would be to explore how actors might meet the challenges of dramatizing such a story.
Thus, the author created a play-within-a-play, as six contemporary 20-somethings, three black and three white, approach horrific events in history with which they are ill-prepared to relate or identify. Like some method acting exercise gone horribly wrong, the fictive performers draw on the only analogs they have available: the turbulent racial tropes of today’s America.
Coker seniors Kamian McClain, Matt Hicks, Isaiah Washington and Chevez Smith were sophomores when Schwartz originally directed them in this play, and all, along with fellow cast member Tristan Pack, wanted the chance to perform the material again. Schwartz says that Trustus Artistic Director Chad Henderson felt that the Fairview connection was an appealing tie-in, and welcomed the opportunity to partner with Coker for a three-day, four-performance revival.
Amber Coulter, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina directed by Schwartz previously in 2018’s Shakspeare in Love, is the only new cast member.
At under an hour and a half, and presented without intermission, We Are Proud to Present might at times be an emotional roller-coaster, but Schwartz cautions that the work is quite funny as well, as the characters try to piece together a historical narrative using surviving documentation left behind only by the winners, i.e. colonial Germans. Much of the thematic tension is mitigated by the dark comedy and gritty backstage banter of actors at work.
The director, who has been seen as an actor in Columbia in Arden of Faversham and The Pavilion, both presented by Full Circle Productions, points to the author’s use of the rehearsal process of actors as a compelling narrative technique. Characters often break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience, who can be seen as perhaps friends, colleagues or patrons of the cast who have been invited to attend a rehearsal of a work in progress.
“It takes a lot of theatrical conventions and flips them on their heads,” he notes.
Schwartz describes his cast as eager to announce, “Look what theater can do, in terms of asking the tough questions. They’re a little older, and are approaching this with a new maturity, and a new level of trust, and a camaraderie that is necessary.”
He adds that “the Caucasian characters in the play are taking a pretty big risk” by delving into ugly societal and cultural misconceptions about race and trying to understand these as their motivations as actors.
“But these are the risks everybody takes,” Schwartz says, “when presenting material that’s controversial and difficult.”
What: 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
Where: Trustus Theatre, 520 Lady St.
When: Jan. 16-18
More: 803-254-9732, trustus.org
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