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A CurtainUp DC Review
We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known As South-West Africa, From The German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915
The evening begins by taking a circuitous route from the box office through back-of-house corridors to seats placed on all four sides of the stage. We are, so we are told, in a rehearsal hall where six actors (3 white and 3 black) have gathered to create a play about the harrowing history of Germany's occupation of the African country they called Sudwestafrika and we now know as Namibia.
There is an introduction to the history of this land told with maps projected on to large screens beside the stage and a recitation of important developments between 1884 -1915. Nevertheless, who's who and what's what can be a bit confusing. The actors too claim that they do not have enough of a back story to build their characters for the story to be told. They improvise but what gets lost is a clear plot. Incidents and dialogue are slung together, often repetitiously but just as often with very effecting imagery and movement.
The story is basically this: In the late 1800's the Germans turned southwest Africa into a protectorate. In order to build a railroad they bought or seized land that was owned or farmed by cattle herders known as the Herero. There was some resistance but the tribesmen were rounded up and put into a walled area or ghetto. The Germans, in what is considered the first genocide of the 20th-century and, to some, a precursor of the Holocaust, killed 80% of the Herero.
A six-person ensemble (Andreu Honeycutt, Peter Howard, Joe Isenberg, Holly Twyford, Dawn Ursula, and Michael Anthony Williams) of mostly good actors bring the story to life. It's based on letters written to their sweethearts in Germany to life. Holly Twyford stands out as the conscience of the group. She is both moving and funny.
Director Michael John Garces and set designer Misha Kachman deserve lots of praise for their staging that includes shadow puppets and a large showerhead. Composer Christylez Bacon's African drum beat music is mesmerizing and Paige Hernandez's choreography is a very clever blend of African and German-seeming steps. For instance, she has her actors transition from a walk around the stage to a march to a very disturbing goose-step, Nazi style.
The play's ending is stark, with very scary imagery and what preceded it was certainly interesting as well as disturbing. There are some laughs but the play would have driven its points home better and been more dramatic had the play been edited more tightly.