Review: We Are Proud to Present… (Victory Gardens)

| April 14, 2012
Jake Cohen and Kamal Angelo Bolden       
We Are Proud to Present…

Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury 
Directed by Eric Ting 
VG Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru April 29  |  tickets: $20-$50   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
            Read entire review


‘We Are Proud…’ isn’t pretty – it’s frighteningly essential


Kamal Angelo Bolden, Tracey Bonner, Bernard Balbot, Travis Turner, Jake Cohen and Leah Karpel

Victory Gardens presents
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

Review by Lauren Whalen 

As any artist knows, the collaborative process can be energizing and rewarding – or frustrating and deflating. Everyone has their own ideas, and those ideas are absolutely right. And when the subject matter is a little-known racial struggle that lasted three decades and resulted in mass murder, the collaboration can take a direction that is intensely personal and increasingly horrifying. The winner of Victory Gardens’ 2010 IGNITION competition for new plays, 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 overcomes a slow start to race toward a well-earned climax that is every bit as thought-provoking as it is deeply disturbing.

Bernard Balbot, Leah Karpel and Jake CohenIn a dusty theatre with haphazard chairs, props and blackboards, an eager young troupe of actors are on a mission: to stage the first genocide of the 20th century in way that’s educational and palpable to audiences. Three of the actors are white, three are black. They’ve found letters sent by a German soldier who occupied a region of Africa inhabited by the strong Herero tribe, but that’s just one perspective. What of the Herero themselves: forced to build a railroad, exiled and brutalized, most of whom did not survive? What would each of the young actors have done, in that time and place? As the troupe leader encourages everyone to improvise, to role play, to go as far as they can, what begins as a simple performance exercise takes a sinister turn.

The first ten minutes of We Are Proud to Present… aren’t too effective in setting up what turns out to be a powerful piece. As they work on the play’s introduction, the actors play to the Victory Gardens audience. It’s a little too cheeky and self-referential and goes on about five minutes too long. However, the play’s remaining 80 minutes are fast-paced and packed with moments hilarious and uncomfortable – sometimes hilariously uncomfortable. It’s clear why We Are Proud to Present… won the IGNITION competition: Jackie Sibblies Drury’s script is 95-percent brilliant. Clearly the playwright has worked with actors extensively: the constant “what’s my motivation?” issues are all too familiar, as is the struggle between contributing to an ensemble while standing out as a solo performer. The play-within-a-play format is made even more difficult by the fact that this is a very early rehearsal we are witnessing, not a finished production. Guided by director Eric Ting, Drury’s dialogue and action is so natural, it feels improvised – the theatre troupe doesn’t know where this piece is going, and neither do we. And when racial tension escalates to something truly nasty, everyone in the room is stunned.

 Jake Cohen, Bernard Balbot and Leah Karpel Kamal Angelo Bolden and Tracey Bonner
 Leah Karpel and Jake Cohen  Bernard Balbot, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Tracey Bonner, Travis Turner, Jake Cohen and Leah Karpel

There are some nicely done technical elements at play: Ryan Bourque’s fight choreography runs the gamut from comic to heart-stopping, and Mike Tutaj’s projections are exactly what a low-budget theatre troupe would craft with limited resources at their disposal. Jesse Klug’s final lighting cue is startling and utterly appropriate. Perhaps the strongest element of We Are Proud to Present… after its script, however, is its stellar cast. As actors playing actors, they’re well-versed in the challenges of the creative process which only strengthens their interpretation. Bernard Balbot takes on the German soldier role with alternating eagerness and hesitation, and Travis Turner’s wordless gestures in the last moment of the play speak entire monologues. Jake Cohen handles the most profound line of the play with aplomb – delivered while he’s playing a sassy grandmother, no less. Tracey N. Bonner’s troupe director gamely jumps into the action while also trying (and often failing) to Bernard Balbot and Kamal Angelo Boldencontrol the mounting chaos: this inner conflict is beautifully played out in every facial expression and movement. And Kamal Angelo Bolden embodies outspoken eloquence, at times successfully containing his justifiable rage, at times letting it overcome him. Only Leah Karpel (one of the bright spots of the Griffin’s recent Punk Rock) seems affected at times, but her ditsy, well-meaning “Sarah” just wants to be true to her characters, and that in itself is very endearing.

In the film “Cradle Will Rock”, a Federal Theatre Project administrator fighting government censorship wearily remarks, “We aren’t painting pretty pictures. It must scare the hell out of them.” Indeed, We Are Proud to Present… doesn’t paint pretty pictures: not of the Holocaust precursor that is often skipped over in history books, nor of the current racial landscape, nor of the human race that still has so far to go. But in some cases, a little fear is a good thing. It keeps us on our toes, questioning and discussing our own perceptions and others’, as my friend and I did the whole way home from the play. In a world where a teenage boy is shot for being African-American while wearing a hooded sweatshirt, the danger of history repeating itself is ever-present. We Are Proud to Present… isn’t pretty. It is frightening. But at a time when social consciousness needs a rude awakening, it is essential.

Rating: ★★★½

We Are Proud to Present… continues through April 29th at Victory Garden’s Zacek McVay Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Tuesdays through Sundays.  Tickets are $20-$50, and are available by phone (773-871-3000) or through the theater’s website (check for half-price tix at More info at time: 90 minutes without intermission)

 Bernard Balbot, Kamal Angelo Bolden, Travis Turner, Jake Cohen and Leah Karpel




Bernard Balbot (White Man), Kamal Angelo Bolden (Black Man), Tracey N. Bonner (Black Woman), Jake Cohen (Another White Man), Leah Karpel (Sarah), Travis Turner (Another Black Man)

behind the scenes

Eric Ting (director); Brian Bembridge (set); Jesse Klug (lighting); Mike Tutaj (projections); Sarah Pickett (sound design); Christine Pascual (costumes); Ryan Bourque (fight choreography); Rita Vreeland (stage manager)


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Category: 2012 Reviews, Lauren Whalen, New Work, Victory Gardens, Začek McVay Theater

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