from left: Christopher Garofalo, Marcus Briddell, Abigail Garber (in background), Jeremy Konopka
At UArts, we know that it takes courage to make art. Courage to ask difficult questions about oneself and one’s world. Courage to share your work with others and to risk criticism or, worse, indifference. Courage simply to confront a blank page or empty canvas or dark stage and to begin to fill it.
I’ve been watching students here muster the courage to make their art for years. Their fearlessness–which I’m quite certain I didn’t possess when I was in college–never fails to impress me.
And again, last weekend, I saw something that drove home just how much risk our students are willing to take in service of their art. Students in our Brind School of Theater Arts performed Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “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″ Directed by Matt Pfeiffer, who’s worked at the Lantern, the Arden, Theater Exile, and more, the play depicts a group of actors rehearsing a theater piece about the genocide of the Herero people by the German colonial government.
Over the course of the play, the actors squabble over who will play what part, how they will use source materials, who’s better at improvisation. But their attempts to imagine and, ultimately, to present the experience of the Herero (and of the German genocidaires) lead them–perhaps inevitably, the playwright seems to suggest?–to re-enact the history of American racial conflict and to enact the legacy of American racism anew.
Encouraged by their actor training to dig into their own experiences and emotions in order to discover the truth of the play, the characters (who are actors, remember) first argue over whether it’s even possible to access such distant and abhorrent feelings before slowly uncovering their own (not-s0) deeply buried racism and allowing it to surface in shocking and violent ways.
It’s not an easy play to watch. It’s got to be an even more difficult play to perform, given how it makes actors and the strategies they use to create characters its central conceit. When I saw the piece, the audience was in shock; afterwards, many were in tears. This was, in part, because of the power of Drury’s play. But it was also because the audience–made up of friends, family, and fellow students–watched that thin layer that separates performance from reality disintegrate, saw actors exposed as people who might really feel what they’re playing at feeling.
The actors must be experiencing the same thing from the other side: they’re not simply being asked to say and do reprehensible things; they’re being asked to accept that those terrible words and actions may lie just beneath the veneer of performance, ready to burst forth violently. In some ways, that’s always true for actors, no matter what the play; but there’s something about this piece that just strips the conventions of performance away.
And our students didn’t hesitate. They were there, fully present with the script to the very depths of its depths. I don’t know what that took. I almost can’t imagine it. I walked out without speaking to anyone; I had to clear my head. They did it over and over and over again. It’s astounding. It’s courageous. To the cast of “We Are Proud to Present…”–Aaron Bell, Marcus Briddell, Abigail Garber, Christopher Garofalo, Jeremy Konopka, Candace C. Moore–I say congratulations. And thank you for your courage to make art no matter what it costs or where it takes you. You represent the best of UArts.