The first thing you notice about the latest play at California State University, Long Beach, which is running through this weekend, is the title. To be precise, the number of words in that title: 27 or so, depending on if years are words.
The full name:
Written in 2012 by Jackie Sibblies Drury, a Brooklyn-based playwright, there is a method to the title’s long-windedness, according to the play’s director, Chris Anthony.
“Yesssssss. Really long title,” Anthony replied via e-mail. “Longest ever. OK, maybe not ever but it has to be in the running. I love it, though. I think that the length of the title speaks to the characters’ striving to tell a story and get everything right. Of course, they don’t. They don’t get it right. But they try.”
Drury’s piece is a play-within-a-play. Six actors are trying to create a piece about a little-known genocide in Africa but as they research it, they find more questions than answers, questions that say as much about contemporary race relations in America as Colonial Africa.
We caught up with Anthony, who is a managing director of California Repertory Company, the graduate arm of CSULB, and lobbed a few questions her way about this production, which is a solely undergraduate production.
OC WEEKLY: How did the theater department catch wind of this play and why did it decide to stage it?
Anthony “The play was suggested by a student, although the faculty has been aware of it for some time. I think that they tried to get the rights earlier but it just happened to work out this year.
Artistic Director Jeff Banishes chose the play for its powerful examination of big ideas that we are grappling with right now. Cal Rep has launched a series called Devising Democracy. In it, we create theater that unpacks some of the issues facing our electorate. We are asking questions about who we are as Americans, and what information we need to make responsible decisions. Dreamers: Aquí y Allá was the most recent entry. While Proud to Present… is not a devised piece, it is definitely in conversation with Devising Democracy.
OC Weekly: This is a play set in late 18th Colonial Africa, but resonates for today’s audiences. Is that because the play comments on race in such a way that it can apply to 2018 America, or it because the play itself is about the staging of a play set in the past and all that brings up for the characters?
Anthony: Actually, the play is set today. 2018. Right here where we are. The characters–only identified by race and gender- 0are working on a presentation about the events of 1884-1915. It creates a play-within-a-play situation. Jackie Sibblies Drury toggles back and forth between process and presentation. We see the polished version and we see them working things out.
In striving to tell a story about German colonization in Africa, the actors keep finding themselves in a very American story, and they don’t really know why.
I think that the author is really looking at the role of narrative in crafting identity: Who gets to write the story? Can we tell someone else’s story if we don’t know our own? History is a construction. Race is a construction. Both rely on narrative as a delivery device. And we build entire systems of power on those stories, sometimes with catastrophic results. The Herero were nearly wiped out by the Germans and those who survived were put into concentration camps and forced into slavery on colonial farms. It is considered by many scholars to be the first genocide of the 20th century, but so few people know about it. The story has not been widely told.
But what’s fascinating to me is that we aren’t always aware that someone constructed that narrative. We take that story as fact, as truth We come to believe that race is real, but it’s not. We come to believe that history happened exactly as the books say, but that’s not necessarily so. Genocide happens over and over again. Hate groups are on the rise. Right here. What stories are fueling that? And where is it going?
OC Weekly: What drew you personally to the play?
Anthony: I am endlessly fascinated by our constructions of race, our perception of history, and the art created in the middle of that negotiation.
We have had discussions about the history of South West Africa, but we also studied American history. Those years, 1884-1915. are important in the development of America, we see the rise of the Jim Crow laws, the rise of lynchings; the post-reconstruction period in America is foundational to the way we think about race, class, and gender. That was a period of rewriting history. There was a concentrated effort to rewrite the history of the Civil War, to literally change what was in the history books.
There are some interesting parallels there, not only did we have to learn what the characters are learning about Namibia and German colonization but we also had to look at America and see what our piece is in it.
OC Weekly: Is it pure coincidence that this play about an African nation, and people, grappling with Colonialism (and what that says about race in America today) is being done at the same time that the film Black Panther is tearing up the box office?
Anthony: It is a happy coincidence! The Black Panther is a fantasy that creates this mythical land of a never-colonized Africa and what we (children of the African diaspora) would be like if we were never colonized. And there’s an emotional resonance that the characters in this play are feeling compared to what Killmonger in The Black Panther is feeling. There’s both an uneasiness and a deep longing for something that was taken away.
We’re in a dialogue, these actors struggle with telling this story. I think we are all struggling to tell our history, to be honest about it, to be clear about it. There’s a depth of emotion that comes from confronting the history of this country, even of this state, this town. Who was here before us? What happened to them? Why aren’t they at the forefront of every story? What is California’s history of genocide? Why did that happen and why we don’t point figures at ourselves?
We can point fingers at the holocaust and say that was the ultimate evil but what do we do about this over here? How do we even begin?
So hopefully this play is one of the ways we can begin. We can at least become aware; we can at least start to ask the questions of ourselves, of our neighbors, and our friends.
“How do you purge yourself of your own history?” is a really big question that I think this play asks and that I’m asking of the cast. There’s a way in which theatre is a ritual, theatre is a religious rite. In the beginnings of Western Theatre in ancient Greece they didn’t make a big distinction between religion and theatre, the theatre was a tool of religion. (And democracy)
What of that theatrical history has come down to us and what does that look like in 2018?
OC Weekly: Anything else you’d like to add?
Anthony: Take a chance on theatre! Some stories are easily told in a movie, but this play is an example of something that is meant to be experienced live. Stay for the post-show discussion. The story doesn’t end with the actors, it ends with you. We need you to be the final character in the play.
CSULB’s University Theatre, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-4500. Thurs., 7 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m. $12-$20. www.web.csulb.edu/colleges/cota/theatre/on-stage-now/index.html