Interview with Jackie Sibblies Drury: The Reenactors
Jackie Sibblies Drury is a playwright. A graduate of Yale and Brown’s theater programs, Jackie is the inaugural Jerome New York fellow at The Lark Play Development Center, a recipient of a 2012-2013 Van Lier Fellowship from New Dramatists, a New York Theater Workshop Usual Suspect, and a MacDowell Colony Fellow. She grew up in New Jersey.
In the fall of 2012, her play 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 had its New York premiere at Soho Rep, after a praised run at Chicago’s Victory Gardens. Glowingly reviewed by The New Yorker, We Are Proud to Present is a work of theater about empathy, acting, and American and African racial history. It centers on six well-meaning actors, three black, three white, who have decided to make a play about the late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century German slaughter of the Herero people—which, as The New York Times noted in its review, “has been called the first genocide of the twentieth century.” When the play begins, the actors are muddling through a rapid-fire overview of the history of German imperialism in South Africa, the confiscation of land belonging to the Herero and Nama people to build a railroad, and the German “Extermination Order” laid upon the Herero who tried to survive.
We Are Proud to Present takes a permanent detour, however, never getting to the play the actors hope to stage. Instead, the audience watches the actors rehearse. Sharply funny portraits of theatrical egos give way to arguments over the historical source they’ve decided to use, a cache of letters sent home by German soldiers. They agonize over whether they can stage a play about a tribal people who left few archival traces, and whether they, as black and white Americans, can authentically play Germans and Herero. And in trying to dig into their own emotions to do so—their own experience of race and history, profoundly American—their plans go violently, terrifyingly, downriver. Elsewhere in this issue, we’ve shared an excerpt from one of the play’s slightly lighter but only slightly less fraught moments, before things really get dark.
Jackie took the time to discuss We Are Proud to Present with Appendix editor Christopher Heaney between writing and rehearsing her new play, Social Creatures, in which Providence, RI residents take shelter in a theater during a zombie attack. We were honored by the opportunity.
Christopher HeaneySo when you’re at a cocktail party, and somebody asks, ‘What do you do?’—how do you describe your job to them, and the kind of work you’ve created?
Jackie Sibblies DruryThere’s a super-short answer, and then a medium-length answer, and then a really long answer. Normally I just say that I write plays and no one asks any other questions. But sometimes they’re like, ‘What kind of plays do you write?’ And then I tend to say that I would be considered someone who writes experimental plays. And then depending on how obnoxious I’m feeling, I say, ‘But what’s experimental? I don’t really know what that means! And play writing—I don’t know what that means either!’
But I guess what I think of myself as trying to do is write text for performance. To me that means that I try to create language that I can use to collaborate with people to talk about an idea, with a different group of people.
CHHow was history taught where you grew up? What was your consciousness of it?
JSDI think of history as units. I grew up in New Jersey and I went to a small private school where if you studied a unit on Egyptian history you would learn how to make a scarab and write your name in hieroglyphics. You would do a unit on the American Revolution and try to memorize the names of all the battles that happened in New Jersey.
I started realizing that history was something that was dependent, or relative, I guess, in eighth grade in my school. There was a class that was like ‘world cultures or world cultures and civilization,’ and I remember everyone was really excited to take that class because it was the first history class that was one thing for the whole time.
But my class was really disappointed because we had a new teacher who was pretty excited about a book that had just come out: How the Irish Saved Civilization. And that was our textbook. This was supposed to be a world cultures class and we just ended up learning about Irish monks copying and recopying the library of Alexandria. And it seemed very … specific. We thought we were going to be learning about Asia, and India, and Africa, and Europe, but we just concentrated on this one book.
After we went back to programmable sections, I have a very specific memory of being older in high school and talking with my mother, who grew up in Jamaica. I was freaking out about an AP exam and she said, “I’m so glad we didn’t have those when like we were doing Jamaican history.” And I said “How could there be a whole class of Jamaican history?” And then she looked at me like I was crazy, so that was a pretty shameful realization.
So, I have How the Irish Saved Civilization, and mocking my mother for having taken a Jamaican history class when she was in high school. Seminal. [Laughs]
CHDid your mom sit you down and correct you on the Jamaican history? Did she tell you, ‘No, this is worthwhile?’
JSDNo, not really. I think that it wasn’t very important to her. I also think that because of the school that she went to, a lot of Jamaican history was tied up in British history. I’m reading a book right now for this play that I’m working on that’s an ethnography by Zora Neale Hurston about voodoo in Jamaica and Haiti. This is the closest I’ve gotten to reading about Jamaican history, and it’s this voodoo ethnography, which is pretty crazy.
CHWhen did you start to write, as an artist?
JSDDuring college I was in theater, and one of the acting classes that we had to take was a solo performance class with the artist and playwright Deb Margolin, and in that class you had to write pieces about your life that you would have to perform in. She also taught a playwriting class that was separate from that, which I took, but I didn’t spend a lot of time writing creatively until after college, I think. What changed was that I realized that I didn’t actually want to be an actor. I started really trying to write plays, I guess, in my twenties, in New York—not showing them to anybody, but writing them.
CHDid We are Proud to Present start that way?
JSDThat started a little bit later.
I decided to apply to all these playwriting MFA programs, and I quit my job in New York and moved to Chicago and lived with Mark, who’s my husband now, and was getting his masters at the University of Chicago. I was there not having a nine to five job for the first time in a long time, and when I wasn’t applying to different graduate school programs I would also work on various play ideas, and one of them was an idea about this actor who is in a lot of [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder movies. He was this black dude who is the son of an American GI and a German woman, who was born in Germany and speaks German, but in these Fassbinder movies he always plays an American GI and speaks English with a German accent. It’s weird, and he has this weird life where basically, yes, he’s an actor but he never plays German people because he’s black, even though he’s German. And I was like, ‘That’s so interesting!’ So then I googled ‘Black People in Germany’ and I found out about the Herero genocide.
I happened to be at the University of Chicago library, and I was able to do research for free, which was really helpful. I wouldn’t have been able to maintain my interest in the material, otherwise. I read these ethnographies from the seventies about the Herero, and all of this stuff about the genocide, and when I went to grad school, and I started We Are Proud to Present as my thesis.
CHHow would you describe We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia—
CH—I’m going to say the whole thing—Formerly Known as South West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915? I mean, just from the title, you can tell that it’s a play that’s literally bursting at the edges. Is that partly what the title’s about?
JSDAt the center of the play is a relatively simple action: Glancing at a picture of a Herero person that was wrongfully killed by the German government and, for a second, seeing the image of a black person being lynched by a mob in the American South; seeing one history or one image of something that happened and projecting another image, a closer association, over it.
But building up to and examining that split second is what gets really complicated. Why is that history so much more accessible for Americans? Why are Americans so bad at knowing anything about anyone that’s not American—or even American history? And it’s also about peoples’ inability to talk about race in any way that’s not cloying or offensive. It just mushrooms out from this accident.
CHYou ease people into it, though. The title has an almost Wes Anderson cuteness, in the way that it sends up titles of academic history (which almost always have at least two dates). The actors then begin the performance with an awkward lecture about a past that most Americans know nothing about, delivered in a slapstick way that lulls the audience, even though it’s a history of genocide. How did you come upon the idea of starting this play so self-consciously? And what does that do?
JSDI first tried to write a more straightforward play about the genocide. Because I found that so difficult it led to this idea of a group of actors failing to make a piece about the genocide. I also realized that early in a traditional play, you have really painful moments of exposition, where people say things like ‘Oh, have you seen Bill? He’s thirty-four years old today! He’s exactly one year older than his father when he died!’ And you’re like, ‘OK, you’re giving me all this information, and I know this is going to be important later … Ugh.’
I didn’t want to have moments like that, like ‘Oh, the Herero! They’re a tribe!’ I wanted everyone to know about the genocide already, so that we’re instead talking about how we’re thinking about it. So as a sort of as a joke to myself, I thought, ‘Well it would be really great to have a lecture at the top of the play to teach some basics. Or if everyone could pull up the Wikipedia article and read it really fast and then the play could start.’
But I started getting bogged down because I’m not a historian and I don’t feel comfortable speaking with a lot of authority about something that I don’t really know anything about. I realized that I wanted the simplest, least authoritative description possible … and so it took the form of a student presentation. I was in grad school at a really great school where really educated undergraduates would be asked to describe really difficult things. But whenever they touched on cultural studies, or race, or other things that make us uncomfortable, these students’ presentations would either become really ironic and removed and silly, or would latch on to a dry, super-earnest and politically correct script of how we’ve been taught to talk about it. That means that no one ever says anything new; and we have no personal connection to what we’re saying. At all. I mean, ‘Black History is great. Frederick Douglass, he’s a really smart guy.’ And that’s like all you say.
I don’t know why I’m picking on Frederick Douglass. Great hair, that guy.
So I realized that in talking about the Herero it became necessary to talk about race in general, because from the vantage point of an American audience it is really hard to talk about Africa and not imprint American racial dynamics onto it.
CHThe play foregrounds race from the beginning. Instead of giving your characters names, you label them in the script as Black Woman, White Man, Black Man, Another White Man, Another Black Man, and White Woman (who sometimes gets called Sarah). Is their lack of names an attempt to make their personalities less necessary for the audience? Or is that a feint? Because it becomes clear that these are specific people coming from a very specific racial history …
JSDKnowing so little about the genocide and not knowing the name of things are tropes in the play, and I wanted that to continue into the character names.
I also wanted to have the performers— the real performers performing the actors in the room—remove character from their portrayal. A very traditional approach to creating a character is where you separate from yourself, and you say, ‘Oh, I’m playing this guy named Timmy, for breakfast he had Wheaties, his backpack has a Led Zeppelin CD in it, and, oh, a comb that’s missing some of the teeth.’ You create all of these very specific traits and ticks and backstory so that you can embody this thing that is not you.
I was much more interested in having the performers working on the play mold the circumstances that were required for the play to function onto themselves, if that makes sense. There is an inevitability to any sort of play; I mean, you have to get to the end to do the play. And it was an interesting idea to me to use the inevitability, to have the only essential part of the play be the race and gender of the people, and that with the race and gender that these people talking about this thing in this room together have, they are going to end up in the place they’re going to end up in the play.
CHSo after their awkward sprint through forty years of German colonialism and genocide, these nameless actors break into a rehearsal space where they discuss the source that their leader, the Black Woman, is trying to build the play around: a set of letters from German soldiers writing home from Südwestafrika.
Why did you center this first half of the play on these letters? And are they real? Or did you create them for the play?
JSDI’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t look at any letters, at all. [Laughs] I imagine that they existed because in the sources that I was looking at there was mention of soldiers going back and forth, so I imagined that there would be letters. But I did not make any effort to locate or read them at all. The letters came from my attempt to do research. I became super-aware that all the sources I was reading were based on a European vantage on the situation. One of the closest-to-being-first-person African sources that I had was something called The Blue Book, or really an annotated reprint of that book, which was put out by the British government during World War One. It was sort of a pamphlet made up of interviews with Herero and Nama people that had made it to British South Africa. Sort of like a policy paper. But policy paper isn’t really the right word, because to me it read as propaganda, like anti-German propaganda, a way to talk about how morally corrupt and monstrous the German people were during World War One. So the least biased source was actually a super-biased source, and I felt the impossibility of actually getting the Herero’s story. It pointed at this thing that’s an issue in a lot of disciplines, which is how to adequately represent a culture that doesn’t keep records in the same way as our culture. I got really interested in the idea that the only thing these actors had were these letters, the history written by the victors, literally, and Wikipedia. It felt relatively accurate that a group of people who’d read one article about the genocide would find something dusty and old and unrelatable, and the Internet.
CHBut they’re already chafing at using them, as they’re almost entirely focused on the soldiers’ relationship with their girls back home, and only negligibly about the Herero. The actors try these different ways of getting around that erasure, and those white romantic fantasies of Africa. At one point a romantic German letter gets read out loud while the Black Man and Black Woman act out a relationship between a Herero man and woman atop of it. And it feels genuinely touching, but also … complicated. How did you come up with that scene?
JSDAfter committing to the conceit of the letters. I was excited for [the scene] because it literally is a seduction for the actors too. It’s both the one moment that adds a tiny bit of romance to the play—because there’s otherwise nothing romantic about it!—as well as the moment when the ‘blending’ first happens. Where they say ‘I, as a black American actor, can imagine what it is like to be an African Herero who is in love with a Herero African woman, because love is universal.’
It’s an act of empathy that should be a good thing—and is, generally—except that the other side of empathy is erasure. It can be removing the interior life of the person you’re empathizing with and substituting your own. And it’s more dangerous when you do that on a larger scale, culturally.
CHYou push that point. At one point, the Black Man later calls out the letters as “Out of Africa African Queen bullshit.” It’s a funny, great critique, but then it pushes on to a really uncomfortable moment, where the other black male actor does his own very stereotyped version of an ‘“authentic’” African man. And as you put it in the stage notes, “It’s not OK.” This isn’t just a play about white colonial fantasies about Africa.
JSDI don’t think that white Americans are alone in not knowing very much about Africa. [Laughs] And this is where I maybe get into trouble—and this is less specifically in the play perhaps—but I think there is a bourgeois African-American idealization of Africa that is also funny. It’s also in the way that the play is cast. Another Black Man is the one that has this monologue where he becomes African in a very stereotypical and ultimately pretty offensive way. That character generally is an Other kind of black man. He’s either physically smaller, or just hipstery-er, or somehow ‘less black’ in a way. So when his language becomes super sexualized and he talks about how dark his skin is, and all this stuff, he’s like reaching into both a strange nightmare version of a different culture that he doesn’t understand and generalizes, and a different version of how he is perceived or wants to be. A different version of blackness. Which I think is … interesting. A lot of the weirdest portrayals of Africans that I saw growing up were created by African Americans. I think the best example is Coming to America (1988) with Eddie Murphy. I still love that movie, but it’s insane. And it’s created by this African-American performer. It’s interesting.
CHDid you know that your play would be as … well, I was going to say as funny as it is, but I’ve never actually seen it, only read it. Do people laugh?
JSDPeople laugh sometimes. No, People laugh! Some people … It’s funny. It depends. In the different productions people have laughed in different places, in different ways. It is a play where there will be some people who think that it’s super funny and crack up and some people get really annoyed by the first half because they are offended by the humor and so they don’t laugh at all and judge everyone for laughing. Which is also really interesting and works really well when the play shifts and the actors attempt to be more authentic in their roles. They do all these things you’re supposed to do as an actor—putting more of themselves in their roles, but by making it more specific they end up talking more about race in America than a genocide in Africa. And the play becomes less funny.
Or the laughter becomes one of recognition. One of the biggest laugh lines, strangely, is in the middle of an argument about documentation and genocide, and the white actress has a line where she says “It’s not like the Holocaust.” And that makes some people in the audience cry with laughter because it’s so familiarly tone deaf. Having the humor go that way in the second half of the play gets us towards recognizing ourselves in the characters. Which is ultimately pretty important to me.
CHIt’s the issue of empathy again. There’s a key moment a third in, where actor 6, the Black Woman, is talking about looking at the picture of a Herero woman and thinking about family, her grandmother, and African heritage. And while that’s going on you have the other actors fighting over who can best play the Black Woman’s grandmother, and one of the White male actors ‘wins.’ Within that moment we have the play’s first actual violence—where this white male actor, in character as a black grandmother, hits one of the black male actors. And then he tells the Black Woman actor that she can’t walk in other people’s shoes. Reading it, you cringe, because he’s in all but black face—
JSD—in terms of the character—
CH—but it’s a moment that is working at so many levels. You have the black actor talking about empathy and identifying with the Herero and starting the play because of it, while you have the white actor—I don’t know, making a mockery of that?
JSDI really like that moment because it’s such a multilayered kind of irony. Both actors that have played the Another White Man character have done this very neat thing where over the course of that scene they take that black grandmother to a place that feels less stereotypical. Which is insane, but for the scene to succeed, the white actor playing the grandmother must say something that is very true in that moment.
CH‘You can’t walk in other people’s shoes.’ That there’s that danger in empathy. It’s not just a limit to understanding what other people are, but also ‘Do you understand yourself? And where you’re coming from?’
JSDYeah. Exactly that. And that it’s hard to even understand yourself, because the way you are, or how you are, is made up of so many things, is so complex. Being able to empathize with someone’s story is pretending that their life is a linear thing that could be understood. There’s so much that goes into understanding someone else’s situation. It’s very complicated.
CHI feel like you’re doing things here with theater that history struggles with. There’s plenty of theory on how historians and anthropologists studying interestingly foreign peoples are often studying their own assumptions. But what theater can do is take on that criticism and act it through to a more emotional and universal question standing outside history: how can we empathize with anyone honestly?
JSDI have learned that I am not an academic. I am really bad at coming up with a thesis. Or coming up with a question and answering it. The thing that I love about trying to write plays is that in theater you have the luxury of not having to have one thesis. Instead you can have a matrix of questions. Most plays that I like don’t really answer any of them. You’re able to bandy ideas about without offering a resolution or a conclusion. It’s an exciting way to engage really big questions, I think, if you don’t have the pressure of concluding ‘Well, empathy … is a good thing. Or a bad thing.’ So I can let myself off the hook.
CHDo you think the actors within your play knew how their play was going to end?
JSDAh! I think—I have no idea. I have never thought about that. That’s so funny. I think that they didn’t think about the ending of the show, but I think that they assumed that after they ended it, people would rise to their feet and applaud their good work at making a play about such an important thing. I think that that’s what they were thinking about. I have no idea how they think the play would end.
CHLike they’re trying to push towards this ringing endorsement of recovery of this horrible event, and congratulations to them for having done it? In a way that’s really earnest and well meant, but you know—
JSDYeah, because—I didn’t mean to interrupt—but I don’t think that that’s a bad thing, I think that all the actors in the play are good people. I think they all have better intentions than a lot of people that are doing things. They all want to create; they all think that this is a story that is important; they’re all interested in educating the audience. These are admirable qualities. And so I have a lot respect for them.
CHDid you know when you started—and we’re dancing around it—how the play would end? Because the play that the actors are trying to rehearse does not end up in a ‘happy’ place. It’s hard to imagine audiences meeting its final moments with anything but horror. As an intro to talking about it, do you want to give a little summary?
JSDI’d be curious to see how you’d summarize it!
CHWell—and this is going to have heavy spoilers, but—over the course of the play the actors, in their attempts to find emotional ways in to their Herero-German improvisations, start drawing from U.S. history. Particularly that of the American south, white racism, slavery, and Jim Crow. In the end, all of the actors make a last push to get at the intensity of the Herero genocide but what comes out is a horrific Jim Crow musical number that culminates in some very real violence against one of the black male actors. Any pretense of representing the Herero is dropped, and the actors, white and black, act out what feels like an American passion play of lynching, fear, and the torture of black bodies. The actors are only shaken out of it when the white actors place a noose around the Black Man’s neck, and the Black Man breaks character, just before the worst happens. You’re clear in the stage directions that all of the violence is real, so when we reach that moment, the stakes feel different.
I’d be curious to know how audiences feel when they’re going through it. I’d be curious to know how the actors feel going through it, whether anyone can talk to each other after the play. Because it goes off the rails in the worst of ways, which is what’s amazing for the drama. I don’t mean that it shouldn’t be going in that direction. But it goes there.
JSDYeah. For the most part … it feels like there’s some sort of train going on some sort of path, and there’s a curve and the train keeps on going straight. The moment asks a lot of the performers. It asks … It’s hard to do. It’s hard to get to the place that it needs to get to.
I feel so indebted to the director I’ve been working with, Eric Ting, because there’s something super-meta-theatrical in that moment. It forces the director of the show to force the performers to go to a place where they are uncomfortable—which is what happens to the characters in the play. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing and really professional people, but the days in rehearsal when we actually put that part on its feet … are dark days. Generally someone cries. Generally someone gets upset. Or into some sort of argument about it. Which is appropriate. Which feels right.
There’s something also in it that’s … I think that it’s a hard scene for everyone. It’s hard for everyone in different ways and it’s hard in racially specific ways. Which makes it hard to rehearse, I think. It’s also hard because it’s asking the white actors to be incredibly ugly, and ugly in a way that no one I have worked with has felt comfortable being. They have to say the most racist stuff of the play, and say it as a joke, which makes it uglier … but both the actors in the play and the performers performing it are doing that out of the best intentions, which is also complicated. I think that I tell the performers that they have to perform it in a horrifying enough way that it will shock the audience into the horror of empathizing with an experience that’s really familiar to some black people. Which is, I think, a really noble goal.
How audiences have reacted to it has been really varied. The way that we performed it in New York was that the audience comes into the theater space, and it’s like a black box, like a rehearsal room, and the audience members have to set up their own chairs around the edges of the space. That was important to Eric because he thought that it would be really good to have the audience have a sense of agency early on. And to sustain that agency, we had this very complicated system for how the play ended. But the audience’s reaction was always different. Sometimes people were upset, visibly affected. There was one night where people were checking their cell phones before all the actors had left the stage. And so I think it really depends. I think that it can be a very affecting experience. But I think people respond to that in different ways. Some people shut down and leave right away and some people … don’t.
CHSo much depends on whether the audience is willing to get into that last emotional space. That last section isn’t just action, but full-on spectacle: choreography, singing, music. Were you trying to overwhelm the audience’s ability to analyze, trying to turn off their consciousness, or were you trying to push awareness?
JSDI think it was sort of the former. I wanted the moment to feel really huge and overwhelming but then the other aspect of it was that I, like, I wanted–and this sounds horrible—but I wanted it to actually feel like a lynching. Like I wanted it to be like a sort of spiritual lynching. And so I thought that the way to have that happen in a theater and involve that audience in it—to have the most theatrical interpretation or translation of how I imagine the atmosphere at an actual lynching was—was to give it this rhythm, this beat, that makes some people in the audience tap their foot to it, or shake their head to it. There’s seven beats to the measure in the music of it, so it feels like it’s always jumping forward. It’s really a driving, primal moment. And I think that the musicality of it, the strong rhythms of it, is also perversely inviting. You sort of want them to stop but you also want to encourage them. To have the feeling that it’s going to keep going. That if you catch the rhythm … you catch the rhythm, I guess.
CHHave you seen audience members nodding their head and tapping their feet?
JSDYeah. And then being not happy about it. Not consciously. Watching and having their bodies move, because the rhythm of it lasts for five minutes. You can sort of see people being drawn into it.
CHHave you ever paid attention to the audience when the music stops, and the black actors asks to get the noose off of him? Does the feeling change within the theater? I can’t imagine that it doesn’t.
JSDIt’s always different. The black actor that has a noose around him storms out, and the Black Woman actor goes after him, and while people are very focused on that, the racial dynamics of the actors left on stage shifts. When two of the black actors leave, the third becomes less visible and less present. And then it’s sort of like the three white actors in the space, alone. And I feel like the audience at that moment … there’s a lot going on. In some ways, for some people, I think, there’s a slight sense of relief at not having to look at a black person anymore. But for some people, the people that were very emotionally affected by the previous moment, there’s also a sense of relief at having it stop, having it not keep going. There’s been some people who have said that if it had kept escalating and escalating and escalating, they would have walked out. It was getting to the point of discomfort where they didn’t want to do it anymore.
There have been alternate endings after the ending, especially in graduate school, where someone had this big monologue and all this stuff. But after the lynching, I think that people generally want the play to be over. There are non-verbal things that happen after that, but the play doesn’t ask you to take any more language in. It just sort of asks you to sit in your reaction long enough to react to it–and sort of deal with watching the actors react to it. And that hopefully allows you to feel your actual reaction, I guess.
It’s a super ambiguous moment. It’s scary hard when you’re dealing with something as sensitive as race. People aren’t used to ambiguity in dialogues about race, I think.
CHIt’s not just the lack of words in that last moment. The play’s objects also do a lot of work. The actors start with what they think is going to be their source, the German letters, and they talk about it, and deconstruct it, but in the course of doing that they create their own sources and objects, which the other black male actor is left to clean up at the end of the play. A crumpled cup thrown down in a moment of anger. The noose. Empty bottles of water. And the white paper mask, which I wanted to ask about.
To give a little background on it: during that final Jim Crow climax one of the white male actors takes, I don’t know, it could be a piece of their script, or it could be one of the German letters, but a white piece of paper and he turns it into a mask with holes for eyes and a mouth. And then he places it over one of the black male actors’ face and begins to speak for him. And it’s this horrifying moment of beyond blackface, whiteface, that’s just… there’s so much being said by it—if it is the German letter—about sources and who’s talking through them. But it’s also just terrifying. Where did that image come from?
JSDTo me, it was going back to what the letters meant at all. It’s important to me that the piece of paper that becomes a mask … it’s gone back and forth: it’s either supposed to be one of the German letters, or, in this last production of it, there’s an earlier moment in the play where the actors move everything around and push all of this stuff on stage to one side of the space. And in that moment, the way that Eric the director staged it, they also throw around copies of the extermination order, which is what the German general Otto von Trotha created to … Yeah, the extermination order. I don’t need to explain that. But in this last production it was the extermination order that was put over his face. And those two things mean different things, obviously, but initially the idea for it came from, not to say the same cliché again, but ‘History is written by the victors.’ When I was reading the sources that I was reading, there felt like there was a white voice parroting a black perspective. So theater’s all about images and I just wanted to create that image, of what that kind of misrepresentation is, in a very stark way.
CHThat mask is one of the reasons that I think that, wherever this play goes, historians need to see it with their students. Whether they’re teaching world history or U.S. history. That will be in the interview, that’s your plug.
CHSo where is the play going now? Could you ever see it going to South Africa or Namibia, or Germany?
JSDThere’s a strong possibility that there will be some production of it in Great Britain and in Germany. There was a reading at the English Language Theater in Berlin, which is a pretty awesome theater, and I have no idea how it was cast. I have no idea if there were any black people in it. I really hope so. The play is so specifically American, so it’s funny to think about what it would be like with different actors from a different place. I have no inroads to any theaters in South Africa, but I would really love to do this play there and have a conversation about it. Whenever I talked with people who were either Herero, who had come to see the play, or from Africa, they had a very interesting perspective and were really engaged with it. So I would love to do the play sort of anywhere in Africa. To do exactly what the characters do: ‘Anywhere in Africa would be great! It’s all the same to me!’
Specifically doing it in South Africa seems logistically more likely, but I would be really excited to go to Namibia with it. But there are other productions in the works, and I’m excited to know that it will definitely happen again, with different casts and different designers. To see how it will change, with different actors.
CHI have one last question. What does it feel like for you when you get to the end of the play? You talked about the actors doing a very noble thing in taking on this extraordinary ugliness, one of the worst parts of American history, and how it haunts us, even as we try and understand the genocides and violence elsewhere. But you yourself, having lived with the play for so long, is there a cumulative effect of going through it? There’s the excitement of other people getting to see the play, but I guess I’m asking ‘Is there also an emotional exhaustion?’
JSDI feel … I had to stop going to see the play when it was New York. Even though it was happening every night. Both play processes that I’ve been involved in, with We Are Proud to Present, have been so important, and I’ve learned so much about the play and about theater in general but I also … I have wanted to be emotionally available to my collaborators. And that’s kind of exhausting to me and—this is gross—but at the end of seeing the play with an audience I would get up and realize that I was drenched in sweat. I would sit there, so incredibly nervous, incredibly embarrassed, and incredibly anxious for the performers … it became kind of unpleasant. I like the emotional exhaustion of working on it. But watching it and being past the place where I can change a line, or talk to the director Eric, or do anything … just sort of watching it, I think is… it is kind of unbearable. But I think that’s good, I think that it’s doing something, and it’s still working on me. I don’t want to get to a point where I see it and I’m not nervous or embarrassed by it.