But Brooklyn playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury — whose work has been developed in the Bay Area but never produced here until now – has a serious agenda.
That she can make the topic of race relations, in all its complexity, so theatrical, so entertaining and so provocative makes one long to see more from her. And Just Theater’s excellent cast, as directed by founder-co-artistic director Molly Aaronson-Gelb, fills every moment with visceral, bristling life.
The actors and their director (played by Kehinde Koyejo) are devising a play based on an obscure historical incident: Eighty percent of the native Herero people of what is today Namibia were exterminated at the turn of the 20th century, to “make the country safe for Germans.”
The cast of the play-within-the-play, who, based on race, play the Hereros and the Germans, have little to work with in terms of evidence — just some extant letters written by German settlers to their wives back home, and the historical fact that the Herero were there, living their lives in the hot desert landscape, and then they weren’t. Using those letters as a starting point and basis for the narrative, the group struggles to construct its theater piece through a series of improvisations, including songs, animal characterizations, role-playing and choreographed movement.
In between improvs and exercises, they discuss their progress, with increasing acrimony along the racial divide as the actors identify ever more deeply with their roles. The actor (we never learn their actual names) playing White Man (Lucas Patton) in the play-within-the play locks horns, so to speak, with Black Man (David Moore), each one attempting to appropriate the narrative to fit his own worldview.
“If we’re in Africa I want to see some black people!” shouts the enraged Black Man, as he sees White Man seizing control of the plot.
The whole point about this is to show that we’re all alike, protests the African-American director feebly.
Another White Man (Patrick Kelly Jones) tends to argue about everything; Another Black Man (Rotimi Agbabiaka, who is also the choreographer) is not necessarily always in agreement with Black Man.
The amazingly energetic and physically skilled Megan Trout plays Sarah, the German wife back home who receives the letters, which tellingly never mention the wholesale slaughter underway.
Drury’s inventive play, with its completely unpredictable ending, may take you someplace you’ve never been before.
We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915
Presented by Just Theater with Shotgun Players
Where: Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes March 7
Tickets: $20 to $25
Contact: (510) 214-3780, www.justtheater.org