It has been described as the first genocide of the 20th century, yet it is relatively little known.
In 1904, an uprising by the Herero people of modern-day Namibia against their German colonial rulers was ruthlessly crushed.
The tribe was driven into the desert by German troops, who allegedly poisoned drinking holes, leaving them to die of thirst. In a matter of months, an estimated 65,000 people – the vast majority of the Herero population – were killed.
Jackie Sibblies Drury stumbled on what is undoubtedly one of history’s darkest episodes after typing ‘black people in Germany’ into Google while researching a play about a black German actor.
“One of the hits was about this genocide I’d never heard of so I did a bunch of research and out of that came this play,” says the Brooklyn-based playwright.
That play is, take a deep breath, 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.
“I liked the idea of a title created by committee, with all the actors having their own say about what bits needed to be in there,” says Drury.
“I hoped it would seem like this random collection of words, the meaning of which would become clear when you sit down to watch the play. Up until now it’s just been something to annoy the marketing people.”
The title may have left publicists fuming but the play itself had the critics salivating. It was featured in New York Magazine’s Top 10 Theater Picks of 2012 and won great acclaim in productions across America.
Drury describes the idea of a play within a play, in which a group of actors discuss how to portray the story, as an attempt both to expose the complexities of recording history and to show its continuing hold on us.
As the cast grapple to present the truth about a distant past in Drury’s comedy, a very 21st century set of political and racial hang-ups emerge within the room.
“I tried to write a more traditional historical drama about the genocide and that play was pretty terrible,” she says.
“It then became more interesting to me to write a play where a troupe of actors fail to tell the story in the same ways I felt I’d failed.
“It’s not just about the historical event itself but how we talk about history, especially history that’s not about the west, in the West.
“If you’re expecting an authoritative history of Namibia you’ll be sorely disappointed, but I think the play allows people to have a conversation about the ways we talk about contemporary racial politics.
“It also encourages people to discuss how we think about contemporary Africa and why we privilege written artefacts over other sources.”
As distant as the Hereros’ tragic fate may seem, it is all too present for those descendants who are still fighting for compensation from Germany.
One family travelled virtually the width of the US to see the play in New York, which Drury described as ‘both gratifying and terrifying’.
“I think it’s frustrating to them how little known this genocide is. They were relieved someone was talking about it at all and excited the play wasn’t trying to tell their story for them,” she said.
The play is the latest in a series of award-winning plays exploring racial politics in modern America, following the likes of Clybourne Park and Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which was staged at the Bush Theatre last summer.
“I think there’s been a lot of discussion about race in the US, especially since Barack Obama’s election,” says Drury.
“There was a period right after he was first sworn in where people started to talk about a post-racial society. That led to an aggressive backlash, especially following the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin (an unarmed black American teenager shot dead by a neighbourhood watch leader in 2012).”
With all the inevitable talk about racial politics it’s easy to forget Drury’s play is above all a comedy, making light of what she calls the absurdity of her profession.
“I do poke a little bit of fun at the processes of acting and making theatre in general,” she says.
“I love actors but spending a lot of time pretending to be another person is an absurd thing to do.”
* We Are Proud to Present… is at the Bush Theatre, in Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, from February 28 to April 12. Tickets are available at www.bushtheatre.co.uk or from the box office on 020 8743 5050.