- - Thursday, February 27, 2014

Challenging dramatizations are nothing new to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which in recent years has performed plays featuring defections from North Korea, professional wrestlers cast as terrorists, and even a darkly comic retelling of the JonBenet Ramsey murder.

But its newest production — with a Twitter-defying title and its depiction of the rehearsals of a play-within-a-play about what is considered to be the first genocide of the 20th century — might be Woolly Mammoth’s boldest venture yet.

“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,” referred to by members of the company as “We Are Proud to Present,” portrays a theater company rehearsing a play about the attempted extermination of the Herero and Namaqua people by German military forces.

Initially a satire that pokes fun at company members who have difficulty discussing race, the play eventually turns dark, and by its end depicts what Woolly Mammoth founder Howard Shalwitz calls “almost a reenactment of a lynching.”

“I think the play is intended to set itself up as starting in comedy, and the comedy becomes a bit more corrosive, and then at some point it’s not funny anymore,” said director Michael John Garces. “The play moves from sort of a biting comedy into something that’s more of an unearthing and an examination that’s really troubling, troubling about artistic process and about power and race relations and violence in both the United States and the world.”

The idea of unearthing something troubling is woven into the Woolly Mammoth’s current season, centered on the theme of “America’s Telltale Heart,” from the famed Edgar Allan Poe story.

“The concept of America’s telltale heart is secrets that lie buried underneath the floorboards of American life,” Mr. Shalwitz said. “The secret underneath the floorboards here is our own racial legacy and how that affects our ability to tell someone else’s story.”

The nature of the play created difficulty for actor Andreu Honeycutt, who initially struggled with understanding the aims of playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s text.

“I couldn’t tell whose side she was on when telling the story or who I am rooting for, because I could see the faults in all the characters,” he said.

Yet he was eager to participate in the production due to the play’s frank examination of racial issues.

“In my day-to-day life, I do not tend to have conversations with friends or with other people that deal with race, because I don’t think it will lead anywhere if both parties are not willing to actually listen and stick it out, and if one retreats there’s no point,” Mr. Honeycutt said. “With this production, it gave me the freedom to have the conversation with cast members, the director, and the production team, because we were all on the same page, we want it to be effective and not just shocking.”

With the National Theatre currently in between productions of “American Idiot” and “Mamma Mia!” and the Kennedy Center preparing to welcome “The Lion King” this summer, Woolly Mammoth could be forgiven if it moved toward less challenging fare in an attempt to attract audiences. Yet Mr. Shalwitz said the theater company has grown to its current stature over the past 34 years precisely because of its fearlessness.

Woolly’s goal is to challenge our artists and our audiences in ways that are fun and exciting and theatrically adventurous,” he said. “People can enjoy Woolly who are Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, because we’re trying to come at audiences from unexpected points of view. We would rather be politically challenging and uncomfortable and prickly and put images in front of people that make them think and surprise them, rather than just congratulating our audience for being the people they are.”

The political nature of the D.C. audience was one of the prime considerations that drew Mr. Garces to direct the play.

“One of the things I was excited about in reading this script was the opportunity to direct this in Washington. People are engaged in the nature of international relations and how countries affect each other and the nature of imperialism. This plays out all the time in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “The play is also about domestic American violence and race relations, and D.C. is a city riven by really problematic race relations, so I was excited to work on this play in Washington, D.C.”

Washington also offers cultural opportunities that allow Woolly Mammoth to deepen the conversation for its audiences. A recent performance was followed by a Q&A with Ngondi Kamatuka, president of the Association of the Ovaherero Genocide discussing the historical legacy of the genocide.

“Those are fantastic Washington opportunities that not every city would have,” said Mr. Shalwitz.

Despite the play’s serious nature and troubling topics, Mr. Shalwitz believes audiences of “We Are Proud to Present” will enjoy themselves.

“Aside from the political, our work is fun. At Woolly, we love comedy,” he said. “A lot of our comedies get pretty serious like ‘We Are Proud,’ but we like writers who don’t take themselves too seriously and have fun with an issue.”

Having fun with the issues of this play is certainly a challenge, but for a company who found comedy in the death of JonBenet Ramsey, Woolly is up to the task.

WHAT: “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”

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW, Washington, D.C. Box Office: 202-393-3939

WHEN: Now through March 9

TICKETS: $40 to $52.50

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