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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Okay, this week we have to get the title out of the way first. Hold on it's a doozy,

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.

That's the play by Jackie Sibblies Drury at the Matrix Theatre.

Despite the wordy title, the setup is fairly simple: a company of six actors, three black, three white are trying to create a show, or presentation, about an African genocide from the last century. Our setting: a spare rehearsal room/theater. We, the audience, are there watching something that's sort of a rehearsal and sort of a performance.

We watch the mixed race ensemble struggle with how to tell a story that's not their own: one where the German colonizers slowly decimate a native tribe. They alternate between playing the actors in rehearsal and inhabiting characters from the story. Along the way, this history and the notion of who's story it is and exactly how distant these distant fires are comes crashing down as quickly as Paula Deen's recent southern implosion. Foreign stereotypes morph into a racist ritual that's a little too close for comfort.

It feels odd to say this but it falls into the meta-theatrical docu-drama genre: theater about the making of theater about a real life event. Conceptually, its ancestors are Six Characters in Search of an Author, Marat/Sade (a play that has an equally unwieldy title) mixed with the spirit of The Laramie Project. Performatively, it's one part Story Theater and one part actors asking 'what gives us the right to tell a real story.' If you saw Ganesh Versus the Third Reich at UCLA, you'll recognize the structure.

The production is inventively and beautifully acted and directed. It's part of a string of challenging plays revolving around race at the Matrix Theatre. Over the last few years Matrix producer Joseph Stern has scaled back to one show a year. He's picked really challenging plays and done them well. It's another example of how a consistent vision pays off over time and proof that sometimes less really is more.

I know it's sacrilege to ask but do we have too much theater in LA?

For a number of years the defensive cry of LA theater was 'You know more plays open in LA each year than New York.' While that may be true is it really a useful metric? What if LA's theater companies committed to doing only a single play a year? What would happen?

If the Matrix is any indication - the quality of LA theater would greatly improve.

But back to this production . . . if you can get past the title and forgive a bit of theatrical navel gazing - it's 90 conceptually and theatrically thrilling minutes.

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 plays through August 11 at the Matrix Theatre on Melrose.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 90 minutes without an intermission


Banner image: Rebecca Mozo, Daniel Bess, Phil Lamarr and Joe Holt in We Are Proud to Present…. Photo: Jillian Armenante

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