As a student of my own history and place in this world, nothing is more difficult for me than to write about issues of privilege, white-ness, black-ness, and justice in one sitting, because there is so much that can go wrong, so many terms that can be mis-used or mis-assigned, and so many truths that cannot be conveyed in one text. I have done my best. And with all my socio-anthropological know-how, I may still miss the point or offend, for which I am sorry: so is the nature of the subject.
One attends a play about an Afrodeutscher* – Afro-German – living in the years of Nazism and Jim Crow not because of the dramaturgy. One buys the ticket because of the topic, i.e. its novelty and near absence in the German discourse. “Schwarz gemacht”, “Made Black”, at the English Theatre Berlin explores the rich text of race in 1930s Berlin through the experience of Klaus, an unknowing Afro-German – a word that still spikes the air with rarity, German-ness still seen by many as a monopoly of the white-skinned.
But Klaus’s character and his experience of targeted exclusion are not that far from the present, as a conversation with the cast will demonstrate.
The play’s dense telling of a complicated history of race, citizenship, and post-colonialism through dialogue is impressive. Equally worthy of praise is the playwright’s collaboration with a well-versed historian. The Afro-German actor, with a biography startlingly similar to the protagonist he portrays, is also seemingly extraordinary. The most important element, however, relates to its audience and what this means for theater as a medium of cultural critique.
This is not a review of the play, per se, on which the curtains closed this past Sunday. Rather, this is a review of the discussion with the cast, playwright, and director that came after, the sentiments of which will remain prominent and powerful in my mind, long after audience members have discarded their ticket stubs.
Thursday night, we, a primarily white audience, wait patiently for the cast to take their places at the foot of the stage. The protagonist of the play, the actor to play the American jazz musician, the actor to play the German politician, the playwright (Alexander Thomas), and the director file into folding chairs. “Black folks probably wouldn’t go to the theater to see this play in the U.S., let alone have enough money for the ticket. And here, we have a white audience. So, who are we really talking to here? Who is seeing this play?”, says the actor who plays the Black American musician – the play’s connective thread to Jim Crow. The scene seems to agree.
Daniel Brunet, the mustached upstate New Yorker who produces the LAB series for the English Theatre and directed this play, chimes in about the lack of representation of certain “communities” in cultural institutions. The problem of equitable, fair representation is something sure to resound for both American and German audiences, though certainly in different ways.
This problem is an old one. But it rattles and recalls Berlin’s more recent debates on multiculturalism, intercultural politics, and the integration – or just plain tolerance – of difference. “The topic of being German and of being a person of color (p.o.c.) continues, often with little progress”, a p.o.c. from the audience remarks, a hint of a German accent in the throat. This topic is contemporary, indeed.
Can theater change these parameters? Can theater ask for more diversity from institutions that have no incentive to include them?
The playwright, a Black American married to a white German woman, wrote “Schwarz gemacht” as a way to process “the complexity of these issues”. And yet, as he makes perfectly clear, representing his own stereotypes of Germans and “the lack of place in [his] mind for an Other of color in Germany” is central to the play. “Otherwise, I would have been acting dishonestly”, he says, looking into the glare, behind which fragments of the audience, of us, must appear.
The protagonist of the play, himself an Afro-German, speaks, his English flooded with German vowels, his mannerisms oddly similar to his character, who re-asserts his German identity proudly throughout the play in deference to the Othering looks of those around him. This Other, created by the Black American writer, is somehow a reflection of himself, he states, admitting how through rehearsals he struggled to read his lines, even bursting into tears; how the first time he read the play, he felt personally implicated and stripped bare. “I am German, my father left when I was three years old, I grew up with my mother, was born in Hamburg, that is all I have ever known”, he says. The biographies are nearly identical, minus 80 years and a certain regime.
The anger he enacts in the play now takes hold of his voice: the desperation and frustration. “Once I read the script I knew it had to be done, we had to make this play. Though, during intermission, when I was sprawled on the stage in a pile of paper [the stage is composed mainly of bundles and bundles of blank paper], I sometimes thought ‘what am I doing here, who am I talking to’”.
Despite these questions of audience and representation, the play successfully sends a message, one of critique. It weaves the complicated history of American segregation and its sub-human treatment of Blacks with the messianic framing of America’s involvement in WWII. Through the diverse arrangement of its characters, the play scrutinizes American moral authority in the fight against Nazi ideology and fascism, drawing dramatic attention to Jim Crow and the commonalities between racist ideologies.
The parallels between American oppression and Nazi tyranny become painfully clear, eliciting the following question from the audience: “Would you show this play in America? And under what conditions?”
“We would just need a theater to show it”, the playwright says with a smile, confidently speaking for the work alone. “The play was actually meant for an American audience”, he adds, hence the translation of German passages and numerous references to American ‘race sciences’, details often omitted from textbooks. “This is a history of not only segregation but of a science [eugenics and race-based Social Darwinism] that many Americans do not know about”.
Such a truth of ignorance is reflected in the young woman in the play, who claims that the protagonist, Klaus, is not like “the other Negroes back home!”, though she has “never met one”.
“Theater approaches many controversial political topics in the United States, because it can. A very particular demographic is going to the theater; and that is where such issues can be discussed”, Brunet adds.
The playwright explains that he is willing to relinquish artistic license and allow others to define the scope and boundaries of the play’s possible interpretations. Some scenes are based on his own childhood, others on historical research and collaboration with the author of Other Germans, Tina M. Campt, about being a person of African heritage in Germany.
“But what is the point of the play?”, the jazz musician asks, perhaps to the audience, perhaps to no one present in this room. It is not about carving out identity from the crowd, asserting the value of the image in the attic mirror, but rather “about convincing society – the powerful – that exclusion is harmful and degrading to human beings. Now, and back then!”
“The point is, speaking truth to power”, he says, referencing, most notably, Dr. Cornel West, a giant in the continued civil rights movement for people of color, for the exploited lower classes.
Theater is not a dialogue with the masses, nor a dialogue with society in general, however. “Like cultural media and cultural politics, it is a dialogue with the powerful and their ideas”, says Brunet. The rest is some trickle down effect or, as the p.o.c. from the audience adds, “a change in consciousness”.
The camera man, a towering Black man with an equally large voice, speaks to the political or “transformative nature of the play”: “Most people ask themselves the question, are things really that different now? That is what this play does, it asks that question again of the powerful”.
With these words, I instantly feel implicated by my privilege, the things afforded to me on the basis of the position and body I was born into. The room shrinks. I shift in my seat.
We are the audience. We are the ones who should see this play. We shape the discourse, often to the detriment of those who do not fit the desired mold. Theater might be a chance to reflect on critical whiteness, even on its limitations.
One of the members of the cast remarks, perhaps to break a long 15 seconds of silence, “Can we imagine a black actor playing Romeo? A white actor playing Othello? Is it bad that we can’t?” For the sake of this question, “Schwarz gemacht” should be produced in another season, maybe in another city, as a voice in a room with too few listeners.
I sincerely hope that it might be staged in the United States, a country, where diversity often means tolerating the one that is different but disrespecting him or her just the same. As Ta-Nehisi-Coates wrote in The Atlantic this Tuesday, “We are in America, where our absence of virtue is presumed, and we must eat disrespect in sight of our sons. And who can be mad in America? Racism is just the wind, here. Racism is but the rain.”
– By Kelly Miller
*After the Nazi dust had cleared the German capital and West German society had taken root, the Black American poet and activist Audrey Lorde began to popularize the term Afrodeutsche(r) or Afro-German, during her years in the city, effectively building a movement that at least gave a name to an almost invisible population.
For more information on Afro-German history in English, click here. For more information on Afro-German organizations in Berlin and in all of Germany: Initiative schwarze Menschen in Deutschland, Afrodeutsche e.V, Schwarze deutsche Frauen und schwarze Frauen in Deutschland.
For an interesting twist, check out our article on Black Germans (the change of language here was intentional) growing up in the United States to adoptive parents, often in the segregated South.
Photo source: Kelly Miller and Juri Gottschau