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Does German theatre have a race problem?

BLACK FACE? IN GERMANY? The country is becoming more multi-ethnic, but German theatre seems stuck in its all white past. In the wake of Berlin’s shocking ‘blackfacing’ scandal, is it time to address racism on stage?

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Unschuld at Deutsches Theater

On December 16 last year, the small, private Schlosspark Theater in the south-western middle-class suburb of Steglitz posted a new placard for the repertoire play Ich bin nicht Rappaport on its Facebook page. The image shows the popular 76-year-old comedian Dieter Hallervorden cracking a broad, slapstick grin as he passes a spliff to fellow actor Joachim Bliese (also 76), whose face has been painted black for his role as an African-American in a play about two old men who hang out in Central Park.

The Schlosspark team was nervous about the public’s reaction, but not for the reason you might expect: they were worried about how people would respond to two men smoking a joint. That the unabashed, unironic use of blackface in an all-white production would elicit a huge outpouring of negativity and condemnation came entirely unanticipated.

“We simply couldn’t find a suitable black actor,” a still unrepentant Harald Lachnit explains. The theatre’s press spokesman is to this day baffled by the widespread outrage that erupted after the poster’s release. By January, when the play premiered, a veritable viral shitstorm had hit the 200-year-old theatre. To make things worse, the contentious poster was plastered throughout the BVG network.

“Blackfacing – regardless of the intentions behind it – is unacceptable. It hurts people,” read one Facebook comment. “This is just racism, so inform yourselves!!!” said another user. Up to 1500 negative comments were posted per day, many drawing reference to racist 19th-century America, when white actors often blackened their faces and performed stereotyped caricatures in what were known as minstrel shows.

“How can Germany in the 21st century resort to such a primitive practice of racial profiling?” asked one commenter. “You should be ashamed!”

Blackface in Germany

Making up white actors to look like black people has a long history in Germany. Just last September, satirist Martin Sonneborn drew criticism for painting his face black for a campaign poster for his joke political party Die Partei – with the Kennedy-referencing slogan “Ick bin ein Obama”.

I’m not Rappaport, by the American playwright Herb Gardner, is about two elderly friends, one Jewish, the other African-American. In the 40 times it’s been staged in Germany since premiering in 1987, a black actor has only played the African-American lead twice. “And no one ever complained until now,” says Lachnit. The difference this time, he believes, lies “in the power of the internet”. “We just got caught in the crossfire.”

One might expect such a reaction from those who had a hand in the production; more baffling was the German media’s reaction in the weeks that followed. Most commentators barely scratched the surface of the underlying racism, repeating clichés and ultimately concluding that there was no problem here, at most some kind of “misunderstanding”. Throughout the national press commentators espoused derivations of a particularly dense sentiment: “If only black actors should be allowed to play black roles, does that mean only Danish princes can play Hamlet?”

In the wake of this pseudo-debate, theatres argued flaccidly that blackface arises out of necessity: they simply lack the budget to include black actors in their ensembles because of the scarcity of “black roles”, referring either to characters explicitly written as black, or to stereotypically black parts, like DJs, asylum seekers, criminals and servants. Few journalists seemed bothered.

Impervious to criticism, Schlosspark decided to carry on with I’m not Rappaport exactly as planned: with their lead actor blacked up to look like an ‘African-American in Central Park’.

Salt in the wound

On a Sunday night in February, a performance of the play Unschuld by Dea Loher (photo) at the esteemed Deutsches Theater (DT) brought the issue back to the stage. Forty-two audience members silently left the room after two white actors (playing black illegal immigrants Elisio and Fadoul) appeared on stage in blackface. The protesters, it later turned out, were members of Bühnenwatch, an anonymous online network formed after the Schlosspark Theater controversy.

Yet Bühnenwatch, for all its good intentions, may also have missed the point. The blackface technique used in Unschuld is of a different nature: the actors wear black ‘masks’ that gradually come off as the play progresses. The intention is to engage the audience into a reflection about otherness, the condition of ‘looking’ different, hence feeling alien and rejected – ultimately a reflection on and against racism.

“Theatre is there to challenge stereotypes and personal ideological structures. It criticises the othering process,” says DT artistic director Ulrich Khuon. Yet fired up by the Schlosspark scandal, Bühnenwatch activists felt the DT had overstepped the boundaries of artistic license.

This was not the first time DT had to deal with the sensitive issue of skin colour: in December, American Pulitzer-winning playwright Bruce Norris withdrew his play Clybourne Park after the theatre gave one of the black lead roles to a white actress (the other black lead was supposed to be played by Ernest Allan Hausmann, a black actor now performing in Die Kommune at the DT).

“This was totally unfair,” says Khuon.

According to him, occasional moments of offence are inevitable when it comes to artistic license, and it is important to stand behind your work at those times. “There is nothing worse than politically correct art that says nothing. It’s much better to be open about your opinions, potentially cause controversy, but also let debates form.”

Debates did form in the case of Unschuld, because after the protest, the DT organised several discussions with the demonstrators, including an audience talk with the actor who plays Elisio, Andreas Döhler.

Ultimately, it was decided that the play would be continued with the two actors’ faces painted white. “That decision is not about being friendly or making concessions. It’s because the purpose of theatre is not to insult minorities, but to give majorities cause for reflection,” says Khuon. Point taken.

The post-migrant vanguard

There are no official figures, but a look at the ensembles of the city’s major theatres will suffice to reinforce your suspicions: as in theatres across Germany, the Berlin stage is almost exclusively white, with the noteworthy exception of Maxim Gorki Theater’s Michael Klammer, an actor from South Tyrol of Italian-Nigerian origins. Other theatres might hire non-white actors for a particular play (this is the case with DT, which claims 17 percent non-white actors), but permanent ensembles are almost all white.

The exception that proves the rule is Ballhaus Naunynstraße, the 100-seat Kreuzberg theatre that was successfully relaunched in 2008 by Turkish-German director Shermin Langhoff with the mission of reflecting “post-migrant” issues while involving immigrants and first- and second-generation Germans as actors, playwrights and directors.

“When we founded this theatre we wanted to fill a gap both thematically and socially,” says head dramaturge, Tunçay Kulaoğlu, “to create a space for post-immigrant stories to be told, and to give these people the opportunity to tell their stories.”

Naunynstraße is not just exceptional for its multicultural underpinnings but also for the success it has enjoyed: sold-out performances pretty much every night of the week and a few house plays catapulted to the upper echelons of German-language theatre, such as Nurkan Erpulat’s Verrücktes Blut, now in repertoire.

The year following its premiere, Erpulat was invited to showcase among the German-language crème de le crème at Berlin’s Theatertreffen festival – an unprecedented achievement for a play by a Turkish playwright, from a “post-migrant” theatre.

It is hard to believe that Naunynstraße and Schlosspark exist in the same city at the same time. How does one justify a cultural myopia that sees no problem with plastering Ich bin nicht Rappaport posters throughout the U-Bahn? German opera and dance ensembles tend to show more ethnic diversity – so why is German theatre so white? The question must be asked: is German theatre racist?

Race on stage

According to Khuon, until not so long ago it was rare to have a non-white actor audition. Confirming this, the Ernst Busch Hochschule für Schauspielkunst, Berlin’s most reputed acting school, prudently concedes that although they have no statistics concerning people of colour, “generally speaking” their applicant pool for theatre is definitely “whiter” than for dance.

“For me this debate is misconstrued,” objects Ballhaus Naunynstraße’s Kulaoğlu. “It is not a question of ethnicity, but of society and social opportunities.” Experience suggests that recent immigrants strive for more traditional, stable professions, such as doctor or lawyer. Or perhaps the issue is the more obvious language barrier, which new immigrants have to overcome.

Language cannot be a factor in the case of Lara- Sophie Milagro, an Afro-German born-and-raised Berliner and the founder of the all-black theatre company Label Noir. “I wouldn’t say other forms of theatre are more open exactly,” says Milagro. “It’s just that music and movement are in the foreground. Whereas in straight theatre, it’s the actor with his or her physical appearance, language and voice.

So the question is, who is allowed to represent society on stage? And apparently the answer shows why that scene is so white.” Label Noir started in 2007 to give professional black actors a space to share their (too often bad) experiences.

Unsurprisingly, members were incensed by the blackface scandal. Their position is that the practice should be banned pure and simple, whatever the meaning behind it. But they also welcome the debate it sparked: “I’m definitely glad these protests took place,” says Label Noir member Dela Dabulamanzi, “because although we have a fight ahead of us, this is also a time of possibilities.”

Black on the agenda

This summer Shermin Langhoff will officially be handing over the management of Ballhaus Naunynstraße to Tunçay Kulaoğlu and Brazilian choreographer Wagner Carvalho. They are already planning their programme – and ‘the black issue’ is high on the agenda, with two events that already happened in May, the BE. BOP 2012 Black Europe Body Politics conference and “Facing Black People”, a panel discussion about blackface.

Khuon also wants to bring race to the table in his role as head of the Intendantengruppe (theatre director’s group) in the Bühnenverein (German Stage Association). At the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, more ethnic contrast than ever was at this year’s Theatertreffen in May with Milo Rau’s Hate Radio about the Rwandan genocide with five Rwandan/Belgian actors and Ein Volksfeind, directed by Lukas Langhoff and starring the black actor Falilou Seck.

The question is, will such efforts be enough – or would political interventions such as a quota system be more effective? Reactions to the idea are mixed. “Germany is not as ethnically diverse as other countries, but it is becoming more globalised,” says Khuon. Multiculturalism remains an unclear concept, and Germans “are still learning that this idea of a pure culture doesn’t exist, nor did it ever, and that it would be terrible if it did.” According to Khuon, this means issues of racism and multi-ethnicity have to be addressed faster, which quotas at theatres could encourage.

“Quotas may make sense at the educational level,” says Kulaoğlu. “But it’s the individual that counts. Otherwise, there is a danger that you have some quota Turkish guy who’s actually whiter than snow. A look at politics will suffice to prove that.” Label Noir suggests that cultural governing bodies and steering committees would be a prerequisite and a good starting point.

Everyone seems to agree that in the battle between artistic freedom and political correctness, there should be a productive creative middle way. When it comes to race, theatre makers need to become more aware that artistic license does not exist in a political vacuum. “But we cannot be politically correct about issues like racism and check them off lists like duties,” says Khuon. “They have to move us emotionally.”