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On stage: Stay or go?

Two plays take to the Berlin stages this month, forefronting experiences of race, otherness and identity in German society. Nathalie Frank explores the motivations and backgrounds behind ETB's Schwarz Gemacht and Ballhaus Naunynstr.'s Telemachos.

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Photo by Benjamin Krieg

Two plays hitting Berlin stages this month touch on different aspects of a theme near and dear to expat hearts: identity.

It all started with an “almost embarrassing” question, remembers American actor and playwright Alexander Thomas. “My German wife showed me her high school yearbook, and there was a black girl in the class. So I asked, was she from Africa? But no, she was German, she spoke German, she thought in German…” The resulting curiosity inspired Thomas’ Schwarz Gemacht, the story of an encounter between a black German and a black American in Nazi Germany.

Around the same time, Anestis Azas and Prodromos Tsinikoris, both living and working between Greece and Germany, were asking themselves: here or there? “The piece was made during the media hysteria around the Greek economic crisis and our aim was to tell other stories about it,” explains Azas. “As a theatre author, you should permanently operate against the dominant narrative.” After turning to other Greeks and even Greek mythology for inspiration, the piece Telemachos – Should I Stay Or Should I Go? was born.

To find their protagonists, Azas and Tsinikoris went to Greek churches, associations and restaurants and conducted over 50 interviews until they found the right stories, the ones that surprise, amuse or make a political statement. They chose from two generations of immigrants, those who came in the 1960s and those who came recently, to produce a kaleidoscopic image of realities.

What makes the piece so touching is that the stories are told on stage by their protagonists in person. One of them, Christos, came to Germany in 1962 after a fight with his father. He was found at the Munich main station by a few policemen and a policewoman. The policemen told him to leave – he did not have a visa – but the policewoman eventually invited him to hide out in her own home… and, two weeks later, became pregnant with his child. A few days afterwards, Christos received permission to stay in the country.

“I come from an immigrant family and I didn’t know those stories,” says Tsinikoris, who appears in Telemachos as himself. “You just need to ask and make the effort to listen to older people. I regret I haven’t asked my grandparents, now they’re dead.”

Thomas had a different process. He based Klaus, his German character, on historical research concerning Afro-Germans during Nazi times. But then he just listened to his own empathy. “My instinct, as someone struggling for identity, gave me some clues as to how you might respond to growing up here, not seeing anyone who looks like you.”

The figure of Maurice, the American, was developed to express a different perspective on identity – coming either from heredity or from homeland. When Maurice first meets Klaus, he says, “It’s good to see you, man, you’re family. Know what I mean?”, to which the German responds, “I do not know you.” A perception that the author took from his own experience: “In America, when most black people pass on the street, we acknowledge each other with something like ‘hello, brother’ – my German wife would laugh!”

Starting with a specific perspective – a black man in Nazi Germany, a Greek during the crisis – both plays eventually comment on the universal aspect of identity. Anyone who has lived abroad immediately identifies with the concerns of Telemachos, wondering if they should stay, move on or go ‘home’. And it’s even more obvious as the authors use the myth of Telemachus as a timeless reference – long before them, Odysseus’ son hesitated between staying in Greece and leaving to get better chances.

Likewise, says Thomas, “I don’t write about black identity. I write about identity and I am black.” Not only people from so-called ‘minorities’ consider their identity. “I think that’s an issue that most people have.” No wonder that among the other characters of his play, the young American Lisa is dealing with her German roots, her aunt Ruth with her femininity in a macho regime and their friend Walter with his German passport in a totalitarian state.

At the end of both plays, questions remain unanswered. Whether Tsinikoris will stay or go, whether Klaus will continue feeling patriotic about Germany or leave a country that mistreats him, stays open. Which aims to stimulate debate, as Tsinikoris says: “If we danced at the end of the play, no one would discuss it afterwards.”

TELEMACHOS – SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?  Feb 22-25, 20:00 |Ballhaus Naunynstraße, Naunynstr. 27, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Kottbusser Tor (with English surtitles) SCHWARZ GEMACHT Feb 26-28, 20:00 | English Theatre Berlin, Fidicinstr. 40, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Platz der Luftbrücke

Originally published in issue #124, February 2014.