May 30, 2012

Do you like this?

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.”


May 30, 2012

Comments (11)

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its actually an old pagan practice of witchcraft

the practice of blacking up of face or corking of face is actually and old pagan practise even blacks do it too. I am not a pagan but a christian and we learn in the book of malachi God getting cheesed off at the Jewish leaders who had gone after pagan practises of blacking face in worship to a foreign God.

holy jo 246 days ago

...Just a precision

Re: the first comment 'Watch out during Carnival!' by Susan --

The German term for a black person which is still sometimes used by older generations is 'Neger' and not 'Niger' or 'Nigger'.
While this term's denotation is today considered as being offensive or at the very least not PC, its semantic meaning has shifted since the 1970s. Prior to this time, it wasn't as charged, and hence while it displays a certain head-strong linguistic stubbornness when older people refuse to adapt another term for a black person, it doesn't necessarily mean the term 'Neger' is being used in a pejorative way.

Derivatives of the Latin word for black (niger) are still used in other languages without coming across as problematic or racially offensive (e.g. neger in Dutch).

Jana more than 1 years ago

Watch out during Carnival!

I will never forget the years that the Kaufhof on Alexander Platz had hugh banners advertising Karnival costumes for children. Year after year, I would come up from the U-bahn exit and stare right up at a kid in black face and fake frizzy "afro" hair. The advertised costume came complete with a beat-up, dirty looking dress, available in children and adult size. The very first time I saw this, I literally gasped. Even more shocking was that I seemed to be the only person who noticed! Dressing up as a "Niger" is still a socially acceptable practice during the carnival season-for kids and adults alike.
More than I would like, I hear the word "Nigger" or "Niger" used auf Deutsch. I have lived in the German-speaking world for 15 years, but it shocks me everytime. I have had countless discussions with university- educated people, several were even professors, who failed to see the inherant racism in this word. Even more, they insist that it is not as bad auf deutsch as it is in English.
On a similar topic- Many seem to be oblivious to the real meanings of the confederate flag, used by the southern US states during the American civil war. I have educated many Germans as to the racist message associated with the "Rebel" flag . These true fashion victims had no idea that only red necks, racists and KKK members openly wear a confederate flag on their t-shirt.

Susan more than 1 years ago

Use Wisdom People

I'm so tired of people continuing to pull this race card! I am black and I am old enough to know that fair is fair.... We play white characters all the time on TV and I believe you all still watch it. I've been in Germany for quite some time now and though I've experienced racism maybe once otherwise I've felt more love here than I would at home sometimes...

Grow up and if it's such an issue with you, STOP watching Dave Chapelle, Martin Lawrence, The Wayans Brothers, and many more of our famous African American Actors. We do it for comedy and often times think its funny... Not to hurt or harm but We can do some crazy and funny things too. Don't be so one-sided and say only black people can laugh at black people but Black people can laugh at everyone.

Just have the sense enough to know when something is done to hurt or harm and not for creative purposes or humor.....

Unknown more than 1 years ago

race in the EU?

I think the point is extraordinary, and it is very clearly true. Germans - and Europeans more generally - tend not to recognize 'race' in terms of a particular person, but rather as a vaguely identified other. this is only rarely a problem in Germany, since it is so rare for people of different 'racial' categories to interact (although I lived in Berlin for years, I was the only non-white among a crowd of 'ethnic' Germans). But the political economy of difference deserves to be addressed, particularly in light of the intensively nationalized ways that Germans (and others) have begun to talk about European identities. Germans laugh about the European peripheries, but perhaps it will give Germans pause to know how they are being represented on the outsides of the borders (in the North in leftist circles, but in the South from both the radical right and the moderate left). The point that Obermueller makes, and rightfully so, is that raciialized identities ought to be treated with skepticism if not outright disdain precisely because there is such a powerful impulse to ignore difference when it is safe to do so. *Blacks* of African or African American (or Afro-European?) descent are easy targets in Germany precisely because there are so few. But the presentation of *difference* as marked by color seems to be a step down the wrong road. Germans in particular, colonial powers in general (not to mention powerful minorities in the *global south*) have long played race as though it was a minor card in a major key. But those games have - and will continue to - end badly.

Berlin is supposed to be a global city, and that image gained traction (beyond the minimal techno-house dj scene) in 2006 in the WM. Since 2006, the international stature of Berlin has continued to expand, and the city has become a model of the way things *might* be. Industrious, humane, tolerant, vibrant, creative, alive, open. (reverse the order...)

Obermueller is right to recognize the ways that aesthetic practice sometimes highlights subterranean categories. As far as I can tell, that is not what *political correctness* means. Instead, it seems to be thoughtful discussion, careful analysis or something like that?

I have a guess at what a solution might be. Maybe a producer or translator could find a way to make a black person smoking weed in CP not someone distinguished by color? Of course, my guess is that person would somehow end up wearing a fez or speaking with a slavic accent.

Thanks Obermueller...

Avi Sharma more than 1 years ago


Stop placing so much emphasis on skin colour. When the black American comedian Chapelle plays a ".White" I find it very amusing. This is not racism!

Malcom more than 1 years ago

Talent not skin color counts

Blacks sing Orientals, Orientals play Whites; the Berlin stage has become so multi-cultural in the past decades, so why is it an issue now that a White plays a Black, especially in a non-stereotypical way? Directors should be free to select actors according to talent and not skin color. Being truly politically correct means being able to ignore the skin color. Conversely, being a stickler about skin color is being racist.

Alan Benson more than 1 years ago

Oh Gawd

German citizens = (92%)[21]
Germans of no immigrant background: (81%) 66.7 million[21]
German citizens of immigrant background (including people of partial immigrant background.): (10%)[21]
"Foreigners" (persons without German citizenship): (8%)

When your population is comprised of over 60% immigrants and non-citizens who control your government and determine how you will live your life, and make the current debt problems look laughable by comparison, then you may wish that you'd dedicated yourself to real topics vs. whether people manufactured sense of political correctness is soiled by theater.

Angel more than 1 years ago

It starts early

Even been to a nativity play in Germany? I've seen five-year-olds wearing blackface (and dark blue gloves) to play Wise Men in churches here in Berlin. Obviously this is not PC (nor is it mentioned in scripture which race the Magi were), but I bet if I had grown up with it, it would seem more alright to me too. Hopefully Europeans in blackface - I'm looking at Holland and Sweden here too - will get a clue thanks to "the power of the Internet."

Britta more than 1 years ago

Racism in Germany

Its not only in Theatre but also a daily occurence,onTV black actors are pteey thieves,HIV and home workers

keniaberlinblog more than 1 years ago


Thank you for writing about this disgraceful spectacle, which is sadly, far from a mere hiccup within the German theatre community. Blatant racism is often played down or downright ignored. German ignorance knows no bounds when it comes to racial discrimination. The 'Otto Normalverbraucher' seems incapable of understanding that boiling down an entire race to a skin colour is insanely offensive. Even when you try to explain the offense by drawing parallels to painting yourself yellow with slanted eyes to be 'Asian', brown to 'be Indian' and red to 'be a First Nations person', you're usually met with blank stares. Perhaps putting on a hooked nose to play a Jew...? The argument of a needing a Dane to play Hamlet is definitely telling of someone's intelligence and cultural/world awareness. The only tiny critique of an otherwise great article, is the arguably not-quite politically correct usage of 'white' v. 'black' (I hail from Canada), rather than Caucasian or African. I hope we're soon past using colours to describe a person.

laura's staringatthesun more than 1 years ago


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