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“This is your country: if you don’t like it, make it better”

INTERVIEW. What does it mean to 'wear black'? In the new play Schwarz Tragen, director Branwen Okpako addresses this question within an all-too-familiar context: the Berliner WG. Catch it at Ballhaus Naunynstraße as part of their Black Lux festival.

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Photo by Rebecca Sampson

Director and filmmaker Branwen Okpako turns to theatre with Schwarz Tragen, debuting at Ballhaus Naunynstraße’s Black Lux festival.

The WG, or flat share, is a Berlin institution that creates complex urban families and more than a little drama. So it’s no surprise that it’s really the WG that’s the main character in Schwarz Tragen, a new play from Elizabeth Blonzen. Together with a diverse ensemble of actors, Okpako – born in Nigeria, educated in Britain and based in Berlin – mixes the play with the team’s personal experiences to create a mixture of devised and traditional theatre. Her experience in film, most recently with the The Education of Auma Obama – the story of Barack Obama’s half-sister, with whom Okpako studied at Berlin’s Film and Television Academy – brings a visual and documentary style to the often difficult subject matter of race in Berlin.

What kind of a Berlin WG is set up in this play?

It’s black people who have chosen to live together, and have created a family – or the semblance of a family – and they see themselves as having this commonality of community. And they’re permanently being challenged with the question: are you really a family? And I think people are really finding out that they don’t know each other at all, and when push comes to shove and things get critical, they aren’t really there for each other when it counts.

The title Schwarz Tragen, to wear black, seems to work on two levels in this context…

It has something to do with mourning because we do have that element in the story. But it’s also wearing blackness, as in wearing identities: you can try them on and you can take them off. The mere fact that it’s addressed as something you’re just wearing immediately shows you that it’s not who you are. I think it’s a conversation as well. People can define you, but you must also accept that definition – or not. This is an opportunity for an audience to see a group of people being people first and foremost.

How has your experience been working with Ballhaus Naunynstraße?

I find the process at this theatre fascinating. We have a play, a group of actors, and we’re told to feel free to use our own inspiration, our own experiences. This is about creating culture, looking for ways to give expression to parts of our society that haven’t had the chance to express themselves in this sort of forum. You almost feel like a light’s been switched on, and you’ve got to develop a language that’s not a political language, not a didactic language, but that’s poetic and expressive at the same time, and then change it into art. It is exciting.

You’ve spent most of your career directing films. What is it like working on a theatre production now?

My documentary film experience is helping me trust the process and believe that given enough oxygen, something is going to grow. We’re all on a ship and we don’t know where we’re going. I see myself as a navigator. I’m just looking at the stars and seeing which way we have to go.

Discussion about the use of blackface in German theatre was reignited at the Theatertreffen this year. What’s your reaction to this controversy?

I’m optimistic because if there are clashes, if this dialogue is happening, it means that there will be growth. The place of blackfacing in Germany has something to do with German culture and with the way Germans see themselves, because they are painting their faces black to talk about themselves. It doesn’t really have anything to do with black people. But once you have black German people, then you realise we are no longer white people painting our faces black, we are now white people and black people, our culture has changed. So now we must create new ways to express who we are.

Have you noticed a change in reactions to your film about Auma Obama since her brother’s decrease in popularity?

When I started making the film in 2008, Auma’s brother wasn’t even the president yet – and it took me four years to finish it, so he’d already practically finished his first term by the time I was finished with editing the film. I was constantly affected by the ups and downs of opinions about him. But I was very keen on making the spirit of the work have a life that will grow with the times, so I tried to focus on the idea of civic responsibility. Auma is a friend, she’s a person I went to school with, so it was about our conversation around our responsibility in our society. How can we make our lives useful somehow? And how much civic agency do we have as individuals, and how powerful are we in the different places where we’re active?

How can we help fight racism in Germany today?

I say it to my kids too: this is your country, this belongs to you. If you don’t like it, make it better. I say that to all of us. Nobody else has to deal with it – it’s yours, you make it good. White Germany is not the only Germany. Germany is also black, it’s of Turkish descent, it’s Arab, it’s Filipino. But everyone has a responsibility. They can’t say they should do something; they must say we must do something. I think it’s important that everybody claims this country for themselves. It’s very important that they’re part of the solution. And it’s the same with our WG: it’s ours so we have to make it work.

SCHWARZ TRAGEN Sep 24, 26-30, 20:00 | Ballhaus Naunynstraße, Naunynstr. 27, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Kottbusser Tor

Originally published in issue #119, September 2013