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'Made black,' examines Afro-German identity in Nazi Germany

Melanie Sevcenko March 12, 2014

What is identity, and who has the right to define us? English Theatre Berlin poses these questions in the production, "Schwarz gemacht," an exploration into the Afro-German experience in 1938 Berlin.

Scene from Berlin English Theatre production, 'Schwarz gemacht' with actor raising his hands in the air Photo:Daniel Gentelev
Image: CC-BY-3.0-Daniel Gentelev

In recent years, topics of integration and citizenship have been searing the headlines of German media - gaining momentum as the nation experiences record numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers. In such times, universal questions of identity inevitably float to the surface. What makes us who we are - where we're born, or where we're from? Who has a right to which land? For the main character in English Theatre Berlin's latest production, "Schwarz gemacht," or "Made black," the answer to these questions comes only after countless looks in the mirror and a crippling climax of self-realization.

The story of "Schwarz gemacht," follows Klaus in 1938 Berlin, as he struggles to realize his dreams as an actor while finding his place as a patriotic Afrodeutscher (Afro-German) during the Nazi regime. His perceptions of identity are challenged when he meets an African-American musician, Maurice, in the underground jazz scene.

Two actors on stage pose in a production follows Klaus, right, a patriotic Afro-German who slowly sees his freedoms slipping away. The two are surrounded by newspapers Photo: Daniel Gentelev
The production follows Klaus, right, a patriotic Afro-German who slowly sees his freedoms slipping awayImage: CC-BY-3.0-Daniel Gentelev

From that point on Klaus' life toggles between two worlds - "der Untergrund," in which he confronts his roots with Maurice, and "die Pension," where he lives comfortably as an errand boy for a film director and his actress wife in a German boarding house. The plot thickens as Klaus impatiently awaits the status on his "right to work" as an Afro-German in the 1930s. Blank newspapers function as the central set piece, as Klaus rapidly rifles through them. He updates the audience on the restrictions implemented in Nazi Germany, eventually against people like himself.

The staging borrows from German Expressionist motifs: slanted arches, minimalist set design, title card projections and live piano accompaniment - particularly because, as director Daniel Brunet explains, it's an art form that was destroyed by National Socialism. "I very much want to tell the story of this man and his own personal struggle for identity," said Brunet, "which is another reason why I'm quoting Expressionism, which takes an inner struggle and renders it external."

Germany vs. America

While flipping through his German wife's high school yearbook, American playwright Alexander Thomas landed on the picture a black classmate.

"I began to bombard my wife with what I have since come to discover are very typical questions and assumptions of Afro-Germans: Where was she from? Was she from Africa? From the islands? My wife's impatience grew as she had to repeat several times that as far as she knew the girl was German," Thomas explains in the production's program notes.

That was the seedling of his research, which he attributes greatly to Professor Tina Campt of Barnard College, who wrote extensively on the history of Afro-Germans.

Actor English Theatre Berlin
American playwright Alexander Thomas was inspired to write the piece after finding the portrait of a black student in his German wife's yearbookImage: CC-BY-3.0-Daniel Gentelev

"I know some people say you can only write your experiences, but our experience is collective," Thomas told DW. "And if you're willing to put the time and effort into the research, then you can get up to speed. So that's what I did."

The story originated as a 12-minute monologue, performed in Los Angeles back in 2005. From there the two-act structure developed. "My inroads were these issues of identity, and that has to do with what I've experienced as an African-American and with the history of America," Thomas said.

Director Daniel Brunet said a full-blown play came to fruition through the series, Colorblind?, which he directed at English Theatre Berlin in 2012. The staged readings were a direct response to two theatres in Berlin that faced harsh criticism for painting white actors in black face.

During their first encounter, in "Schwarz gemacht," musician Maurice approaches Afro-German Klaus: "It's good to see you, man, you're family. Know what I mean?" To which Klaus responds defensively, "I do not know you."

As an African-American, Maurice says he's been a victim of racism in the U.S. and recognizes his connection to the homeland; unlike Klaus, who rejects the notion of "being black" and almost arrogantly embraces his German identity. And so begins the interaction between the two characters that culminates in difficult questions about the treatment of people of color, both in Germany and in the United States.

Yet playwright Thomas admits he did not intend to compare the experiences of being black in America with being black in Germany - the comparison happened organically. "I felt it was really dishonest of me to focus on Germany and the racism here without bringing up America," he said.

Few roles for Afro-Germans

Should, or can, the black experience in Germany be compared to the U.S. experience? That debate is a lengthy one, with facets that extend through time, heritage and one's personal journey.

In the discussion after the play, American actor Sadiq Bey, who portrays Maurice, made a humorous yet poignant remark about the length of a country's history. He recalled visiting a restaurant in a small German village in the 1980s, where the oven was some 950 years old. "How can you discuss identity with someone who owns an oven that is four times as old as your country?" Bey laughed. The point being, such conversations may need to be adjusted, depending on who you're talking to.

Two men on stage, Sadiq-Bey, left and Ernest Allan Hausmann, right Photo: Daniel Gentelev
Actor Ernest Allan Hausmann, right, said the part was a respite from the typical servant or drug-dealer roles he's offered as an Afro-GermanImage: CC-BY-3.0-Daniel Gentelev

As for fellow actor Ernest Allan Hausmann, who pays Klaus, he said his character finally gave him real leverage. As an Afro-German actor, he said he's left with very few role options. "It starts with a servant and ends with a drug dealer," Hausmann said.

During the discussion, Germany was questioned as a culturally restrictive nation for black actors. Does this stem from a need to protect cultural heritage, and the belief that "the other" might dilute it? Hausmann responded in a perplexed manner. "I am German, what is leftover is just the skin color," he told a questioning audience member, as to why roles are hard to come by.

Both the cast and director agreed that cultural institutions must better represent their communities - and in Berlin's case, that includes a lot more than simply German. "It's very important at this institution to tell stories that are about our shared city," said director Daniel Brunet.

So what's next for the English Theatre Berlin? It looks like a production on the contemporary Afro-German experience is in order.