A rash of theaters in Kreuzberg and Neukoelln are increasingly bringing to the stage a raw and unabashed view of life in their heavily immigrant surroundings as seen through the eyes of the people who live there.
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Shootings, gang wars, a forbidden German-Turkish love affair, illegal workers on the run from the police, an "honor" killing - small theaters across Berlin's multicultural neighborhoods of Kreuzberg, Neukoelln and Wedding have left no stone unturned as they shine a light on their gritty working-class surroundings.
After being the focus of endless political debates, films and books, the so-called "Problemkiez," or "problematic neighborhood,” debate has arrived on the small stage in Berlin with a bang.
Places like Ballhaus Naunystrasse in Kreuzberg or Heimathafen Neukoelln but even Atze Musiktheater in Wedding or Grips Theater in Tiergarten have in recent years upped their offerings of a no-holds-barred look at life in their heavily immigrant neighborhoods.
The works, at times drastic and edgy, are often scripted by second- and third-generation immigrants themselves. And they involve and draw in a young, multicultural crowd that wouldn't likely head to see Christoph Schlingensief at the Volksbuehne or Bertolt Brecht at the Deutsches Theater. This here is their life and their stories - stuff they can relate to.
Ballhaus Naunystrasse is tucked away in a back street, a five-minute walk from Kreuzberg's Kottbusser Tor intersection teeming with junkies and their dogs, tourists, commuters and hollering vegetable vendors.
Filmmaker Fatih Akin, writer Feridun Zaimoglu and director Neco Celik have all shown their works here. Since 2008, the 80-seat theater has focused on what it calls "post-migrant cultural works," offering a platform to young second- and third-generation artists. Many of the works hold up a mirror to Germany's uneasy relationship with its large immigrant population.
Frustration, aggression on the boil
On a recent evening, I headed over to the theater with a friend for a packed real-life performance called "What Are You Going to Do Tomorrow?" On stage were six teenagers from the neighborhood. They'd attended the theater's regular workshops to help kids from disadvantaged backgrounds explore their fears and hopes for the future.
The result was a deeply personal one-hour play about parental pressure and expectations, family honor, bleak job prospects and macho attitudes.
Esra Consansu worries that she's not going to manage her "Abitur" - a high school diploma that would allow her to go on to university and become a veterinarian. Musa Arzuev has nightmares after being bundled off to a hospital by his large family for a traumatic circumcision. Fidan Simsek is nagged by her mother to stop hanging around with her friends so as not to jeopardize the family's honor. Arbi Mazaev describes a painful adjustment to Germany after dramatically fleeing his unspecified country in a hail of bullets.
"This is life as seen through the eyes of the kids who live here. It can't get any more authentic than this," said director and actor Ayhan Sonmez.
The audience, among them lots of third-generation immigrants, seemed to love the energetic performance. My friend, who lives and works as a psychologist in Kreuzberg, nodded her head vigorously in response to the dysfunctional tales unfolding on stage, whispering to me: "It's amazing. Many of my patients have gone through similar things."
The street slang, crude humor and accented German drew laughs.
"What am I going to do tomorrow? I don't know - rob a bank, kidnap a rich kid, deal drugs, spit at Merkel," says Ahmet Koyun, one of the protagonists.
After the show, however, a Turkish social worker who's worked for over a decade in Kreuzberg, said he had missed perspectives of German teenagers in the neighborhood. "They often have to deal with different problems, things like broken homes and alcohol abuse by the parents - problems that aren't very common in immigrant households. I would have liked to have seen that on stage too."
Fast-paced and hard-hitting
South of Kottbusser Tor, over in the Neukoelln district, the Heimathafen Neukoelln theater has landed a huge hit with a play called "Arabboy: The short life of Rashid A.”
The play about a Lebanese-Kurdish-Palestinian school drop-out in Neukoelln, played by local actor Huseyin Ekici, and his descent into a world of macho violence, drug crime and finally prison has received standing ovations. The theater's 80 seats have regularly been sold out.
The performance by "Arabboy's" three actors is electrifying. The play is set in the immediate Rollenberg neighborhood, home to the infamous Ruetli School. And the audience, according to the organizers, is often made up of entire school classes from the neighborhood.
On a recent evening, the initial sniggering of the teenage audience was quickly silenced as the fast-paced performance zipped from gangster swagger to a chilling rape scene and brutal violence to Rashid A's deportation from Germany.
The play has also attracted controversy. It's been criticized for flirting with stereotypes and making no attempt at finding out what triggers Rashid's slide.
But Guner Balci, whose book the play is based on, insisted in an interview with the German daily die taz that she'd drawn on her own experience as a social worker in Neukoelln. Balci, now a journalist, was born in the neighborhood to Turkish parents.
"This is how it is. You need to make it clearer that all these people like Rashid A - all the Aishes and Tareks and whatever they're called - are part of German society. What else can they be? They are born here and have grown up here. They're here to stay."
Sonia Phalnikar lives on the border between Kreuzberg and Neukoelln.
Editor: Kate Bowen