Being German and being Black
Being German and being Black in the 1930s in Berlin – that is the topic of “Schwarz Gemacht” by Alexander Thomas, which the English Theatre Berlin stages this month as directed by Daniel Brunet. The piece throws light on an important part of history but fails to portray the psychological depth of it.
Ernest Allan Hausmann as Klaus. © Photo by Daniel Gentelev
Klaus (Ernest Allan Hausmann) is a proper German patriot who the Arians could only have wished for – was he not Black. He represents German values and culture to a T, is eager to serve his country and will defend German history and society against any criticism. “If I don’t exist here, I don’t exist anywhere”, he says.
The piece opens with Wilhelm Busch’s “Die Geschichte von den schwarzen Buben”, a story in which German boys are punished by being made black after they mocked a “moor”. Although, the presumed moral of the story is to criticise the boys’ malice, Alexander Thomas wants to point out that “being Black” is presented as something bad, undesirable – a punishment – in the end. And, even if not in Busch’s story, the title of the theatre piece (“made black”) emphasises that Black is ultimately a social construction. Because clearly, we are not talking about the melanin or tan of skin, when we talk about being Black
Klaus lives with a white German couple, Ruth (Kerstin Schwees) and Walter (Peter Priegrann), leftist anti-fascists. They have been critically observing the Third Reich from the start and want to protect Klaus from the Nazis. But both of them embody two types of whites who are not aware of their own internal racism. On the one hand, Ruth regards herself as discoverer and saviour of Klaus and his talent; because she was attracted to his being “exciting, beautiful and shy”. She repeatedly stresses how smart, talented and well-behaved he is. At the same time, she expects Klaus to carry luggage and serve coffee since her offering him accommodation was bound to him working as a servant in her home. With the figure Ruth, Alexander Thomas demonstrates how white projected images exotify and diminish Klaus and, ultimately, feed the tradition of “White man’s burden”.
Lisa (MiriamAnnaSchroetter) & Ruth (KerstinSchweers). © Photo by Daniel Gentelev
Walter, on the other hand, drowns his despise for the Nazis in alcohol but instead of understanding Klaus’ identity struggle, he reproaches him for being ignorant, naive and a Nazi-sympathiser. He scornfully points out to Klaus that the latter will never be a German. Walter too thinks himself to be a hero, who rescued Klaus by employing him in the film industry; as if it was a merit that he accept and ‘tolerated’ him at home. Ruth and Walter fail to respect Klaus, treat him at eye level and empathetically support him. Rather, they accuse him of being ungrateful and having endangered all of them by taking liberties outside of the house instead of submitting to the place the Nazis assigned to Black people in society.The dramaturgy does not do much, as common in intimate theatre. But although the development and power relations are supposed to be revealed in dialogue and symbolical spaces, the dynamics of the monotonously interrupted play falter. The five actors only stand on the same spot apart from Ernest Allan Hausmann who, as Klaus, is allowed to explore the whole stage. The main props are numerous bundles of newspaper out of which Klaus reads quotations about changing race laws. These quotes form the transitions from act to act and are accompanied by projections of the relating historical date on a canvas in the background.
Then Klaus meets Maurice (Sadiq Bey), a Black American, Jazz musician living in exile in Berlin, who forms the counterpart to Klaus. Whilst Klaus clings to his patriotism, Maurice has long ago abandoned his “shit”-country and primarily defines himself as Black, not as American. He doesn’t care about belonging to a group that does not welcome him. He calls Klaus a “blind, deluded and out-of-mind-fool”, since the latter insists on being German and violently refuses Maurice’s attempts to establish a fraternity of “us”, “folk” or “family”. Asked about his father’s provenance, Klaus angrily denies having a father.
Maurice (Sadiq Bey) & Klaus (ErnestAllanHausmann). © Photo by Daniel Gentelev
Klaus cannot and does not want to accept a logic which excludes him. But it is not just resistance to that violence: Klaus is German. He was born in Berlin, grew up and was socialised here. He doesn’t even know his father and his biography. To weigh those two identities against each other, being German and being Black, is what Klaus cannot unite. Because he feels German. But he was only made Black. And it primarily comes to him as something negative and disgraceful: his mother from early on ingrained him with a sense of having to be a good German, being particularly polite and making himself invisible to not draw attention to himself. He was not supposed to ask for more than he was given. And in the mirror, in his skin, he discovered his childhood monster.
They all do exist, those archetypes. But as characters in this play, they appear implausibly one-dimensional. Klaus’ change of mind comes very late and too erratic. There must have been doubt and resistance in him way before, but the piece fails to show insight into his inner psychologically even in moments of monologue. A chance is missed to present Klaus as a complex character and deliver an empowering message. He seems the plaything of everyone until late. And Ruth, Walter and Maurice too talk and act like cut-out silhouettes. On their side too, we are not invited into emotional existences full of insecurity, doubt, guilt, anger, hate, love, faith, hope or despair.
“I am Black. And I am German too”, Klaus screams proudly in the end though. And those of you who want to know how Klaus came to this change of mind, can watch the piece on April 17/18/23/24/25 in Berlin.
English Theatre Berlin