Thursday, November 14, 2013

Schwarz Tragen (Wearing Black)

Visibility suggests that we can solve societal problems by exposing and publicising them. The concept is from sociology, touted by media theorists such as John Thompson, and is maybe the most widely-employed (and ironically under-discussed) tactic for problem-solving of perceived social issues in the first world. It holds a privileged place over and above, for example, direct political action, which is perceived as confrontational, aggressive, and potentially destructive. This is mainly to do with its ability to initiate change without widespread disruption. Visibility maintains the social order whilst suggesting a slight adjustment - not enough to overthrow government, but nevertheless enough to generate tiny instability necessary for change. The approach is that the system is capable of self-correcting through a mechanism involving public and private dialogues and the 'fourth estate', the media, which is responsible for selecting, through the editing process, dialogues that will advance society. This idea has been in place since the mid 20th century with Habermas’ ‘Public Sphere’ and his demarcation of a shift from a “representational” culture to one of Öffentlichkeit, but also predates him with much theory related to media systems, most of which discuss the nature of visibility in some form or another. Exposure is, after all, a key role of the media.

Its adoption as a key method of problem-solving today is problematic. If one were cynical, one might suggest that merely making a problem visible today, in an environment of 'crisis proliferation', is not enough to cause any kind of meaningful change. With this proliferation occurring hand-in-hand with an overwhelming explosion of image culture - lives exposed on Facebook, invasions of privacy by the NSA among many others, and an endless stream of well-meaning causes flooding your life... visibility becomes rather a means, this imaginary cynic would suggest, to give the appearance of progress without ever having to undergo any actual authentic transformation on the part of the individual. In street-level terms, just because I walk past a beggar every day, doesn't necessarily mean, when my attention is finally drawn to their existence, that I will act on it, either personally or at a ballot box. The main point about visibility seems to be that it is totally not working. See all those images of melting ice in the newspaper? Not exactly compelling anyone to act, are they?

The role of the artist in this model is inevitably as a kind of an outcast. The artist can certainly initiate exposure in a similar way to the media, but rarely comes out unscathed - when the dust settles and the 'good guys and bad guys' are sorted out, the artist is invariably in the latter category. This happens regardless of their intent, or whether the dialogue they initiated, perhaps deliberately, was important for the progress of the society more broadly. The artist is made a guinea pig or scapegoat for some kind of shoring up of values or beliefs, usually occurring around the resolution of the conversation.

The blackface debate began in earnest in Germany two years ago, when Herb Gardner’s I am not Rappaport was staged by Schlosspark Theater with a character in blackface, a production picked up on by new organisation Bühnenwatch and subsequently drawing international media attention. In 2012, Ballhaus Naunynstraße held an open forum regarding blackface in Germany and received an unexpectedly high turnout. From there, the issue has ballooned into a rare blight on Germany's at times 'culturally invincible' theatre scene, via a series of scandals - Bruce Norris pulling the rights to Clybourne Park from the Deutsches Theater when he found out a white performer would play the character Francine in blackface, a new edition of children’s book Die kleine Hexe that excludes a word generally considered racist, and Schauspielhaus Zurich's caricature in Brecht's  Saint Joan of the Stockyards at this years Theatertreffen which drew widespread anger.

Some of the statements from institutions that have come out of the ensuing conversation are at best naive and at worst baby-steps towards what is obviously something of a wider social ill, explained for example in a detailed analysis by a Canadian visitor here. Amongst it all, it seems the country is starting at the beginning where other countries have made genuine progress. Ironic for a country which is popularly conceived as obsessively revisiting its past indiscretions on a not altogether dissimilar theme. On the other hand, blackface can, of course, like any other tool, perform a useful theatrical function depending entirely on context, for example I’m reliably told that the 2004 production of Othello in the Hamburg Schauspielhaus employed this technique in a way that was extremely confronting and provocative in exactly the ways it is supposedly guilty of, and with an entirely radical outcome for race relations. Blackface is a real thing. It certainly happened. To erase this reality would seem in some ways counterproductive. At the same time, to use it naively, expecting that it will not cause offence, expecting that it can serve as a naturalist tool for representation, does damage, obviously.

Blackface and German Theatre is commonly, at least since 2012 in defense of the practice, referred to as a ‘tradition’, although I can’t find any evidence that it was very widely used. However, like many colonial powers, Germany has various questionable representational practices dating back to prior to at least the mid-19th century. This comes at about the time of German colonisation of Africa, and like many western countries, comes as both a means to establish a power relationship with the new colonies and, I think, out of a naive curiosity about what the people inhabiting these new places are like. It's an encounter, manifesting in an ugly way, but nevertheless. The question is, I guess, why there is a need for this encounter to continue today, or if it is, what that means. Because it's certainly not a practice that's approved in other similarly-equipped cultures. To Americans, for example, it is nothing but pure, ugly racism. And we do live in a global village now, don’t we? Even theatre can move beyond the nation-state.

None of this is directly dealt with in Schwarz Tragen, a useful introduction to this debate developed by Ballhaus Naunynstraße for its Black Lux festival earlier this year, and now continuing in repertoire into 2014. The encounter is with a 'Black WG' in Germany, and it is effectively a comedy (almost sitcom) containing some elements of tragedy. The title refers to the performance of blackness, moving through a series of stereotypes from pregnancy, bling-bling, poverty, the emphasis on the black male body as an athletic object, and some nods at an inability of the characters to move past all of this and into a different future. The narrative follows the characters' discussions over the kitchen table.

Other things certainly occur, but it seems the key to the play is its blackness and the variety of ways in which it is performed. This is emphasised by the costumes by Arianne Vitale Cardoso, which move from dressing the ensemble in all-white, to predominantly black with some sporadic bursts of colour.

Photo: Ute Langkafel

 Schwarz Tragen doesn’t shoot for radicalism – rather a kind of normalisation. We are in a WG. These are normal people, with normal problems, specific to them but also universal. It’s a very ‘normal’ play. But of course, it begs the question – doesn’t the creation of a ‘new normal’, this new majority, now presumably more inclusive of one minority, simply shift the goalposts and exclude another? Shouldn’t the target be to make the society itself more porous, more mobile, more open? More like Habermas’ Öffentlichkeit? And so, does manufacturing empathy with a visible minority simply replace these problems with another set?

On the contrary, some would claim. Each of these are small battles which, when one, contribute to the empowerment of an individual minority, which in turn make space for the next dialogue to happen. That’s how progress works.

I hope so.

Schwarz Tragen
by Elizabeth Blonzen
Directed by Branwen Okpako
Ballhaus Naunynstra
Continuing in 2014

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