postcards from berlin #5 [when racism is daring]
VERRÜCKTES BLUT (r. erpulat) @ maxim gorki theater
no wonder this one’s been running for years.
after a lily-white start courtesy of mr. ostermeier i’ve seen a string of shows that have all tackled race and culture in a pretty head-on manner. this piece is violent, aggressive, angry, inspired, and exciting and plays deep into the barriers between german and turkish culture in berlin, exploiting prejudices and stereotypes on both sides.
the premise is maybe a bit thin—meek teacher in a rowdy classroom confiscates a backpack, finds a gun in it, snaps, and takes the class hostage to force them to participate in her special theatre day class on schiller. the stakes are hard to maintain with a gun out for two hours of play time. i’d have gotten bored maybe, if scene-by-scene the conversation didn’t get increasingly more complicated.
there’s a classic head-scarf debate that emerges halfway through. teacher tells the girl she’s not liberated, girl insists she is liberated. but the production doesn’t come down on one side or the other, instead piling irony on with commentaries about the toxic masculinity you find in groups of turkish teenagers, the girls in the classroom then being blamed for enabling it, then a simultaneously shocking and hilarious sequence where the girl removes it and gains x-men style super-powers and has a highly ironic personal awakening before she seizes the gun and reenacts all the lessons that the teacher tried to enforce, right down to trying to break her classmates’ turkish dialects with “good german” (this is a big question german parents have choosing schools for their kids—the supposed quality of the german they’ll learn). it's left undecided whether she's liberated herself, manifested her oppressors, or whether the action is even "real" given the dramaturgical disintegration that follows. everything is thrown into the fire here, even the value of imposing cultural literary icons like schiller to a students in a culture that isn’t compatible with german romantic ideals anymore.
the play piles reversals on top of each other— the teacher is revealed to be an ethnically turkish woman who has become white-passing, the room is forced to contend with case of homosexual abuse between the most ‘masc’ of the turkish students and a kurdish student, and then the dismantling of the play’s entire premise and the stereotypes it relies on—it would maybe be too many endings if the treatment of the subject matter weren’t so satisfyingly complicated by each reveal.
above all, it was the company’s bravery embodying negative stereotype and violence that was striking. they clearly trusted what the play was aiming to do, and understood where they fit into that. there wasn’t a desire to reassure us that they weren’t bad/racist/misgynist/homophobic people from within the work, they trusted the piece as a whole. i find a transcendent beauty in performance when actors are able to release the (very understandable) need to be liked—taking on styles and ideas and lifting them into (dare i use the a-word when it sounds a bit maudlin?) ART. it took a shockingly brave company of actors to pull this show off.
but it left me wondering about the old write-what-you-know—what would have happened if it hadn’t been directed by a turkish guy? would it have been as nuanced and sensitive and brave if not?
for more on the show click here.