Sonia Kelich has seven problems in her classroom: her seven students. These Turkish kids spit and curse, grab their crotches, talk on their cell phones, steal from one another. Delinquents born in Germany but barely able to read the language, they are uninterested in and unprepared for Sonia’s lesson on Sturm und Drang theater. But she also has a solution, she thinks. A handgun. She fires it.
In 2010 this play, Crazy Blood, premiered at Ballhaus Naunynstraße, a black-box theater in the historically Turkish neighborhood Kreuzberg in Berlin. Crazy Blood arrived at an opportune moment, amid clamorous debates on Germany’s failure to integrate immigrants and ethnic minorities. As of 2012, the German census counted twenty percent of the nation’s population as having “migrant backgrounds,” meaning that they moved to Germany themselves, or had parents or grandparents who immigrated after 1949. Germany never thought of itself as a nation of immigrants, so when it needed to attract people to work in its factories beginning in the 1960s, the country brought in “guest-workers,” primarily from Turkey. Those guests stayed and had children. In response to this influx, a new term became popular: Bio-Deutsch, meaning organically, or ethnically, German. The concept articulates a difference between the German-by-blood and residents, even citizens, with migrant backgrounds. In practice, it can be quite difficult for the non-Bio–Deutsch to gain German citizenship, which is not granted automatically to people born in the country. Dual citizenship is banned. Legally and in popular opinion, the compound identities of Turkish-Germans, Afro-Germans, and others—what could be thought of as “hyphenated” kinds of Germanness (Turkish-German or Afro-German)—are not accepted.
Often barred from becoming legally German and certainly from being Bio-Deutsch, people with migrant backgrounds find themselves unable integrate. Many “guests” raised their children with the idea that they would all return home someday. It is not unusual for children of immigrants, like those depicted in Crazy Blood, to speak German with strong foreign accents and to be unfamiliar with the poets, philosophers, and playwrights essential to German Kultur.
Theater has long functioned as a crucible for the competing elements of politics, race, language, and culture that compose German identity. More so than perhaps any other European nation, Germany was created onstage. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller invented the idea of a German nation, founding what they called “national” theaters long before a series of squabbling Central-European city-states was united into a single country. For these new stages they wrote plays that created “German” myths and histories and cast actors who spoke Hochdeutsch, or standard German dialect.
Ballhaus Naunynstraße, where Crazy Blood opened, has been reimagining German identity since its establishment in 1983 as a small venue in Kreuzberg. For many years, it functioned as a space dedicated to its mostly Turkish neighborhood, with little money and limited visibility. Shermin Langhoff changed that. Born in Turkey, raised in Nürnberg, and married to a German, the artistic producer had worked in film and as an arts curator when she took over the newly renovated Ballhaus Naunynstraße in 2008. Even before the enormous success of Crazy Blood, which she commissioned from Turkish-German director Nurkan Erpulat, Langhoff had begun to call much more attention to Ballhaus Naunynstraße. She established “post-migratory” theater and dance as the theater’s mission, producing performances for and by the no-longer-quite immigrant population of Kreuzberg.
Langhoff herself embodies the identity of the theater. She has straight black hair, dark eyes, and olive skin; in Berlin, she is easily readable as Turkish. But she speaks German without an accent and married into a prominent German theater family. Shermin Langhoff—born Şermin Özel—is cosmopolitan, well connected, and charismatic. She is migratory, but decidedly post.
As a small space not supported directly by government funding, Ballhaus Naunynstraße had to fight for money project by project and eventually, its budget couldn’t stretch to accommodate Langhoff’s ambitions. In the spring of 2013, in no small part due to the success of Crazy Blood, Langhoff was offered the leadership of the famous Maxim Gorki Theater and became the first Turkish-German to ascend to a position of such cultural prestige. The Gorki is a Staatstheater, one of five “state theaters” in Berlin funded directly by a government that recognizes Kultur as a central pillar of national identity. Langhoff still fights for budgeting, but is now able to commission long-term projects and absorb occasional messy failures. She has more money and also more visibility and status: she can use the Gorki as a bully-pulpit.
Theater can become political in a number of ways but one of the simplest is hiring practices. Who do you pay? At the Gorki, Langhoff pays many artists with migratory backgrounds, artists who typically do not find many opportunities in the racially homogeneous German theater system. The Gorki features productions written and performed by Turkish-Germans, Russian-Germans, Germans from the ex-Yugoslavia, and Israeli-Germans, as well as queer Germans and white, male, heterosexual Germans. In its multiplicity, programming at the Gorki asserts that people with migrant backgrounds belong.
In one production, 2013’s Common Ground, Israeli director Yael Ronen created a production about the war in Yugoslavia with her ensemble, most of whom fled to Germany themselves as refugees. Towards the start of the show, one actor jumps on the stage and complains that an Israeli character is speaking in English. “This is post-migratory theater! You must speak German!” It is a stock-character often seen at Ballhaus Naunynstraße and the Gorki: the naive, and often cluelessly bigoted Bio–Deutsch. The humor lies in the contrast between what the Bio-Deutsch imagines Germany to be and the reality of its diverse population. Running pell-mell through the history of war and its afterlives, the characters come to better understand each other and the German identities they have grown into. Common Ground advocates for a pluralistic conception of Germanness, but in its portrayal good-heartedness replaces accusation, and camaraderie prevails over antagonism. Like many of Langhoff’s productions, it raises questions about cultural coexistence without presuming to provide the answers.
Russian occupiers established the Maxim Gorki Theater in the nineteenth century in a central part of Berlin filled with stately Prussian-built museums and government buildings. In the German Democratic Republic, the Gorki functioned as a machine for developing communist consciousness. In the eight years prior to 2013, the theater had been dedicated mostly to the stories and atmosphere of the former East Germany; its productions addressed the integration of East and West Germany, but not the integration of Eastern and Western cultures. But since Langhoff’s appointment, audiences have responded to the Gorki’s programming with enthusiasm, and performances often sell out weeks in advance. Many of the typically older patrons who attended prior to Langhoff’s appointment have stayed, while new, much younger patrons have packed in to see people who look like themselves and their friends. It has become easier to remember that, though the upscale, tourist-heavy Mitte neighborhood that is home to the Gorki could not be more different from the migrant-heavy Kreuzberg, the theaters are only fifteen minutes apart by bike.
Nurkan Erpulat, who also wrote Crazy Blood, directed two productions of classic plays during Langhoff’s inaugural season at the Gorki. In Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Taner Şahintürk (in a gaudy white suit) plays Lopakhin, the son of serfs who buys the land his aristocratic friends incompetently manage—a seemingly obvious comment on the rising Turkish upper-middle class in Germany. But Erpulat also cast an actor with a migrant background among the aristocrats: Falilou Seck, born French-African, plays the bumbling Gayev, who cannot save his family’s estate. The Cherry Orchard illustrates how artists at the Gorki use racial parody to manipulate the everyday rules of ethnicity—perhaps their most important aesthetic tool, and certainly the most unusual in the German artistic sphere. The Turkish-German and Afro-German actors slip into the Russian roles, but do not try to fit entirely. Erpulat makes use of the friction between actor, role, and world of the play, pointing at the role-playing central to all expressions of ethnicity while also arguing for the necessity of allowing for difference. The hope is that the productions can give the German culture new ways to understand itself and the hyphenated identities that are already in its midst. It is no mistake that this project is executed so elegantly in a production of a canonical work such as The Cherry Orchard: Germany has always been using the theater to create representations of the nation it believes itself to be.
Germans often feel—and critics’ reviews of Gorki productions showcase this feeling—that race should disappear. We are all the same and differences are just superficial, the thinking goes, so social harmony depends on complete assimilation. But for hyphenated Germans, this attitude has the tenor of a threat: Become us or go away. The productions at the Gorki show the impossibility, the destructiveness, of this instruction. The productions at the Gorki show the energy and life—the potential for renewal—found in embracing diverse, multiple heritages. They stick out a playfully defiant tongue at German assimilationism’s wagging white finger.
In addition to producing new works at the Gorki, Langhoff brought with her a couple of productions from Ballhaus Naunynstraße, including Crazy Blood, which still sells out every performance. Over the stage hangs a piano, tilted perilously at an angle. In the much larger Gorki, the piano does not hang partially over the audience, as it did at the Ballhaus Naunynstraße , threatening to crush viewers with its classical Germanness. But when Frau Kelich threatens her Turkish students with a pistol, her gunshots explode just as loudly. She bullies the students into taking on German roles, firing into the air when they rebel or mispronounce words. “Who could believe that you’re not apes when you can’t even pronounce this German word
Vernunft, reason!” Gradually, the students fall into line, even without fully understanding her. Then Sonia Kelich accidentally drops the gun. All seven students grab at it, shouting in Turkish.
And Sonia shouts back. In Turkish. The students are shocked into silence. Their teacher, it turns out, is one of them, but she married a German, integrated fully and, with a new last name and no accent, can now successfully perform in German drag. Is it her command of the language that makes Sonia German? Her love of Goethe and Schiller? Her abandonment of her Turkish identity? Is it a sign of success that she can imitate Germanness without being noticed?
When the production comes to its end, one student does not let the others exit. The actor breaks character, objecting that he has nowhere to go when the curtain closes, that as a Turkish actor, he can only be cast as a terrorist. He turns slowly towards the audience and raises his gun. The other actors drop their shows of fear and anger and turn towards the audience as well. The playing has just begun.