By Jade Frost
On this sunny Thursday morning, our class filed into the room, with smiles on our faces and coffees in our hands, where Sandrine Micossé-Aikins was awaiting for us. Our jet lag was behind us, and we were ready to listen to as she started her talk by telling us about how most plays, especially those that are considered anti-racist, are performed in black face. She also told us that the use of blackface in plays is considered to be normal. The room gasped when hearing this, and we were hanging on her every word. In “Reclaiming Innocence,” Sharon Dodua Otoo writes, “It is this ‘normalization’ which is perhaps the biggest failure of this production. A claim to universality must be able to incorporate the visions and perspectives of those who do not fit these norms—especially if the production claims to be precisely about them and especially if the ensemble claims to take their issues seriously.” Along these lines, Micossé-Aikins continued on telling us about the play I’m Not Rappaport, and showed us a picture of a white man with a big grin on his face standing in front of the play poster which showed two white men, one in black face. The whole class was taken aback by this picture, and we were even more disgusted by images from the second play, Unschuld (Innocence).
Unschuld was a play that was done in black face, which caused quite a stir in the community. As a result, Bühnenwatch (Stagewatch) organized a protest during which 42 people came to the play and left when the two actors came on stage in their black face. The producer and director of the play had to temporarily stop the show, because the actors were in disbelief. Afterwards, the manager of theatre contacted Bühnenwatch, and a discussion about Unschuld was held with the cast about the problem with black face. Micossé-Aikins, who is a part of the Bühnenwatch, told us, “Well, we opened up the discourse, and although [change] is super slow, it is going somewhere.” As a result of this conversation, the cast of Unschuld stopped using blackface, but there were still some issues going on. Starting out with chuckle, Micossé-Aikins said, “We [in Germany] are 30 years behind almost everything. I mean the ‘Best Play’ award went to a play that was done in black face and went as far as to use cushions to make the Black woman character’s butt look bigger.”
The whole class was in disbelief in various ways, some shook their head while others laughed with Micossé-Aikins. This could be seen as an example of Pierre Bourdieu’s “gentle violence” that is defined in Maisha Eggers’ “Knowledges of (Un-)Belonging: Epistemic Change as a Defining Mode for Black Women’s Activism in Germany,” in which she claims that “‘gentle violence’ (soft violence, soft power) signals oppositional possibilities of disrupting and dismantling dominant and repressive systems and symbolic orders through critical scholarship.” When asked about what the Black actors thought about the theatre community in Germany, she stated that it is very hard for them, because they almost never get hired and when they do, it is for stereotypical, supporting roles. This reminds me of Jürgen Lemke’s “Gay and Lesbian Life in East German Society before and after,” in which he writes, “Often we find ourselves missing emotion, we have a need for solidarity and closeness. Many of us withdraw to our old positions, and become observers.”
The discussion ended with Micossé-Aikins talking about racism in other forms of art. She posed the question, “What is racism really?” and continued, “No one is really talking about it Germany. Someone does artwork thinking that it is fine and appropriate, meanwhile some people could see it as racism not art.” In the introduction to The Little Book of Big Visions, she writes, along with Sharon Dodua Otoo, “The vocabulary of resistance is merely a means to an end and not the end in itself.” Sandrine Micossé-Aikins’ words affected us all. It was in that session with her that I saw a parallel between American and German ideology of Blacks and how they are treated. I also noticed a new perspective on racism, art, and discourse. Not too many people are choosing to engage in the dialogue that is happening and are, therefore, kept uninformed. Micossé-Aikins is right that Germany may be slow, but they are going somewhere. Who knows where the direction will lead this country, but we can only hope for the better.
Jade Frost is a rising junior at Colorado College from Salt Lake City, Utah. She is double majoring in Feminist & Gender Studies and English Literature, with the hopes of becoming a journalist or working at a publishing firm. She is involved with Black Student Union and The Cipher magazine on campus. Jade’s hobbies are reading, creative writing, binging on Netflix, going for drives, dancing spontaneously and hanging out with friends and family. She enjoys discussing topics such as Black feminism, women with disabilities, and social constructs. Her favorite TV Shows are Law and Order: SVU and Gilmore Girls, and her favorite movies are Love & Basketball and Mulan. Jade loves pretty much all types of music, but her top hits are “Ladies First” by Queen Latifah, “Video” by India.Arie, and “A Change is Gonna Come” covered by Leela James. Jade is excited for this course, so she can learn and discover new things.