In interesting ways, German Stage’s ongoing exploration of Germany’s immigrant populations provides a lens through which we can evaluate how we perceive our immigrants and how we treat them.
WhiteBreadMusic by Marianna Salzmann. Translated by Charlotte Collins. Staged reading directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Presented by German Stage at the Goethe-Institut Boston, Boston, MA. October 5, 2014.
By Ian Thal
Marianna Salzmann’s last play to make its American premiere to Boston audiences, Mameloschn tracked the immigrant experience in Germany over three generations. In many ways, it is a companion piece to her first play, WhiteBreadMusic (Weißbrotmusik) which made its American premiere at this month at the Goethe Institut. In Mameloschn (“Mother-Tongue”) three women negotiated the challenges of being Jewish in both the Communist-ruled German Democratic Republic and post-reunification Germany. The earlier play focuses on three youths, two Turks and a Jew, who are not only alienated from German society, but want little if anything to do with the cultures of their families.
Even as tensions between Europe’s Jewish and Muslim communities have become increasingly volatile, Aron (Nael Nacer) and Sedat (Omar Robinson) are best friends, united by their rejection of their upbringings, German culture, and their embrace of hip hop. However, WhiteBreadMusic is not a coming- of-age story about young people liberated by pop-music. Neither young man has much ambition: they are mostly interested in smoking (both cigarettes and joints), drinking at the pub, and loudly complaining about what they see as Germany’s bureaucratic “white bread” culture. Even when Sedat raps (with Aron beat-boxing) it is more about taunting the ‘white bread’ Germans than developing a music career. Complications arise after Sedat gets his girlfriend, Nurit (Obehi Janice) pregnant; he has no interest in the responsibilities of fatherhood.
On the one hand, Aron and Sedat like youth throughout the world latch on to the popular tropes of American rap. The former voices a fantasy about painting himself black so that he can look as different as he feels – perhaps as much a commentary on the stereotypes that hip hop perpetuates as it is on Aron’s using someone else’s skin as a metaphor for his own alienation. Yet their circumstances are particular to Germany. Sedat’s family first arrived in Germany as guest workers. In 1961, the German Federal Republic negotiated a trade deal with Turkey to address a shortage of factory workers. Decades later, much of Germany’s Turkish population (which imprecisely labels both ethnic Turks from many different countries as well as Turkish nationals who may or may not be of Turkish ethnicity) does not have German citizenship. They are still regarded as temporary ‘workers,” and are poorly integrated into German society. Meanwhile, Aron, though born in Germany, is the child of parents who immigrated from the Soviet Bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall (much as Salzmann’s family did). Ironically, he doesn’t want to associate with Jewish culture – he rejects all of his mother’s (Jackie Davis) entreaties to go the Jewish community center and socialize with Jews his own age – yet he still looks at today’s Germans and can’t help but wonder if their parents, or grandparents murdered his family members.
Nurit is not really part of Aron’s and Sedat’s scene. Sedat fantasizes that his son will become the “first brother” to be President of Germany, but the reality of Nurit’s pregnancy ultimately cramps his style. (The baby is a girl and Sedat’s conception of the Presidency revolves around having an expensive car and female admirers.) Aron offers some support to Nurit, hoping that his friend will come around and accept his responsibility, but we mostly know Nurit not though her interactions with the young men but through her own words.
Whether in long emails to which Sedat never responds, or in her own internal monologues, we are given access to Nurit’s evolving inner life. We meet her waiting at a busy intersection, indulging in a dream of pushing complete strangers into traffic, before she looks at herself and concludes that she has a “perfect figure” (five foot four inches tall, weighing one-hundred-and-ten pounds, and having c-cup breasts). When she realizes she is pregnant, Nurit abandons both her idealization and her murderous fantasies (though she persists in a desire for a “flat tummy […] like Miley Cyrus”) and decides on what she wants: a family with the father of her daughter, and if that is not possible, at least a future for herself and her child in a multi-ethnic Germany.
In the end, Aron and Sedat are charged in a violent crime sparked by a verbal altercation with an older German played by Andrew Clarke (Salzmann was inspired to write the play after an unprecedented report of a German-Jew beating an ethnic German became national news). Nurit is left to consider whether there is a future in Germany for Germans who are not ethnically German after she reads a newspaper editorial that talks about “Our Turkish Fellow Citizens […] Our Jewish Fellow Citizens.”
Aron, Nurit, and Sedat all have mothers, and their concerns are shared by parents of all cultures: Are their young adult children hanging out with good influences or not? Are they maintaining ties to their community? Are they taking care of their grandchildren? Salzmann is not rendering individual mothers but the archetypes of maternal concern — these figures (all played by Davis) lack the cultural and personal specificity projected by Lin and Clara in the later play, Mameloschn. The older German, on the other hand, is the stereotype of how Aron and Sedat perceive all German men: obsessed with rules, propriety, and cleanliness. The obsession with ‘fitting in’ only feeds into adolescent insecurity that boundaries have been shaped to exclude outsiders, that they are seen as dirty, that they will never belong in Germany.
Comparing Salzmann’s reliance on archetypes in 2009’s WhiteBreadMusic to the specificity of 2013’s Mameloschn shows how much she grew as a dramatist in between these scripts. One is left to wonder how she would have addressed the same thematic material today. Would Aron and Sedat respond in some way to the threats on Europe’s Jewish communities, often from European Islamists? Still, Salzmann’s political and social awareness, her concerns about identity, and even the techniques she uses as a writer (alternating between dramatic dialogue and direct address) connect both plays.
Though Turkish hip hop originates with the German Turkish community, it is separate from the world of German hip hop. Charlotte Collins’ translation renders Aron and Sedat’s argot, including their rap in a German pub, in their English equivalents. This presents some problems: the manner in which the term “brother” is used seems outmoded by American hip hop standards, though it might be more common to Britain, where Collins lives. The one-size-fits-all choice doesn’t suggest the unique word choices made by German and Turkish hip hop. Is Sedat rapping in German, Turkish, or both? Does Aron associate with the German or the Turkish hip hop scenes? Or does he flit between both?
All countries have their minority populations, and most western countries have increasingly dealt with immigration. In the United States, the general trend has been some sort of integration (though it is often a process that takes generations): at least in the metropolitan areas where half of us live, we tend see ourselves as a country of hyphenated-Americans: we are ethnic in some aspects of our lives, but Americans in our civic lives. Europe, on the other hand, is a patchwork of ethnic democracies and former empires turned republics. Minorities are either long established residents (like Jews, or Roma) who have been perceived as other for centuries, or more recent immigrants (as with the example of Turkish guest worker families in Germany) whose integration was never considered. In interesting ways, German Stage’s ongoing exploration of Germany’s immigrant populations, which also include Maria Milisavljevic’s Abyss and Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon provides a lens through which we can evaluate how we perceive our immigrants and how we treat them. Defining ‘the other’ is something that Americans have to consider, not just as immigration reform continues to be stalled in Congress, but as significant numbers of Republicans continue to believe that Barack Obama is a Kenyan national and not legitimately President of the Unites States.
Ian Thal is a performer and theatre educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere, and on occasion served on productions as a puppetry choreographer or dramaturg. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is currently working on his second full length play; his first, though as-of-yet unproduced, was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. Formally the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.