Source: project Muse

Author: Katrin Sieg


In the spring of 2012, the use of blackface/blackfacing in German theater, long an unremarked-upon practice, became the object of public protest, and prompted heated debates about the politics of race and representation. Through a discussion of the Deutsches Theater’s production of Unschuld (Innocence) by Dea Loher, which stirred up the controversy, the essay shows that blackfacing is part of larger patterns of racial representation. These have recently come under increasing scrutiny in Germany. The controversy about blackfacing is a symptom of larger tectonic shifts in narratives of German identity as postnational, postracial, and cosmopolitan.



Race, Guilt and Innocence:  Facing Blackfacing in Contemporary German Theater  

Until very recently, blackface has been a common and unremarked-upon practice in German theater and popular culture. In 2009, the famous investigative journalist Günter Wallraff put on black skin-paint and a wig to indict German racism by impersonating a Somali tourist. In 2011, comedian Martin Sonneborn campaigned for DIE PARTEI, a party with a largely satirical platform, with huge posters that showed him in blackface, captioned “Ick bin ein Obama.” And in early 2012, two Berlin theaters advertised upcoming shows with images of white actors in black make-up. The plays have been staples of the German repertoire and include black characters (an African American and two African immigrants, respectively), yet productions had rarely featured black German actors. So unremarkable was blackface that there was not even a term for it in German, as Jonathan Wipplinger noted as recently as 2011.1

In the spring of 2012, however, this practice became the object of public protest and stirred heated debates in the theaters, at academic conferences, and in the cultural pages of national dailies. Since then, a new term has entered the German language: the practice is now referred to as “blackfacing” in German.2 The linguistic adaptation from American culture, where it denotes acting conventions that were elaborated and codified in the antebellum minstrel show, though they preceded and outlasted that genre, added rhetorical force to critics’ condemnation of blackfacing as racist. At the same time, the loan word made it more difficult to grasp the specifically German history of blackfacing as more than an imported, American practice that drags behind it American discourses of race and racism. Its tethering to minstrelsy, moreover, reduced blackfacing to cross-racial casting, and thus forecloses more complex questions pertaining to racial representation, including authority relations structuring theatrical production, and the actor’s ability to resignify racialized roles. I adopt the term blackfacing with these caveats, and hope to push a critical understanding of the practice in these directions.

The discussions of reasons for and against blackfacing reprised previous controversies that arose when foreign playwrights objected to German productions of their plays that proposed to use blackface.3 However, these controversies were conducted among theater artists of different nationalities, and did not reach a wider public. By contrast, the blackfacing controversy in 2012 was initiated by spectators who lodged protests against a production on one theater’s Facebook page, and unfolded in the online comment sections of newspapers and in the blogs of advocacy groups, which also served as organizing tools for demonstrations and panel discussions.4 Those events were in turn documented on national and transnational web portals such as,,, and The proliferation of the media landscape through online outlets and social media, in which the national press now only occupies a small, albeit powerful position, was an important factor in altering participation and outcomes of the German debate about racial representation.

Initially, the blackfacing debate focused on the exclusion of actors of color from employment opportunities in the German theater and on the quantity and quality of roles available to them. Soon the expanded range of venues and interlocutors in the debate brought sharply into view how access to other institutions of the public sphere as well is regimented and restricted. Ultimately, the blackfacing debate forced open the question of whether and how a critique of race may be articulated to democratic representation more generally. Although the matter of who should be able to participate remained at the center of the blackfacing debate, the larger faultlines I perceive ran along ideological lines, rather than exclusively ethnic or racial ones. These ideological divisions corresponded with a divergence between old and new media: the print media promoted universalist, liberal discourses of race-blindness. Online media, by contrast, more consistently offered radical critiques of racialized structures framing representation, organized incursions into cultural institutions that regard themselves as serving the public (and thereby provoke them into revealing the very narrow terms in which they conceptualize that public), and insisted on naming  the difference that race makes to the experience of actors, and more generally, people of color in Germany.5

The historical context in which the blackfacing debate took place is characterized by contradictory ideological impulses. On the one hand, we can observe intensifying efforts to link the colonial past to the culture of commemoration securing postfascist narratives of German history and identity. And on the other, there are escalating attacks on that culture of commemoration and consequent refashioning of German identity. The arguments that were made for blackfacing by theater artists and critics register these tensions affecting the politics of race and representation in contemporary Germany. Some of the defenses of blackfacing warrant greater attention than I can give them here. (In particular, I would dispute the claims that blackfacing has no history on the German stage, and that it is not injurious, because unlike the American minstrel show it does not support a racialized social system.) In my parsing of the debate, I focus on the assertion that blackfacing in German theater, in contradistinction to other national traditions (especially the American one), serves to deconstruct racial identity and difference. This contention, often repeated by German theater artists, invokes a postracial national culture. In view of the current cultural shifts, this claim merits the most attention, and I will tackle it through a discussion of the Deutsches Theater’s production of Unschuld (Innocence) by Dea Loher, which fanned the blackfacing controversy. In the conclusion, I trace out the ripple effects of the 2012 intervention and ask what has changed as a result.

Blackfacing Past and Present

In 2011, the venerable Deutsches Theater (DT) in Berlin planned a production of the play Clybourne Park (2010), by the American playwright Bruce Norris, for its upcoming season. Clybourne Park includes two African American parts, and when Norris got wind of the theater’s plan to cast a white actress in blackface in one of them, the dramatist tried in vain to dissuade the theater, and eventually withdrew his permission for the production when the director would not budge.6 Interestingly, a prior production of Clybourne Park at the Staatstheater Mainz featured two Afro German actors, Lara-Sophie Milagro and Toks Körner, in the black parts.7 Milagro, who studied acting at the internationally renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and at the Universität der Künste in Berlin, has spoken publicly about her delight when she was cast in this role, one of the few times, she said, when she wasn’t asked to play a prostitute, a drug addict, or a refugee.8 She had been so disaffected by the paucity and narrow range of black characters in the German theater that she founded the all-black ensemble Label Noir, and has served as its director since 2008. As stated on its website, Label Noir seeks to increase the visibility of black German actors and provide them with rewarding and challenging opportunities to practice their craft. The company has produced two plays so far, which thematize Afro German history, and immigrant approaches to the German term Heimat respectively.9 “When we held our first casting calls, we were stunned to receive so many applications,” remembered Milagro. Numerous trained black actors from Switzerland, Austria, and Germany were eager to join Label Noir, revealing a deep pool of qualified professionals utterly fed up with the roles available to them in German theater. Milagro appeared in another Bruce Norris play produced by the Staatstheater Mainz in their 2012–2013 season, as one of three black German cast members.

Meanwhile, back in the capital, the DT decided to instead produce the play Innocence, by Dea Loher, a well-regarded German woman playwright.Innocence is one of Loher’s most-performed plays, and has had ninety-one productions in German-language theaters alone, plus thirty-one in other languages since its premiere in 2003.10 Like Clybourne Park, the play includes two black characters (named Elisio and Fadoul), but unlike Norris, Loher doesn’t meddle with casting decisions. The published text includes the following instruction: “If Elisio and Fadoul are cast with black actors, they should be chosen because they’re excellent actors, not for reasons of a dubious authenticity. No ‘Schwarz-Malerei’ (naturalistic black make-up), I recommend instead to emphasize the artificiality of theatrical means through the use of masks and the like.”11 Apparently no “excellent” black actors could be found, because director Michael Thalheimer cast two white Germans in these roles. Moreover, his choice to underscore the “artificiality” of the parts led him to adopt the classical minstrel masks of glossy black paint and big red lips.

During opening night, forty-two spectators quietly walked out. They were members of Buehnenwatch (Stage Watch), a recently founded organization whose declared mission is to end racist casting practices on the German stage. Activists proceeded to distribute leaflets outside that explained their opposition, and subsequently engaged in a series of dialogues with the DT’s artistic director Ulrich Khuon, as well as the director, and the chief dramaturge.12 They charged that blackfacing is part of a large array of racialized practices that date back to the colonial era, can be found in American and German entertainment genres, and continue to keep alive the racial ideologies that, at their extreme, led to colonial exploitation and genocide, even though these ideologies have been officially debunked in the era of multiculturalism.13 They forcefully asserted that the meanings and effects of racialized symbolic practices cannot be determined by (white) artistic intent alone, but must take the context of reception and the responses of audiences of color into account as well. The Buehnenwatch website refuted one by one Thalheimer and Khuon’s reasons for using blackfacing, but after realizing that many white Germans have no exposure to the politics of race and representation, introduced key terms and topics on their website, and sought to educate Germans about the historical background to the issue. The dialogues eventually led the theater to back down and cease the use of blackfacing, yet this was not the end of the affair.14 Some theater critics in national newspapers picked  up the gauntlet and positioned themselves as gatekeepers of one of Germany’s last high cultural bastions.

Defenders of blackfacing cited, first of all, pragmatic reasons: there are neither enough qualified actors of color, nor enough roles to warrant their permanent employment in stable ensembles. Milagro’s comments show, by contrast, that there is no lack of qualified actors, but a lack of adequate scripts and characters. Secondly, defenders posited that the injurious meanings of this practice derive from the way they recall the larger social system of American institutionalized racism; African Americans now live alongside their former oppressors in multicultural democracies and deserve to be spared further insult. The critics disputed that these larger social systems have an analogue in Germany. Blackfacing does not equal minstrelsy, and because it does not reference past racist regimes, it therefore cannot hurt victims’ descendants. In an article entitled “Critics rage against ‘stupid Negroes’ on Stage,” which appeared in the conservative paper Die Welt on February 16, 2012, author Matthias Heine elaborates:

Activists accuse theater artists of drawing on a tradition that doesn’t exist in Germany. Blackface means that white comedians put on make-up in order to regale white audiences by portraying stupid Negroes. In the USA this sort of thing goes back to the nineteenth-century minstrel shows… . In this country this humorous technique was never popular. Not because we are better people, but because of a simple lack of clichés as the basis for jokes. There were so few Africans in Germany that they didn’t kindle the imagination into a steady flow of coarse humor.15

Hans-Dieter Schütt, writing for the socialist daily neues deutschland on March 26, 2012, purports to convey activists’ criticism of blackfacing as “this recalls US cultural customs to discriminate against the colored population by playing ‘bimbos.’” Both authors vociferously object to the activists’ argument that blackfacing and other forms of racist entertainment were popular in both Germany and the United States, and do not tackle Buehnenwatch’s claim that “numerous discriminating practices, concepts, and images were used in Germany since the 17th century in order to describe or represent black people” and mark them as Others. No journalist followed up on the entertainment genres (film and carnival) mentioned in Buehnenwatch’s pamphlet. These editorials constitute denials rather than refutations of activists’ arguments. Their lack in erudition and persuasion is compounded with a dubious use of paraphrase and citation. Both journalists define blackfacing’s chief offense as the circulation of negative racial stereotypes, which they repeat with relish and mark as quotations from activists’ speech, even though neither the flyer nor other information material distributed by Buehnenwatch make reference to “stupid negroes” or “bimbos.” Both authors mobilize the very injurious speech that, according to Heine, is missing from German comic traditions. Their strident tone signals that there is more at stake than casting decisions.

Buehnenwatch’s intervention came at a time when a number of initiatives in Berlin and elsewhere signaled larger shifts concerning the representation of Germany’s colonial past. Among these are a series of events in 2009–2010 that critically commemorated the Africa Conference that Bismarck hosted in Berlin 125 years before, efforts to change street names honoring colonial heroes or recalling the colonial era unreflectively, the installation of memorials in the districts of Kreuzberg and Wedding, and the return of human remains from the Herero genocide to a Namibian delegation in 2011. Afro Germans organized and participated in these events, and in the exhibitions and discussions that accompanied them, alongside people of color and white Germans.16 These efforts to integrate colonialism into the larger narrative of German history paralleled the empirical research done by historians.17 This shift has far-reaching implications for conceptions of German identity. The genocide perpetrated against the Herero in German South-West Africa, now placed in a longer history of racialized violence culminating in the Holocaust, demands the same cultural labor of mourning accorded to the latter. And by embedding German colonialism in the larger context of European colonialism and racist exploitation, the revisionist narratives also challenged the tendency to confine racism to American society, a habit of thought also evident in the blackfacing debate. The exclusionary casting practices against which Buehnenwatch protested in 2012 were thus but one part of massive tectonic shifts, in which people of color were active and visible.18

Against this backdrop, the shrill tones critics took in the defense of blackfacing signal a response to both the profound epistemological changes underway, and to the changing demographic contours of the public that positioned itself as stakeholder and actor in these changes. While challenges to established narratives and exclusionary practices emerged from civil society and citizens’ initiatives taking advantage of the Internet and new social media, many of the organs that classically constituted the public sphere, the printed press, public radio, and public television, but also the Deutsches Historisches Museum and the German theater, resisted challenges.19 Critics not only derided a literal-minded racial minority for failing to grasp that blackface in the German context constitutes a critical, anti-racist aesthetic, but accused this minority of trying to censor art and curtail freedom of expression. Critics complained that activists’ success in stopping German actors’ use of blackface does not derive from the strength of their arguments, but from their manipulation of new technologies that distort the public sphere, by unleashing “viral shitstorms” upon the theater.20 By January 2013, when literary critic Denis Scheck, moderator of the show Druckfrisch on ARD, presented his televised warning against the “madness of political correctness” in black make-up, the battle lines between defenders and foes of artistic freedom were firmly drawn between traditional and new media.21

The critics’ accusations effect a rhetorical reversal in which black Germans and their allies are cast in the role of aggressive, philistine censors, and at least in the bizarre fantasy of neues deutschland, destroyers of German theater altogether, as theater arts are replaced by the forcible reeducation of Germans.22 White Germans, by contrast, come to occupy the position of silenced victim prevented from the important business of self-interrogation and democratization. Some of the keywords used to construct this argument recall rhetorical moves already familiar to German newspaper readers from related discussions of the last decade: the censorship charge, for instance, harkens back to the Mohammed cartoon controversy, in which Muslims protesting the satirical depiction of the Islamic prophet Mohammed were cast as incapable of questioning authority and challenging orthodoxy, core principles of democratic discourse.23 One commentator, who responded to Matthias Heine’s article on the website of the conservative daily Welt online, scoffed at artists being “bludgeoned with the cudgel of racism.” The term “cudgel” figured prominently in author Martin Walser’s Paulskirche speech of 1998, in which he argued that Holocaust memory is instrumentalized to bludgeon Germans with guilt and prevent them from moving forward into an unencumbered European future. The speech proved to be a watershed moment that signaled the erosion of the left-liberal consensus of the previous decades, which had insisted on grounding a cosmopolitan ethics in the responsibilities derived from the lessons of the Holocaust.

Yasemin Yildiz has argued that the central catalyst for the erosion of the post-Holocaust moral imperative towards racial and religious tolerance since the 1990s, which had been the basis of the leftist-liberal consensus, has been the figure of the victimized Muslim woman.24 I concur with her assessment; however, the blackfacing debate bundled ideas from previous controversies regarding Jews and Muslims respectively, to reconfirm an image of Germans as the defenders of democratic values under threat by an aggressive minority, and shows how this posture has become so habitual as to be easily transferrable to black Germans who since the Civil Rights movement had occupied quite a different place in the national imaginary.25Underneath the liberal insistence that tolerance and the shouldering of historical responsibility derived from the Holocaust are the definitive achievement of the European subject, Yildiz detects a desire for a neoliberal European future unencumbered by such commitments. A dream of innocence?

Race and Innocence

Dea Loher (born 1964) is an acclaimed dramatist whose plays are regularly performed in German theaters as well as abroad.26 Staged by influential directors and Intendanten (artistic directors), such as Andreas Kriegenburg and Ulrich Khuon, her work has won a number of prizes. According to theater scholar Birgit Haas, who has written a book and edited a special issue of the journal Monatshefte about the playwright, Loher represents the turn away from what Hans-Thies Lehmann termed “postdramatic theater,” and the ascendancy of a new realism in the first decade of the twenty-first century.27 Her plays have dealt with social problems dramatized from the perspective of outsiders: Tätowierung (Tattoo, 1992) depicted a girl’s sexual abuse, Leviathan (1993) traced the beginnings of the militant Red Army Faction, and Klaras Verhältnisse (Klara’s Affairs, 2000) treated the struggles of a long-term unemployed woman. Haas praises Loher for her turn towards a socially relevant drama that breaks with the empty postmodern formalism of the postdramatic German avant-garde, and characterizes this relevance as key to understanding Loher’s realism as “political.” Her plays grapple with social reality as the stuff of tragedy, but shy away from kitchen-sink realism.

The directorial signature of Michael Thalheimer, who directed Innocence at the DT, supports this approach to Loher’s tragic realism. His reputation is based on his stagings of the classical drama canon, from Aeschylus to Schiller and Goethe. His focus on actors’ movements, gestures, and facial expressions foster spectators’ empathy with the cast of forlorn characters in Innocence, including two Africans, who are subject and witness to various, escalating forms of violence. The question of what’s political about Loher’s realist portrayal of people’s suffering, its cause(s), and solutions to it, I show, cannot be separated from the matter of race and its theatrical representation.

Innocence consists of nineteen compact, emotionally dense vignettes that meditate on guilt, remorse, and reparation. Out of a handful of stories and characters that interact in brief scenes and poetic dialogues, Loher weaves a web that evokes guilt as the German condition. The play opens with two characters described in the script as “illegal African immigrants,” Elisio and Fadoul, standing on a shore and watching a woman drown. They fail to rescue her because one of them cannot swim, and the other fears they might attract unwelcome attention by the police. To reside in Germany, it seems, equals migrating into the state of guilt that has long wrapped itself around all the characters. Guilt saps characters’ life energy, shrinks their libido, turns love to hate and violence, and elicits rituals of remorse and atonement that are as extravagant as they are futile. The play is saturated with a nightmarish, melancholy mood, and Thalheimer’s production intensifies it with cool, dim lighting, a minimalistic set, and monotonous musical soundtrack.

With one exception, Elisio and Fadoul are the only characters that become guilty in front of audiences’ eyes, because they fail to rescue the suicidal swimmer. By contrast, most of the German characters’ guilt or victimization is much less certain. Frau Zucker, for instance, suffers from crippling diabetes, and undergoes a series of amputations, yet she taunts her daughter Rosa, who cares for her, with her recollections of exuberant marital intercourse while Rosa foregoes all sexual pleasures as long as her mother is invading her privacy. Rosa’s sacrifice of her own happiness and acceptance of her lot show her to be the real victim in this situation. Twice during the play, a young woman resembling Rosa takes off her clothes in slow motion and walks into the water. This eerie scene, in which Rosa or her doppelganger succumbs to despair, becomes the visual leitmotif of this production, and fuels ressentiment against false victims.

Conversely, the character of Frau Habersatt can be said to suffer from “false guilt.” She first appears in Scene two, when she visits the parents of a murdered girl to apologize for the crime committed by her son. The woman’s visit to the parents, and her desire to involve them in her ritual of remorse, is an affront to survivors forced to relive a traumatic experience. The father, who finds his home invaded and his dead daughter’s photograph fingered by Frau Habersatt, responds to his visitor’s request for forgiveness as follows:

We didn’t raise our child to be a perpetrator, we … raised our child to be a victim, helpful, friendly and trusting, always ready to share, to listen, and empathize, and don’t tell us it’s not your fault, because it’s not our fault either, we are part of a society that believes in solving conflicts through dialogue, this was the hard lesson of remorse we were taught after the war, and now please go and please excuse me for screaming—


That’s what I would have liked to say, but I didn’t, only in my head. In reality I offered her a cup of tea, I sat down on the arm of her chair, held her sweaty hand, enveloped her in my sympathy, while my wife had slid to the floor, whimpering, weeping into her puke, and when it got dark, I turned on the light and asked her: dear Frau Habersatt, may I perhaps drive you home? Or would you rather stay the night in our guest room so you won’t be so alone?


The man’s reference to postwar penance situates the couple’s encounter with Frau Habersatt in relation to Holocaust pedagogy. The subjunctive—“this is what I would have liked to say”—problematizes his politically conditioned response to the woman’s apology. While the wife’s body in the scene above convulses in sorrow and horror, the man’s response is entirely hemmed in by a civility that is inauthentic and inappropriate. He speaks about himself in the third person, less as a way to invite critical reflection about the role, as in Brecht’s epic theater, but as a sign of his alienation from his own suffering. Through this device, Loher denounces the habitus of remorse and responsibility that she shows to have become second nature to postwar Germans.

Yet Frau Habersatt’s motives, we find out later in the play, are more complicated: the murderous son, she tells Elisio, was her still-born fetus, and her assumption of guilt for his deeds might well be interpreted as displaced guilt for having her body become his coffin. Her elaborate guilt fantasy is a screen for her own suffering and mourning. The scene, and the play as a whole, I suggest, reworks the theme of German guilt after colonialism and the Holocaust, by underscoring the damaging effects of a kind of dutiful, national melancholia. It dramatizes the long-term effects of the collective dedication to live with massive, violent loss, and empathy with the suffering of others, in short the culture of post-Holocaust affect. Frau Habersatt’s speaking name cunningly references both the heavy backpack (Habersack) in which Germans carry historic guilt, and theressentiment about lugging this burden into a never-ending future (satt haben).

This constellation reverberates with the momentous shift in German public memory that followed the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003. A number of literary and historical works centered on the suffering of Germans during World War II, including the trauma of city dwellers exposed to the terror of Allied bombing campaigns and the horror of forced expulsion from Eastern Europe. As many scholars have observed, the public recollection and mourning of German losses so many decades after the war was prompted by the bombing of Bagdad, and in turn fuelled opposition to it. The massive thematizing of German suffering caused considerable concern among commentators who feared that German victimization would be simply equated with the persecution and extermination of Jews and other racialized groups in the new constellation of public feelings about wartime trauma, and eliminate the decades-long work to craft a postnational affect that pivoted on perpetration and sought to block the tendency to identify with or as Nazism’s victims.28 Innocence, which premiered in October 2003, takes us into the murky grounds of ethical equivocation. By suggesting that recognizing German suffering will open a path to mourning and reorientation, the play echoes the calls of Walser and other former leftist intellectuals for new beginnings. Interracial relations are at the center of this vision.

After Fadoul and Elisio fail to prevent the drowning of the young woman, both are overwhelmed with guilt and sorrow, and set out to search for an explanation and for ways to make amends. When Fadoul meets Absolut, a blind young sex worker, at a bus stop, and at the same time finds a plastic bag full of money, he decides to pay for an operation that might restore her sight. Absolut is drawn to Fadoul, because he holds the key to answering her question whether her blindness is God’s punishment for a crime. Fadoul’s reference to the Shariah allows the woman to see herself as an injured party, and form an attachment to a man who not only refuses to look, but wants to help her see as well. The money that Fadoul pays for her operation is in part atonement for his failure to help another young woman, and promises, moreover, to bring about more reciprocal relations of looking that would redefine their romance. Frau Habersatt strikes up a relationship with Elisio that allows both to complete the mourning process, by expressing grief and restoring loss through new parental and filial attachments. The play suggests that guilt and loss can be accepted and redeemed through new, postnational kinds of attachment and forms of kinship. That Fadoul and Elisio are immigrants from an unspecified African country, and that they are Muslims, is integral to the attachments that Germans form with them.

As undocumented Muslim immigrants from French-speaking North Africa, one might surmise that these characters would have much to contribute to this play’s exploration of unacknowledged suffering. After all, they are portrayed as survivors of economic hardship, torture, and oppression, and they live in a building called the Suicide Highrise. However, they are not suicidal themselves, perhaps because past traumas put any of their present tribulations into perspective, and because they have an enviably pragmatic approach to guilt and restitution. The only sorrow that is thematized in relation to the two Africans is their failure to rescue the suicidal swimmer in the first scene, and the guilt they subsequently experience. For all its interest in German guilt and ways of overcoming it through cross-racial relations, the play does not position the Africans as victims of colonial or postcolonial violence, or illuminate either the living conditions of contemporary undocumented immigrants or their diverse stories of migration, nor their experiences with past and present racism, and how they are compounded with Islamophobia after the turn of the millennium. To the contrary, Germans treat them with impeccable respect and affection.29

While Fadoul and Elisio come to share the German condition of guilt, they do not suffer the way that Rosa or Frau Habersatt suffer. Loher’s script shows them to be crucial to German characters completing the mourning process so they can move on—indeed they are evidence of this moving on—but it very carefully refrains from thematizing racism and discrimination as forms of suffering that would insert a difference between characters inInnocence, or implicate Germans as past or present perpetrators. It includes them as two among many stories of humans suffering different kinds of loss—loss of a loved one, loss of limbs and physical faculties, loss of purpose. They are trapped in a leaden present, and, though many succumb numbly, the African characters come closest to taking a stance and taking action in the face of a diffusely felt precarity that does not at the same time turn violent against the self or against others. While Loher’s script includes them in its universalist pondering of alternatives to living with the dreadful vagaries and uncertainties of life, it echoes the contemporary stereotype of the hardy and enterprising refugee.

There is an even deeper ambiguity surrounding the black characters that results from the play’s uncertain temporal structure and the uncertain identity of the suicidal swimmer. Is it Rosa, or is it a woman who merely resembles Rosa? Birgit Haas points out that the stage directions for Scene one hint at the play’s circular structure, and suggest that Elisio and Fadoul in fact caused Rosa’s suicide by showing her the photo of a dead woman in which she recognizes herself.30 To Christine Künzel, these kinds of uncertainties typify a moral relativism that mars Loher’s work, blurs the lines between victims and perpetrators, and in the end “knows only victims” of a depersonalized violence that either comes from within, as a sort of death drive, or appears as “fate,” as in Greek tragedy.31 Whereas the jury of the prestigious Mülheimer Dramatikerpreis lauded Loher’s “ethically valuable confrontation with the topic of violence,” Künzel criticizes the “arbitrariness of guilt” and diffuse portrayal of violence in the playwright’s work. She asks what the politics are of a drama that is  disinterested in exploring causes and systemic structures of violence, in the question of how to act ethically and responsibly, and ultimately in the possibility of change.32 The philosopher Ella, who wails about the end of utopias, the futility of critique, and in the end murders her husband in an act of random violence, thus appears to embody the play’s relativist moral. The title of Ella’smagnus opus, The Unreliability of the World, captures this worldview. Thalheimer’s production underscores Loher’s mystifying and mythical view of violence through its set design: characters balance precariously on a steep, rotating cone that resonates with the play’s cyclical structure, suggests that precariousness is the way of the world, and affects all equally through its shape and movement.

Thalheimer chose to put Andreas Köhler and Peter Moltzen, who played the parts of Fadoul and Elisio, in highly stylized blackfacing, with clearly demarcated black paint on the face and hands, and large red lips. As the actors sweat, touch their faces, and rub against others, part of that paint comes off, so that in the end the mask is still visible but much lighter in color. Blackfacing thus visually translates the process of “becoming German” that the play traces: as the Africans become guilty, they become white (like us). The production invites spectators to “see through race” to an underlying commonality, in which all are victims.33 Blackfacing reminds spectators that racial difference is initially significant for attracting the Absolut to Fadoul and Frau Habersatt to Elisio. And the disappearance of blackfacing helps us to see through race to the shared guilt and search for innocence that links all characters. As the black paint rubs off, the Africans’ lightening complexion and the stained faces of Absolut and Frau Habersatt level any difference that race might make to the experience of suffering. Even more, the smudging of the German characters signals a purely symbolic and metaphysical notion of blackness as the sign of both the spreading “unreliability of the world” and its surmounting.

At the same time, the particular style of blackface chosen for this production, which clearly recalls the American minstrel tradition, reinforces the distancing of African migration from German history that is already suggested by the French postcolonial background of these Africans in the script. Moreover, Peter Moltzen, the actor portraying Fadoul, on several occasions mimed “primitive” African sounds, and in two instances imitated ape-movements. If this is an allusion to the way in which Africans in nineteenth and early twentieth century ethnological shows were often advertised as savages and “ape-men,” located at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, the allusion is not contextualized, nor is it legible as a resignification of an injurious image. While it is doubtful that spectators today would believe that such movements and sounds come naturally to black people, such theatrical choices contribute to the performance of blackness as a dehistoricized spectacle of otherness. Black, Muslim bodies may catalyze Germans’ movement into a cosmopolitan future, but they remain external to its affective economy, since it is a future in which differences can actually not be understood in relation to the German colonial past or neocolonial present.

If the parts of Fadoul and Elisio were played by Afro German actors, it would not be as easy for German audiences to see through race, or to erase the historic and contemporary meanings of racial oppression and ostracization. The very fact that black bodies in Loher’s script only show up as “illegal immigrants” elides the history and presence of Afro Germans, which Lara-Sophie Milagro bemoaned in her criticism of German plays. Yet given the fact that at least Elisio and Fadoul are complex roles and do not speak broken stage-German, Afro German bodies might have in fact brought into play the history elided here; good actors might have made the elision speak. Moreover, some scenes thematize polite cross-racial conduct, which might become instructive, if risky, occasions for actors’ confrontation with race and racism during rehearsals and in performance.34 In my view, these possibilities outweigh the disadvantage that these hypothetical Afro German actors would confirm the cliché of the resilient refugee.

The blackfacing controversy has cast a spotlight on racially exclusive hiring and casting practices in German public institutions, whose critics demand that the apparatus of representation become more responsive to a changing demographic and political reality. But I don’t wish to reduce the blackface debate to an affirmative action problem. I find Loher’s play, which stirred up the latest in a string of controversies, revealing for the way it acknowledges race and migration as aspects of a shifting geopolitical reality after the turn of the millennium, but troubling for its ambivalent inclusion of black immigrants in the affective world of the play. One could understand Loher’s inclusion of Fadoul and Elisio as a gesture of solidarity, despite the play’s simultaneous disavowal of the difference that race and citizenship status make to the likelihood of thriving. Yet this drama of middle-class precarity uses black undocumented migrants as emblems of an existential uncertainty that is experienced as diffusely threatening even by the economic privileged classes that constitute the core audience of the German state theaters. Yet the play is ultimately interested only in the suffering of the Germans whose rigid moral code constrains their ability to counter the “unreliability of the world” with, shall we say, ethical flexibility. The fading black paint on actors’ faces helps to visualize the play’s focus on German guilt, atonement, and victimization, which allows for a fantasy of unencumbered new beginnings ornamented (and certified) by interracial affections. Moltzen’s miming, which removes the subjectivity of a “savage” from identification or sympathy, is not a blemish on an otherwise benign production. Rather, his monkeying betrays the exclusionary logic at the heart of seemingly universalist race-blindness. Within the liberal terms set by the text, racial difference can only be expressed as primitive spectacle, and cosmopolitan ethics are undone by dreams of innocence.

Ripple Effects

In December 2012 family minister Kristina Schröder (CDU) made news by revealing that she changes offensive words such as Negerkönig (negro king) in Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking series, or Negerbaby in Michael Ende’s Jim Knopf books when reading to her young daughter; to older children, she added, she would explain that the word Neger has a history and hurts people. With her remarks about racism in children’s literature, Schröder reignited the debate about injurious speech in cultural representations. While some commentators promptly accused her of censorship, some papers and news magazines strove to convey non-partisan coverage.35 They were again less thorough in their coverage than the online sites, which referred readers to larger issues, further readings, and parents’ initiatives.36 Only the latter took the existence and perspective of non-white German children or readers into account. Perhaps the tone of the discussion was markedly less aggressive than in the blackfacing debate, because publishers such as Thienemann and Friedrich Oetinger had already decided to change offensive terms, and local libraries, which put in orders for the new editions, supported the editing choices. These decisions had rendered the debate moot, at least inasmuch as societal consensus about language use was concerned.

When the debate about the use of blackfacing on stage flared up again in May 2013, there were indications that the consensus on the practice had changed. The occasion was Sebastian Baumgarten’s production of Brecht’s St. Joan of the Stockyards at Schauspielhaus Zürich, which used whole-body blackface replete with augmented buttocks. The show was invited to the Theatertreffen in Berlin, an annual, publicly subsidized festival that showcases the year’s ten best productions in German-speaking theaters as chosen by a jury.37 While Buehnenwatch was again at the forefront of demanding public discussion of the matter, and asking the festival director in an open letter to explain why a production using blackface and other racial/ethnic stereotypes was deemed one of the top ten, the independent bloggers covering the festival on the Theatertreffen’s own website, as well as several Berlin and regional newspapers, shared the activists’ perception.38 The debate in 2013 thus evidences a small degree of sensitization, critics’ awareness of the larger issues at stake, and rejection of Baumgarten’s explanation, which recycled Michael Thalheimer’s defense in 2012.

In contrast to the children’s literature debate, the problem of racial representation of which blackfacing is only one symptom cannot be easily solved by simply omitting an offensive term or practice. This became clear at a panel discussion called Facing Black People, which was hosted by the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse in May 2012. The Ballhaus, a critically acclaimed theater in Berlin-Kreuzberg, has become a focal point of immigrant and people of color performance and new media work, as well as public discussion and audience building. Facing Black People brought together Buehnen-watch activists with Afro German writers and actors, and drew a large audience. Many of the performers wished to underscore the larger problem with the roles assigned to people of color in German theater, and with the institution’s reluctance to address colonialism and race relations as part of its larger project of historical remembering, reckoning, and democratization. Consequently, these discussants insisted on thematizing difference in terms of dramatic content as well as formal means. Even those Afro German actors who regarded racially blind casting as the ideal want to play Gretchen, not (always) Fadoul, or even Othello. Both approaches would include black German artists—the latter by accepting the premise of a postracial society, that is, by overlooking the difference that race makes in contemporary German society; the former by refusing that premise.

It cannot be sufficient to include more Afro German actors in ensembles, or act in plays, in front of audiences that are presumed to be white. The occupation of a space in public discourse that was signaled by the blackface debates of 2012 and 2013 made possible a simultaneous charge against aesthetic and social practices, a simultaneous call for inclusion and rejection, which brought about a shift in the idea of who constitutes the German public as the maker and addressee of the theater. The formation of publicly assertive communities of color in Germany in the past two decades, the greater access of these communities to cultural institutions, media, and the public sphere, and the ascendancy of more heterogeneous conceptions of German culture, have changed the communicative conditions for such resignifications. Nonetheless, there is no gradual, ineluctable progress driven by the steady pressure exerted by the forces of good.

In December 2013, the moderator of a top-rating entertainment show on public television, Wetten Dass, dared Germans to appear on the show in blackface, and fifty people in the city of Augsburg took up the challenge. The blackfacing debate underscores that small, sudden openings must be carefully used for surprise forays and uninvited occupations. The years covered in this article, from 2012 to 2013, have seen a number of mass, rogue intrusions into the public sphere, including demonstrations by the indignados in Spain and chapullers in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. On a small scale, the blackface and N-word debates drive home the point that it requires an enormous amount of effort and risk to challenge the entrenched privileges of small but powerful elites. The debate’s reverberations and ripples across a variety of public occasions and venues over one year forcefully demonstrate that “participation,” the watchword of democratic culture, is granted no more welcomingly or with conviction by the bourgeois elites of western societies than it is by those in notoriously corrupt and authoritarian ones.

Katrin Sieg

katrin sieg ( is Professor of German at Georgetown University. She holds a PhD in Drama and has authored three books on modern and contemporary German theater. Her areas of expertise are feminist and queer studies, German popular culture; critical race studies, and European culture studies.


I wish to thank Jamele Watkins and Vanessa Plumly for sharing their papers with me; and Nora Haakh of the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, who generously made research material available to me.

  1. Jonathan Wipplinger, “The Racial Ruse: On Blackness and Blackface Comedy in Fin-de-Siecle Germany,” The German Quarterly84, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 457–476.
  2. I can only speculate about the reasons for adopting the verbal rather than the nominal form, but they might have included the desire to avoid confusion between the theatrical practice (blackface) and the face of a black person (black face). This confusion would arise among Germans with linguistic but insufficient cultural literacy.
  3. In particular, see the controversy that ensued when the French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès protested against blackface in Alexander Lang’s production of his play Return to the Desert in 1988. For a detailed analysis, see Katrin Sieg, Ethnic Drag: Performing Race, Nation, Sexuality in West Germany(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 1–28.
  4. See especially buehnenwatch.comand
  5. This critique of structures of privilege and exclusion generally corresponds to the approach pursued in the field of critical whiteness studies. For further reading, see Martina Tissberger, Gabriele Dietze, Daniela Hrzan, and Jana Husmann-Kastein, eds., Weiss, Weisssein, Whiteness. Kritische Studien zu Gender und Rassismus(Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2006); Maureen Maisha Eggers, Grada Kilomba, Peggy Piesche, and Susan Arndt, eds., Masken, Mythen und Subjekte. Kritische Weissseinsforschung in Deutschland (Münster: Unrast, 2005). Whiteness studies complements critical approaches that seek to recover the history and culture of Afro Germans. The field of Black German studies seeks to excavate the existence, experiences, and survival strategies of Afro Germans from the interstices of national historiography, often by drawing on oral history and memoirs. Some milestones, listed in chronological order: Katharina Oguntoye, May Opitz, and Dagmar Schultz, Farbe bekennen: Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte (Berlin: Orlanda, 1986); Ika Hügel-Marshall, Daheim Unterwegs: ein deutsches Leben (Berlin: Orlanda, 1998); Fatima El-Tayeb, Schwarze Deutsche: der Diskurs um Rasse und nationale Identität 1890–1933 (Frankfurt: Campus, 2001); Yara-Colette Lemke Muniz de Faria, Zwischen Fürsorge und Ausgrenzung: Afrodeutsche “Besatzungskinder im Nachkriegsdeutschland (Berlin: Metropol, 2002); Tina Campt, Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005); Patricia Mazon and Reinhild Steingröver, eds., Not so Plain as Black and White: Afro-German Culture and History, 1890–2000 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2005); Darlene Clark Hine, Tricia Danielle Keaton, and Stephen Small, eds., Black Europe and the African Diaspora(Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009); Peggy Piesche, Euer Schweigen schützt euch nicht: Audre Lorde und die Schwarze Frauenbewegung in Deutschland (Berlin: Orlanda, 2012); Oumar Diallo and Joachim Zeller, eds., Black Berlin: Die deutsche Metropole und ihre Afrikanische Diaspora in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Berlin: Metropol, 2013).
  6. On 16 October 2012, Bruce Norris published an open letter to the Dramatists’ Guild of America protesting the continued use of blackface in the German theater, which created some media attention in the USA.
  7. For a detailed analysis of this production, see Jamele Watkins, “Performing Bruce Norris’s Play Clybourne Parkin Germany” (paper delivered at What is the Black German Experience? Second Annual Convention of the Black German Heritage and Research Association, 10–11 August 2012, New York, NY).
  8. Milagro spoke in detail about the casting controversy in “Homeland, Bittersweet Homeland” (paper delivered at What is the Black German Experience? Second Annual Convention of the Black German Heritage and Research Association, 10–11 August 2012, New York, NY). She was one of three expert critics that debated blackfacing on, and, together with her colleague Gyavira Lasana, created the online petition on avaaz.orgagainst the use of blackfacing in German theaters. 1,541 people had signed the petition by 20 June 2013.
  9. The two plays are Heimat, bittersüsse Heimat(2010) and Satoe—gesegnete Heimat (2011).
  10. Of the ninety-one German productions, twenty-one were produced at schools and universities.
  11. Dea Loher, Unschuld. Das Leben auf der Praca Roosevelt(Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren, 2004), 8. This and all following translation from the German are my own.
  12. Buehnenwatch had been founded in response to the use of blackface in the Schlosstheater’s production of I’m Not Rappaport, a popular comedy by American playwright Herb Gardner that is set in Central Park and stages a dialogue between an American Jew and an African American. I’m Not Rappaporthas had over forty productions, only two of which cast a black German actor. Protests against the Schlosstheater unfolded largely on Facebook, yet the theater’s artistic director, Dieter Hallervorden, proved impervious to the charges, and saw himself as the hapless victim of a flamewar on the internet.
  13. The flyer that Buehnenwatch distributed during their “first intervention/action against Blackface on the German stage” is posted at
  14. Thalheimer decided to cease the use of blackface—and use “whiteface” instead. As the newspaper tazreported, spectators who stayed for the post-show discussion were not satisfied with this choice. Moreover, the theater never removed the publicity images and video that used blackface from its website.
  15. It is worth noting that the comic genre of the Jew Farce, discussed in Sieg 2002, did rely on racial/cultural stereotypes to ridicule a numerically small social group. Moreover, German popular culture abounded with racial stereotypes and racist humor pertaining to Africans and black Americans. For a wealth of examples, see David Ciarlo, Advertising Empire: Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).
  16. See Diallo and Zeller, eds., Black Berlin, for a fuller picture of the public interventions cited above, as well as numerous others.
  17. See Jürgen Zimmerer, Von Windhuk nach Auschwitz? Beiträge zum Verhältnis von Kolonialismus und Holocaust(Berlin: Lit, 2011); Benjamin Madley, “From Africa to Auschwitz: How German South West Africa incubated Ideas and Methods Adopted and Developed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe,” European History Quarterly 35, no. 3 (2005): 429–464; Shelley Baranowski, Nazi Empire: German Colonialism and Imperialism from Bismarck to Hitler (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011). For a critical review of this shifting paradigm, see Robert Gerwarth and Stephan Malinowski, “Der Holocaust as ‘kolonialer Genozid’? Europäische Kolonialgewalt und nationalsozialistischer Vernichtungskrieg,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 33, no. 3 (2007): 439–466.
  18. These initiatives built on the foundational research and community organizing done by Afro Germans since the publication of the seminal anthology edited by Katharina Oguntoye, May Opitz, and Dagmar Schultz, Farbe bekennen. Afro-Deutsche Frauen auf den Spuren ihrer Geschichte(Berlin: Orlanda, 1986), which chronicled the history of Afro Germans, in part by drawing on oral history. Since the late 1980s, the organizations IDS (Initiative Schwarze in Deutschland) and ADEFRA—Schwarze Frauen in Deutschland have been at the core of Afro German community and movements.
  19. See the online project Kolonialismus im Kasten, which a group of historians developed to counter the under- and misrepresentation of colonialism in the Deutsches Historisches Museum.
  20. Nele Obermueller, “Does German Theatre have a Race Problem?” Exberliner(30 May 2012),
  21. See the online article on from 30 January 2013.
  22. Hans-Dieter Schütt, “Unschuld? Dem Deutschen Theater Berlin wird eine Unterschätzung rassistischer Zeichen vorgeworfen,” neues deutschland(26 March 2012).
  23. This controversy erupted in 2005, after the Danish daily newspaper Jyllands Postenpublished twelve caricatures of the Islamic prophet Mohammed.
  24. Yasemin Yildiz, “Governing European Subjects: Tolerance and Guilt in the Discourse of Muslim Women,” Cultural Critique77 (Winter 2011): 70–101.
  25. See Moritz Ege, Schwarz werden. “Afroamerikanophilie” in den 1960 und 1970er Jahren(Bielefeld: Transkript, 2007); Priscilla Layne, Black Voices, German Rebels: Acts of Masculinity in Postwar Popular Culture (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2011).
  26. Loher’s plays are especially popular in Central and Eastern Europe. Birgit Haas, “Dea Loher: Vorstellung,” Monatshefte99, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 269.
  27. Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatisches Theater(Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren, 2005).
  28. See for instance Andreas Huyssen, “Air War Legacies: From Dresden to Baghdad,” New German Critiqueno. 90 (Autumn 2003): 163–176; William Rasch and Wilfried Wilms, eds., Bombs Away! Representing the Air War over Europe and Japan (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006).
  29. A supermarket cashier, for instance, refuses to run the bills Fadoul has found through a scanner, because to do so would suggest a racist suspicion that she emphatically rejects. When Absolut first meets Fadoul, she accuses him of having stolen her book and umbrella, which she’s left at the bus stop; but her accusation is not motivated by prejudice, since she cannot see him, and is indeed informed by her negative experiences with Germans who have taken advantage of her handicap. Frau Habersatt is even culturally sensitie enough to know that one shouldn’t address a black person with the question where they are from.
  30. Birgit Haas, “Die Rekonstruction der Dekonstruction in Dea Lohers Dramen, oder: Die Rückkehr des politischen Dramas,” Monatshefte99, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 293.
  31. Christine Künzel, “‘Vielleicht kommt die Gewalt von innen.’ Dea Lohers Poet(h)ik der Gewalt,” Monatshefte99, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 360.
  32. Künzel, “‘Vielleicht kommt die Gewalt von innen,’” 369.
  33. Compare Loren Kruger’s insightful discussion of blackface in East German productions of Athol Fugard’s plays about Apartheid-era South Africa, in which she develops and criticizes the notion of “seeing through race” to underlying commonalities. “Seeing through Race: Athol Fugard, (East) Germany, and the Limits of Solidarity,” Modern Philology100, no. 4 (May 2003): 619–651.
  34. See for instance Nisma Cherrat, “Mätresse—Wahnsinnige—Hure. Schwarze Schauspieler-Innen am deutschsprachigen Theater”; and Senouvo Agbota Zinsou, “EIN FREMDER, WER’S GLAUBT! Klischees da, wo man sie am wenigsten erwarten würde,” in Maureen Maischa Eggers, Grada Kilomba, Peggy Piesche, and Susan Arndt, eds.,Mythen, Masken und Subjekte: Kritische Weissseinsforschung in Deutschland(Münster: Unrast, 2005). They describe how they wrestled with highly stereotyped roles and convey insights into the racialized power dynamics of the production process.
  35. See for instance Matthias Heine, “‘Negerkönig’-Debatte; Eine Ehrenrettung für Kristina Schröder,” Welt Online(21 December 2012), who argued in favor of removing offending terms from children’s literature; whereas Anna Klöpper, “‘Baby mit dunkler Hautfarbe’: Zensur. Familienministerin Kristina Schröder liest ihrer Tochter die Jim-Knopf Bücher nur entschärft vor, ohne “Neger” und derlei Wörter—und unterschätzt damit ihr Kind,” taz (20 December 2012), and Mely Kiyak, “Liebe Neger!” Berliner Zeitung (19 January 2013) argued against the omission of racist terms from children’s books.
  36. Der braune mob, for instance, had already uploaded Maureen Maisha Egger’s article “Pippi Langstrumpf—Emanzipation nur für weisse Kinder? Rassismus und an (weisse) Kinder adressierte Hierarchiebotschaften” to its website, which was cited and linked by Hadija Haruna, “Wer ist hier empfindlich?” posted on 24 January 2001 on
  37. The annual festival is supported by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes.
  38. For press reviews, see for instance Andreas Schäfer, “Kapitalisten im Saloon,” Tagesspiegel(15 May 2013); Dirk Pilz, “Welch Wind!”, Frankfurter Rundschau (15 May 2013), and Tobi Müller, “Was man nicht sagen kann, muss man singen.” Tages-Anzeiger (16 May 2013). Blogposts about St. Joan of the Stockyards can be found at From there, numerous links track the unfolding of the discussion.