Post-migrant theatre today
“We say loudly what doesn’t suit us”

„Dance for Sale“, a dance-project by Grupo Oito
„Dance for Sale“, a dance-project by Grupo Oito | © Lars Mylius

Patrick Wildermann spoke with Wagner Carvalho, who since 2012/2013 has been artistic director of the Ballhaus Naunynstraße in Berlin-Kreuzberg, about the profile and prospects of his theater.

Mr. Carvalho, what is the focus of your work at Ballhaus Naunynstraße?

The Ballhaus remains a platform for promoting young talent. First, in our Academy of Autodidacts, young lay people can develop their own stories with the help of experienced artists. Then too we attract young colleagues for collaborations that renegotiate, for instance, perspectives or gender questions. Another focus is the “Black Perspective”.

Do you still see yourselves as a “post-migrant” theatre?

Of course. But we give the idea a fresh content. Under Shermin Langhoff, who was director of the Ballhaus until 2013 and introduced that label, second and third-generation Turkish / Kurdish / Armenian-German artists had their say. We have different protagonists and expand the idea of “post-migrant”: as a perspective that doesn’t represent the majority society. This includes colleagues such as Atif Hussein and Simone Dede Ayivi, who were born in Germany but aren’t white and have other issues. I’m grateful to Shermin that I’ve come into this inheritance even without a Will.

  • Wagner Carvalho © Lutz Knospe
    Wagner Carvalho
  • „ONE DAY I WENT TO *IDL“, Akademie der Autodidakten © Wagner Carvalho
    „ONE DAY I WENT TO *IDL“, Akademie der Autodidakten
  • „Tableau“, by Reihaneh Youzbashi Dizaji © Zé de Paiva
    „Tableau“, by Reihaneh Youzbashi Dizaji

Why is the Ballhaus a necessary part of the Berlin theatre scene?

Because it’s not enough to have in the repertoire the text of a post-migrant author which is then not performed by post-migrant artists. With us it’s different. The Ballhaus is also indispensable because we’re loud – in the sense that we’re clear and negotiate clearly what doesn’t suit us in society. Whether it’s in the context of a production, a panel discussion or a reading. We can respond very quickly. And this is necessary because it’s important to shape German society in its diversity. We’re taking part in this process. Politically, critically. At the same time important for us is that we do art, not social work.

What issues currently move you in particular?

A very important one is participation. This of course includes questions of residence rights and self-empowerment. At the Ballhaus, for example, we realized a project called ONE DAY I WENT TO *IDL with post-migrant young people and refugees, based on a song of the musician Afrikan Boy in which he describes his experiences of displacement. It’s important that the refugees were the main characters, not decoration. Another important issue is equality. If the CDU wants to prevent gay marriage, we take a position in this. And we also deal with Germany’s colonial history.

How present or visible is that in Berlin?

You can already see it in the street names and the names of the subway stations. Take only “Mohrenstraße“ (i.e. Moor Street). That sticks in people’s heads, they’re confronted with it every day. Schoolbooks have to tell colonial history differently. They have to begin by telling about it at all! In our play Jung, giftig und schwarz (i.e. Young, Poisonous and Black) by Amina Eisner and Thandi Sebe, a character thanks her teacher for, believe it or not, a lesson in colonial history. And these structures persist. Refugees from African countries who come to Germany, to Berlin, find themselves caught in colonial economic and cultural structures.

Is there still a structural racism in the cultural scene?

Of course. We live in a racist society. And the cultural scene doesn’t exist outside it; the scene is its looking-glass. I’m no longer willing to accept this. When we performed the play Tableau by the young Iranian artist Reihaneh Youzbashi Dizaji, which is about three generations between various cultures, one of the audience came to me bewildered: how could it be, he asked, that the mother and grandmother on the stage were blonde, but the daughter had black hair? I replied: What’s important is the story being told. Not the hair color. That something like this should occur in 2015 is sad.

Do you know of societies that have come further in surmounting racism?

Kenya is an example. The choreographer Ricardo de Paula and his Grupo Oito, which has docked with us at the Ballhaus, have developed the exchange project Dance for Sale together with artists from Nairobi. The artist and activist Jim Chuchu told me that Nairobi certainly had all sorts of problems, ranging from issues of gender equality and religious tensions to terrorism. But racism was not one of them. In Kenya I’ve seen the power that art and culture can have.

In what way?

We’ve met many artists and collectives who are on the road with exciting questions and receive no subsidies from the government. They can respond with corresponding freedom to all the associated problems. Some of them set up amazing things, like the GoDown Arts Centre, where there are studios, rehearsal rooms, designers, music labels and much more. They live on donations, events and workshops. It was fascinating to see.

What do you want for the Ballhaus in future?

I want above all more space in politics and society to discuss the post-migrant. Exactly this must be the goal.

Wagner Carvalho, born in 1966 in Belo Horizonte, completed his training as dancer, actor and speech coach at various schools in Brazil. From 1996 to 2000 he studied drama at the Freie Universität Berlin. With the project 2000 Travessia he very early confronted the visibility or non-visibility of blacks in Brazil. This was followed by a variety of artistic-social projects in Germany and Brazil, including the founding of the contemporary dance festival “brasil move merlim” and the events series Blequitude. In 2012/2013 Carvalho, together with Tunçay Kulaoğlu, assumed the artistic directorship of the Ballhaus Naunynstraße. Since the 2015/2016 season he has been the sole artistic director.

Carvalho has taken a rigid and controversial position in the “blackfacing” debate that has been going on in the German cultural scene since 2012 and repeatedly flames up. To present white actors in black make-up, regardless of the aesthetic or political intentions, he holds to be racist. During the 2015 Theater Meeting he posted the interjection Geht’s noch? (i.e. Still Alright?).