In a Better Light?
Decolonising Public Space in Berlin, in Conversation with Cédric Djedje and Noémi Michel
by Joseph Pearson
18 April 2023
When director and performer Cédric Djedje arrived in Berlin on an arts grant from Geneva in July 2018 for six months, he found himself in the African Quarter in Wedding. Except the neighbourhood was not one »like those I knew in Paris or Brussels, with a thriving African population«.
Instead, he found himself in a quarter where the street names commemorated the tragedy of German colonialism in Africa. Nachtigalplatz: for Gustav Nachtigal, who subdued Togo and Cameroon; Petersallee: for Carl Peters, the »bloody hand« of German East Africa, a social Darwinist celebrated by Hitler; or Lüderitzstraße: for Adolf Lüderitz, who swindled African leaders with dodgy land contracts.
As an Afro-European of Ivorian descent, Djedje »took time to think about other colonial remains in the neighbourhood: not just the name of the streets; by touring the quarter, other traces came into relief«. From this investigation came his theatre piece, »Vielleicht«, which will finally premiere tonight at the Schaubühne’s FIND 2023 Festival, in the city it examines. His dramaturge, Noémi Michel, a senior lecturer in Political and Critical Theory in Geneva, who also worked at the Humboldt University in Berlin, joins us for the conversation.
Michel explains, »My academic research centred on how activists mobilised in public spaces in Switzerland and France but when I was working in Berlin on antiracism in 2015, and later joined Cédric in Berlin for the beginning of his residence, there was a new panorama to understand. We approached, using a questionnaire, the neighbourhood’s inhabitants, and Berlin activists, particularly those involved in the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland and Berlin Postkolonial to understand their complex articulation, and rearticulation, of antiracism and de-colonialism in the German capital«.
Djedje continues, »Through Noémi, I was able to broaden my contacts here. It took time, but thankfully I had six months. I went to events, spoke to people, sent emails, returned to events, and began understanding the problems from a local point of view. And then, as we prepared the theatre piece, it took more time to find the suitable form: how to transform all this material into a performance? How would we combine so much historical detail with the investigation and the personal story? Why was I in Berlin? The challenge was that of point of view«.
He continues, »But we found a way, as there was a performative side that we developed with our excellent scenographer. We were able to reposition the form by considering it as much a ritual as an investigation. That permitted us to create a homage to the activists, a piece that did justice to the anticolonial struggles of different generations of African and Afro-descendant people, one that allowed the audience to follow over my investigation over six months in the African Quarter«.
A series of interviews with activists, and those who touch more personally on Djedje’s life, such as his parents as African immigrants in France, became the backbone of the production. Recurrent themes needed, in Michel’s words, to be »sculpted« from the mass of material. Slowly, the team refined each theme to find a structure, and »together, we could begin to elaborate a narrative about German but also European activism for decolonisation, making strategies and discourses of past anticolonial figures resonate with those fighting today«.
I ask how the topic has influenced the piece’s design, and Cédric explains how even elements such as the lighting design reflect on questions of antiracism: »It was crucial to think about what light does to skin in the theatre. Historically, lighting in Europe was calibrated for white skin, and we consider what it means to use techniques that valorise other skin tones«.
Noémi adds, »This resonates with the question of plurality. What we are trying to do in »Vielleicht« is to examine the entanglements: of space, time, and historical events. We show that as Afropeans and Africans, we are a diaspora and share common experiences and connections«.
When I ask whether one can also identify differences, Noémi pursues, »African and Afro-descendant activists have to deal with different forms of colonial amnesia and denials in France, Switzerland, and Germany. For example, in Germany it is difficult to raise awareness on the colonial moment as there is a focus on World War Two. In France, the ideal of a »raceless« Republic frames or limits the debate about issues of racism. In Switzerland, it is narratives of exceptionalism, »l’exception suisse«, that put forward ideas of colonial innocence. In each context, there’s a screen that filters the relationship to a national history of slavery and colonialism. And then there is the question of what new names should be chosen«
The topic of renaming of streets, the decolonisation in Berlin’s public space, has been the territory of intense debate, especially in the past decade. Two hundred residents and merchants in Wedding sued against the name changes in the African Quarter. But in December 2022, Nachtigalplatz finally became Manga-Bell-Platz, and Lüderitzstraße became Cornelius-Fredericks-Straße (both named for African leaders resisting German colonial rule in today’s Cameroon and Namibia, respectively). The debate currently extends beyond Wedding, with names in Mitte such as M–straße another flashpoint of intense discussion.
I ask, »Two roads in Wedding have changed names since you first created your production. How does this affect the piece?«
»We performed in Lausanne in March, but this was not problematic because they are far from the Berlin political debate. Obviously, it will be a different story when we come to FIND. But we consider the piece a contemporary archive of the debate leading to 2022«, Djedje tells me.
Michel continues, »The dramaturgy of the piece relies on the suspense of waiting for the day when things will change, that dream of activists. We used the theatre as a space for the imagination of decolonisation. Now, we begin to move from peut-être (maybe) to être (to be). The piece is a homage to the voices that fought to make this happen«
Cédric tells me, »Clearly, the name changes open new perspectives – but what future does it open up? We cannot say that when you change the name of the street, the problem is solved. Not only do other cities need to have this conversation, but other parts of Berlin. This is why, in each performance, we include a conversation with a local activist, to talk about impact – about what has not yet been achieved«.
Conversation in French, translated by Joseph Pearson
by Noémi Michel, Ludovic Chazaud and Cedric Djedje
Director: Absent.e pour le moment
Premiered on 24 April 2023