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Theater, Demos and other old school Forms of Action

By Tom Mustroph

Simone Dede Ayivi is both an artist and a political activist. Cultural journalist Tom Mustroph in conversation with Simone Dede Ayivi, recipient of the 2022 Tabori Award.

Simone Dede Ayivi sits on the part of a built-in kitchen that is arranged like stairs during a performance. © Renata Chueire

Simone Dede Ayivi in der Performance "Homecooking"

Simone Dede Ayivi is both an artist and a political activist. In her performances she discusses issues of representation, resistance and community. Her works are biographically motivated, usually interview-based research projects that focus on political struggles and movements, black history and the present, along with afrofuturist narratives. Simone Dede Ayivi is also active as a writer and is involved with ISD Initiative Schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative of Black People in Germany), among others.

Simone Dede Ayivi, your production Home Cooking just ran at the Sophiensӕlen. I was surprised that you show cooking as a unifying cultural technique. Because in earlier times, food and food culture were basically the only things from other countries that many German people were open to. And while enjoying the new dishes, they were also able to proudly retain their own national arrogance. What made you want to try cooking on stage now?

In The Kids are Alright, the previous piece by my associates and me, there were many moments about growing up with right-wing terror. That simply emerged from the conversations: a theme that shaped us. But later I searched the material again for positive experiences that connected up. And food and cooking came up surprisingly often. A few years ago, I invited two colleagues to cook with me at a theater talk show at Pavillon Hannover: it was about diaspora fusion cuisine - for example, how to make fufu from potatoes. That is also a hook for the current piece.

Through cooking, we want to tell family stories and stories of growing up that refer lovingly and positively to our own migration heritage. Of course, we can't do that without talking about racism too, because a lot of racist abuse has to do with food. But it was a different way to dive into these issues. Always with the question as a starting point: What do you cook in your family? Or what recipe would you like to share with me?

This sharing is then exactly the opposite of the approach we often encounter in discussions about identity and appropriation. Fusion cooking is no longer about preserving an identity or any kind of cultural purity that only empowers the pure to speak and not others.

Exactly. I also think that has great value: for example, there were these beautiful, important moments when we realized that we all mispronounce each other's dishes. We just couldn't get it right. Just because we're all people of color, it doesn't mean we can all automatically pronounce Vietnamese, Togolese, Turkish, or Arabic names of dishes. Sure: there's this idea of safe space, where all those who share experiences of racism come together, but when those are very different experiences with very different references, there's a looseness. You teach each other and everyone also talks about the change that came with it.

Almost parallel to Home Cooking, you produced Wetterleuchten (Sheet Lightning) at Theater Oberhausen. It was about the perspectives that theater employees in particular have on the theater backstage – in other words, those who are otherwise almost never seen. Was it also about a kind of expansion of intersectionality, experiences of discrimination not because of origin and skin color, but because of hierarchical structures in the theater business?

I made a piece for which I interviewed all those who wanted to talk to me. I definitely wanted to have the technical departments there, because I'm fascinated by their craft and routine, and because it was clear: there will be no people on stage. The machine is the show.

Do you like large theaters a bit more now that you've had so much direct contact with individual protagonists?

I am a punk. I actually prefer the former factory halls, where a few people screw things together and there's a lot more proximity. But despite the long chains of command in municipal theaters, I have great respect for the different types of expertise that come together there. Years ago, however, I found that I could do my work better as a black woman in the independent scene. The work is less hierarchical and more inclusive. The establishments and teams are more diverse. In municipal theaters, on the other hand, you reach a completely different audience. Not just a certain scene. I know this just from turning up to rehearsals in the morning and seeing buses full of school classes arriving all at once for the morning shows. Of course, even a municipal theater doesn't reach everyone by a long shot, and I don't want to sugarcoat that at all. But if you ask yourself: where can you best see urban society reflected in the audience? Then it's more likely to be in the municipal theater than in the independent world. I also think it's important to learn how to make one's own discourses and aesthetics accessible to everyone. The most beautiful experience in Oberhausen was really that so many of the participants enjoyed the evening. Given what many people said in the interviews beforehand, I was relieved.

What did they say beforehand?

In the interviews, I asked them what they liked best about theater and what their magic moments in theater were. The majority described moments between actors and wished for more classics again. Some said outright that too much was being asked of them. Also at the municipal theater. There I had a guilty conscience. I wanted to stage the play that the departments wanted, but I hadn't even scheduled an actress for my evening! And the fact that everyone came and had fun with the piece and that we succeeded in doing something that brought many people and aesthetics together made me very happy.

Now, of course, I'm tempted to throw the questions you asked back at you: What would you like to see in the theater? What were your magic moments?

I like to see how things develop in theater. I don't get bored either: if nothing interesting happens on stage, I just look up under the ceiling and see what the spotlights are doing. There's always something going on! I especially like those theater moments where I realize, Oh, I get exactly how you’re doing it - and it still works and you got me.

Eight performers stand in three rows on a dark stage. Each of them has a cardboard moving box in front of them and a disco ball over their head, which is reflected by the light. © Kornelia Kugler

Simone Dede Ayivi in der Preformance "Solidaritätsstück"

How did you originally get into theater? What captivated you?

The live moment. In my family, we didn't go to the theater that much. I went to the theater with my school. That's why I'm still in favor of school performances – even if it means "they're not here by choice". I'm from Hessen, we used to go to the Frankfurt Schauspielhaus and I found it impressive that all these people could sit in a room and that they could all rely on these various theater programs.

I read that you also chose the high school you eventually went to because it had a theater club? Then I read that you didn't take part in other, extracurricular theater offerings because the makers were too white - or perhaps it was the people who came there. Was that the case?

Did I say white? I don't remember. I think I had the feeling that I didn't belong there. I didn't feel accepted, I became nervous and shy very quickly. At school, everyone was white, too. But that wasn't the problem, because it was school and that's where I belonged. But in extracurricular activities it was somewhat different. In sports, this feeling of not belonging wasn't an issue at all. And I don't know if in theater it was more about race or about class. They definitely spoke differently to me. They were people from academic families, at least that was their bearing, their style, and I stood out. I was the only black person in those contexts, but I was also probably one of only a few working-class kids.

How important was Ballhaus Naunynstraße for you as the first place committed to postmigrant theater?

I actually did my first professional work there: it was a place where a lot of people came together who, I think, felt the same way about theater as I did at the time. It's true that everywhere else no one denied that they were black or Turkish or Asian. But people tried to stay under the radar. The question of identity wasn’t really raised in theater. At that time, I had already read books about Afro-German history and black history and I was also involved in the Afro-German movement, but it never occurred to me to transfer that into my theater life.

Why not?

Internalized racism. Theater is just white. Although post-migrant theater was something new only in the sense of the term, and I now know many examples of PoC who made theater in Germany long before that, I had no room in me at that time for the idea that there could be such a thing as Afro-German theater or that black perspectives belonged to it. I had no problem writing texts about it. But for a long time I didn't think this could find its way into my theater work.

Because it seemed inconceivable that this could be fed into the system?

Yes. I wanted to be in theater, and when I was 16, 17, I told my performing arts teacher that I wanted to be an actress. She said, Oh, you can't, you can't because you're black. She probably used a different word, but that was the statement. I initially told this story as an example of an experience of racism in the profession. In the meantime, however, I would say: damn, somehow she was right then, too. After all, who was even being accepted into acting schools as a person of color in the late '90s? And how many "black roles" were there back then - many years before Bühnenwatch and the alliance of critical cultural politicians and all those who initiated these changes in the business? But of course, one can also discuss whether my teacher at the time should have combined realism with a declaration of struggle: an encouragement for me to fight.

In contrast to theater makers who make political statements primarily in program booklets, interviews and project proposals - limiting them to the aesthetic field - you are also politically active, for example in the Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative of Black People in Germany). How important is this activity? How does it also relate to your artistic work?

I was already active in various political groups before I started with theater. And I will continue to be so when I'm done with theater. Naming and fighting injustice is a part of me. I also always feel like I'm not living up to my own ideals and never doing enough. When something moves me, when it seems urgent, I look at how I can best work on the issue. Some things belong on the street. But in addition, I still have the opportunity to decide: do I make a play about it, or write a journalistic text.

What criteria do you use? When do you deal with an urgent problem or topic in the form of a newspaper article and when as a theater production?

Theater is, quite simply, slow: The application process and the production, that takes time. I have to get straight to some of the things that make me angry. And that can be done by going to a demo, organizing a demo, or writing an article. I realize that I need both. My political work also flows into my theater work. The slow pace of theater also has advantages. Here, I find space for topics that I still want to learn something about, where I wish for a longer quest, more research and inner confrontation. Here, I can be much more questioning and ambiguous than I can in an article for the taz. Theater is also much more about a sensual or emotional experience than about statements. What I particularly like about theater is that moment when people come together. And that's exactly what I love about old-school forms of action like a demo: the fact that people march down a street together!