- Sarah Coughlan
Last night was the global debut of playwright Amy Evan’s piece The Most Unsatisfied Town at The English Theatre in Berlin‘s Kreuzberg neighborhood. The play could hardly be more topical, dealing, as it does with questions around immigration and asylum, fear and prejudice, ideas of us and them, and questions about what it means to be German. Playing to a sold out first night, the play was a searing look at the dark side of Germany’s multikulti approach of the early 2000s, and a message that more is needed to adequately deal with the immigration crisis currently roiling Germany.
Evan’s play is based on the true story of Oury Jalloh who, in 2005, was a 36-year-old refugee from Sierra Leone and was found dead in a prison. Jalloh had been arrested for apparently harassing a group of women and had been shackled by his hands and feet to a wall in the prison cell on 7 January 2005. He was found dead, having been burned alive, later that day. The fallout from this event, which was described as a terrible accident according the the authorities, and a murder according to protesters, was huge. Dessau had previously been the scene of a racially-aggravated murder five years previously and the events surrounding Jalloh’s death ignited racial tensions in this corner of East Germany.
What the production at The English Theatre Berlin does so wonderfully, however, is lull its audience into a false sense of security and optimism before pulling out the rug from under them. The play is narrated in part by Laurence (played by an excellent Kenneth Philip George) a ‘good’ refugee that has his asylum granted in the first few moments of the play and begins his life as a committed German – he works hard, he doesn’t complain. The internet cafe he founds after five years of cleaning floors in this unnamed corner of Germany becomes the main stage for the action of the play.
Lurking behind the supposed success story, however, are ominous signs. Laurence’s town had, in years previous, been the site of a murderous attack on a refugee. His widow and her son (played by Maya Alban-Zapata and Tyrell Teschner) are a kind of plague on the town – their presence reminding the world of the town’s shortcomings. Shortly thereafter, Laurence is attacked while walking through a local park, an event his German wife Maunuela (Dorothee Krüger) and his friends, Rahim, Julius, and Yusef (Quatis Tarkington, Asad Schwartz-Msesilamba, and Aloysius Itoka) read immediately as racially motivated. Laurence however, a good, uncomplaining new German, agrees with police officer Brunmeier (an excellent performance in supposed technocratic neutrality from Tibor Locher), that the attack was a one off, and nothing to worry about. As he departs from the shop Brunmeier delivers a line with the authority of the privileged: ‘Don’t go through the park alone again.’
At the end of the first act, the jolting death of Rahim, in circumstances that mirror Jalloh’s, revoke any perceivable fog of optimism that the first few minutes of the play instilled. Rahim brings levity, a counterbalance to Laurence’s quiet, upstanding citizen. His death upsets the balance between Yusef, Julius, and Laurence, because Laurence, the only person with ‘papers’ is the only one that can act as the figurehead for the protest campaign.
What follows is a whirlwind of bureaucratic proceedings as the police are found not guilty of ‘negligence’ leading to Rahim’s death. As Yusef and Julius become more committed to seeing the police held accountable through appeals, Laurence’s confidence begins to fade, as Philip George appears to age in front of the audience as the evening passes. Even his wife Manuela, who taught their children racial put-downs to silence their white playmates, sees the escalating violence around her home town and decides to leave with the children for Berlin.
One of the most staggering aspects of the production was its subtle approach to costume (coordinated by Tamar Gianati). All the actors, save, of course, for Officer Brunmeier, who remains buttoned up in a dark coat, tie peaking out beneath, wear, among other things, matching utilitarian denim shirts. As things begin to fall apart, the characters begin to shed their layers of clothing, eventually even dropping their denim shirts – and with them their symbolic unity falls apart. Laurence wears his shirt properly until the last five minutes or so of the play where, prostrate and taunted by the ghost of his friend Rahim, Manuela, now too in a buttoned up coat, leaves for Berlin and he finds his internet cafe ransacked. His friends shed their shirts earlier as their illusions about a safe life in Germany disintegrate.
The Most Unsatisfied Town is at The English Theatre Berlin from 7 -10, 13 – 16, and 19 -22 April 2016 at 8pm.
By Sarah Coughlan