“I’ve never been so confused and enthralled at the same time.”

– Joneise McCrae

The Castillo Theatre opens its 27th season with Playing with Heiner Müller, directed by Gabrielle L. Kurlander, texts by Heiner Müller, the East German avant-garde playwright, additional texts and original songs by Fred Newman, artistic director emeritus of Castillo Theatre and choreography by Lonné Moretton. It is a theatrical montage of Muller’s work with 17 songs and rap.

For the past 3 weeks audiences have been coming to see an all-Black cast present Heiner Müller’s avant-garde classics playing 20th century historical figures. This extraordinary cast (Keldrick Crowder, Fulton Hodges, Ava Jenkins, Sylenia Lewis and John Rankin) stretched beyond themselves to play 76 characters who do not look like them. German Avant-garde theatre is certainly not your traditional theatre, let alone what you see African-American actors doing.

Playing with Heiner Muller left me with an “over weight brain”(line from the show) and a heavy heart, yet I was laughing and singing along to the provocative lyrics in the music. This play touched upon some heavy issues of the European Diaspora. Watching African-American actors play European characters really changes the way you see Muller’s work. It showed me that the experience of pain, oppression and failure is a human experience. ie: The issue of Slavery haunts America and our communities and The Holocaust haunts Germany and its community.

Left: John Rankin Right: Sylenia Lewis

I got the chance to speak with three of the cast members from the show and ask them some questions about their experience. Here is what they had to say:

HBCU DIGEST: Experimental German Theatre isn’t a genre black actors normally do, Why do you do it? and What has that experience been like for you?

Ava Jenkins: I do it because it is a genre that you don’t see black actors doing.  I was never one to conform to what society thinks is “normal” to do or say.  I do what I feel would help to get me to the next level as an actor and as a human being.  This experience has been  very educational and one that has forced me to look deeper into history so I could get a deeper understanding of what and who I was portraying on stage.

John Rankin: Part of what draws me to it is that it is not something african american’s traditionally do.  I am weird, I have weird thoughts and ideas, as an artist I am drawn to the weird and the non traditional.  Experimental german theater is definitely weird and I have found a kindred voice in the work of muller.  It allows me to explore those ideas and push the boundaries of what I am capable of as an artist.

Sylenia Lewis: Why do I do it? The first time I did it was because I got cast ! LOL …I had no clue what I was stepping into. The language was different than anything I had ever experienced or read, it was a learning process and taught me alot about perception, not only others but my own as well. I fell in love with Muller and his style after “The Task”. This time I did this piece because i wanted to explore more German works. Though the language is strange and hard to understand, it is a great foundation for exploration and development. Doing this type of theatre has helped me grow as an actor. It has taught me how to create outside of the “box”.

HBCU DIGEST:What do you say to people who believe that only Europeans should be cast in European shows?

Ava: I ask them “why they would think such an absurd thing?”.  People who think or believe such nonsense have been brainwashed by a society that puts labels on everyone and everything just to further separate people.  REAL ARTIST EXPRESSION is colorless and genderless.  Those who think otherwise are closed-minded and have absolutely no idea about ART.  They are also very racist in their thinking!

John: No one has ever asked me that outside of a hypothetical.  If I were asked that I would say I think it is pretty short sighted to say that only one group of people can perform or appreciate a certain piece of art.  Maybe I should produce an all white/asian/latino production of an August Wilson play.

Sylenia: Having that type of mindset is very limiting. It limits how an audience will experience theater. I think that having black actors in European shows is extremely smart. There are a few ways that a black actor will tell the story that will differs from a European actor. The black actor will either try to tell the story from the European point of view or will take the story and translate it into something that is relatable to them. Either way, you created options that would not be typically explored with traditional casting.

HBCU DIGEST: How important is it for the Black Community to be exposed to this type of theatre?

Ava: I believe it is extremely important because it allows the Black Community to be exposed to something other than what a typical “Broadway” theatre would show.  It allows them to see that theatre isn’t, or doesn’t have to be, as mechanical as it is made out to be.  With political avant-garde theatre, especially when done by Black people, it sends a message to the audience that we don’t have to be locked into what society tells us, but that we can be free thinkers and not limit ourselves to experience something different than what we were forced to learn.

John: There are ways in which we in the black community perceive ourselves and present to society on a whole that I personally think are too rigid and stagnant. I think the black community needs the freedom and encouragement to transform and explore new ideas/perceptions without knocking those things down for not being black enough. I strongly believe that participating in theatre whether you are performing, in the crew or in the audience is a catalyst for transformation.  Personally this type of theatre allows me to step beyond perceptions and explore the world in a different way without fear of judgment or worse self doubt.  That is something I want all people to experience.

Sylenia:It is extremely important. Most black communities aren’t exposed to this type of theatre movement. We are typically exposed to more “feel good” stage plays that have funny characters and hardly touch on the issues that face us. Experimental theatre has no color lines, it talks about real issues that challenge you to think, reflect, and re-evaluate

HBCU DIGEST: What do you hope the audience takes away from each performance?

Ava: I hope they will take away the idea that it’s okay not to understand everything that is placed before them, but be open enough to receive it and let the understanding present itself at the appropriate time for them.  Some may get it right away, others won’t.  Some will relate to a particular person in a scene and others will just sit and enjoy what is presented on the stage.  Everyone will take something different, but as long as they have some type of emotion, whether negative or positive, then I know we, as actors, have done our jobs on stage.

John: I hope the audience walks out eager to express an idea that has been in their head for too long.  In the show we take these traditionally European traditions, characters and ideas and twist and transform them, subtly in some cases drastic in others, into something else entirely. Is it right? Is it wrong? Does it make sense? Who cares, there are plenty of opportunities in life to be right or wrong to make sense, sometimes ideas just need to be expressed and people should have the opportunity to express them.

Sylenia: QUESTIONS … that will lead to SELF REVELATIONS and DISCOVERIES that will leave them ENLIGHTENED.

HBCU DIGEST:****Have any of you attended an HBCU? And if so what kind of theatre did you do there? Did you wish they did this kind of theatre in your college/university? Why/Whynot?

Ava: I didn’t attend an HBCU, but I did work at one and unfortunately the theatre department just played it safe and did the normal, everyday productions.  The college I did attend didn’t even have a theatre department so I was forced to join an outside theatre playhouse.

John: Sadly I did not attend an HBCU.

Sylenia: I didn’t attend an HBCU.. both of my parents are TSU alumni and i wanted to be a tiger. Unfortunately the theatre department was under developed in comparison to some of the other programs i was looking into. 😦


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