Félix Kama: a black actor in Germany

Berlin, avril 1999

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First of all, could you perhaps tell us how you came to work in Germany – in Stuttgart – as an actor?
I arrived in Germany in 1996, but I didn’t come to work as an actor. I had a scholarship for a creative internship at the Schloss Solitude Academy in Stuttgart. At the end of my internship I became involved with the Stuttgart Theaterhaus which was interested in what I was doing. The theatre offered me a contract, which has since been renewed, and not for the last time I hope.
Where did the idea of applying to the Academy come from?
The internship isn’t very well known. The information came from UNESCO. The actor, Ambroise Mbia passed it on to me.
Do you speak German fluently?
Now, yes, you could say so, but not before I came to Stuttgart. When I was at high school in Cameroon, I studied Spanish rather than German and I never dreamed that I’d end up in Germany one day.
How did you adjust?
With difficulty, for several reasons. Because of the climate, life in Europe, and the way people worked. In the end, the language was the easiest thing to come to grips with. I could only say « Guten Tag » and when the theatre offered me the contract, I hesitated at first and then accepted because I told myself it was an opportunity to learn a new language and get to know a new culture. We overcame the language barrier by using a third language, English, especially during the rehearsals for Mikul Minem even though the play was performed in French and German.
Did you do your internship as an actor?
It’s very flexible – you can write, direct, perform _ and I have been lucky enough to have donned all three hats. I had thought that I was coming to a theatre company with a director, actors and playwrights but I was surprised to find that I was the only actor, the only director and perhaps the only playwright as well. Therefore, if I wanted to perform, I had to write a monologue and find a director.
There seems to be a real lack of German-speaking black actors in Germany?
I have to confess that my first role at the Theaterhaus was playing a GERMAN policeman in Emma und Eddy, a German play. But it is true that there are very few black actors in German theatre. That’s because German theatre is fairly conservative and few plays in the repertoire make reference to multicultural societies, especially those of today. To my knowledge, apart from me, there is only one other black actor – Ismaël Ivo, of Brazilian origin. He’s very popular in Germany. In fact, I couldn’t really say whether German theatre doesn’t use black actors because there aren’t any, or whether the German repertoire doesn’t have any black characters. In any case, we need more black actors around so that the writers/directors starting taking that reality into consideration too. For example, the theatre that took me on wasn’t after a black actor, however, since I was there, they came up with the idea of doing Waiting for Godot with a black actor. Last year, I played in The Little Angels by the Italian playwright, Marco Baliani with Côte d’Ivoirian actress Ouhé Ida.
Does the German spectator of today have any particular expectations concerning Africa and black actors?
If they do, they can only be fulfilled by the presence of black actors. But I don’t think the Germans are particularly curious. Here, people go to the theatre because they have heard about it from someone else. Unlike the French, reviews do not influence them very much.
Do you think it’s absolutely necessary to have Africans playing in an African play, as they seem to think in Germany?
It’s a big problem. I have had the chance to experiment with this and, despite what some well-intentioned people might say about the universality of role or plays, I think that each character contains a certain inherent specificity. This means that the actor needs to have some roots in the given culture, because the writer writes from their own personality, environment, and culture and their characters are necessarily the product of this powerful mix. I experimented with these ideas after I played Mikul Minem, directed by a Russian. I wanted to direct the play myself with a German actor. It was only one experience, but I saw how hard it is for anyone to portray a character from a given culture when they do not come from that culture themselves.
Did you write the play in Germany?
Yes, in 1996, during my internship. It was inspired by the kind of relationships I had here. I was shocked by how artificial and cold people were with each other here. In Mikul Minem, one character asks another why he’s staring straight ahead. What is he hoping will happen? He lives with his problems and doesn’t realise that, maybe, he could find the solution right there beside him. Where I come from we say that if you don’t talk about your illness, you’re going to die from it, and although you can hide your illness, you can’t hide your death.
There is a lot of mockery in the play. I got the feeling some things went straight over the spectators’ heads. They were laughing at very minor things really.
It’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of each spectator to find out what he finds interesting or funny or what makes him feel remorseful. Nevertheless, I am aware that some critics were very cruel about the play, but you mustn’t forget that theatre is first and foremost a performance and I have to admit that my style is built upon irony. I hope that after the laughs, people will become aware of the issues.
Given how rare black actors are in Germany – and even blacks in general – is there not, when you perform in a play, the attraction of the black man on stage as a show in itself?
Yes. I have to admit that compared with France, a black actor on-stage is a bit of a curiosity here, a show in itself. It’s therefore up to the actor to cultivate a personality that enables him to rise above this phenomenon. Whenever my director talks about me he evokes a kind of physical magic which is enough to impress German spectators _ In short, I am aware of all that, and I try as much as possible to get away from the exoticism. What’s more, I feel at ease in the theatre that I work in because of the socialist attitude there. It makes a real effort with respect to foreigners. Of the ten actors in the theatre, only three are German and there are actors from Bosnia, Russia, Israel and there’s Ouhé Ida and myself. In this kind of environment, it’s not really a case of a simple desire for exoticism, but rather a creative project that gathers artists from different backgrounds together.

///Article N° : 5439

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