Conference Report CDE 1998

7th Annual CDE Conference, Leutesdorf
May 21-24, 1998
Organised by the University of Mainz
„Race and Religion in Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English“

The German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English held its 7th annual conference in Leutesdorf near Koblenz this year. The meeting focussed on ‘Race and Religion in Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English’ and was organized by the English Department of the University of Mainz, chaired by Professor Bernhard Reitz, with the support of the University of Mainz, the Zentrum für interkulturelle Studien, the Interdisziplinäre Arbeitskreis Theater und Drama at that university and the British Council. Colin Hann and David Nathan were the keynote speakers of the first evening offering important background information and personal insights into the diverse aspects of the conference’s topic. Hann works for the Commission for Racial Equality in London, and he discussed the facts and figures of race relations in the UK since the Race Relation Act of 1976. He expressed a fairly positive and optimistic view of the situation in Great Britain, stating that racism in football, for instance, is on the decline, and that changing attitudes remains the biggest challenge in his job. David Nathan is a well-known theatre critic (writing reviews for the Theatre Record and other papers) with an extraordinarily extensive knowledge of the theatre in the past and the present, and so he began with the tradition of the mystery plays and ended with his comments on contemporary bible musicals and on the fact that current ethnic theatre usually does not deal with religion because this topic has no tradition there.

Louise Page continued the attractive custom of the Society of having playwrights at the conferences speaking about their work in connection with the topic and current trends in the theatre. Thus Louise Page discussed the religious and racial aspects of her plays and read passages from her work in progress, which incorporates elements from her own life (her father is West Indian) and deals with the ignorance of English people who have relatives in the West Indies or were even born there and visit the region for the first time. Overcoming ignorance and stereotypical attitudes and initiating a process of understanding are thus again elements in her new play on Yorkshire in the West Indies.

Numerous and very intriguing aspects of race and religion in drama were discussed in the papers presented: Guests from India, Nilufer Bharucha (Bombay) and Uma Narain (Lucknow) provided first-hand information on religion in Indian plays written in English, plays dealing with the problems of Parsi Zoroastrians, a minority, and of religious traditions that are revived in a secularized and colonized Indian context. Richard Corballis (Palmerston, New Zealand) described three stages in the representation of Maori in plays from the 1960s to the present: First they were presented by whites as noble savages with a lost culture whose only hope lay in adopting white values. Then came the stage of Maori revolt and the assertion of their culture; and now New Zealand is bicultural, and other ethnic groups, such as the Pacific Islanders, are strongly excluded from the centre, where the Maori exert a strategic essentialism in order to preserve their power next to the Pakeha. All this is reflected in New Zealand theatre and drama.

Christopher Innes (York, Canada) and Jochen Achilles (Mainz) focussed on black American theatre with the works of Suzan-Lori Parks and August Wilson, in which racial experience is used in order to critique contemporary society as well as the concepts of race and gender themselves. The blues and racial memory help to define relative identities in Wilson’s plays, whereas Parks playfully challenges the audience to rethink the categories they employ for all definitions of reality, which is always a stylistic artifice and the residue of accepted beliefs, thus just another form of fiction. Parks’s The America Play, for instance, is a radical revision of the standard image of America. Geoffrey V. Davis (Aachen) discussed the legacy of race in contemporary South African theatre, in particular with regard to plays about the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to investigate the crimes of apartheid.

Mourning in Asian drama was the topic of Ralph Poole’s (Munich) paper; Marion Spies (Wuppertal) talked about religion and society in contemporary Australian drama. Isolde Neubert-Köpsel (Berlin) spoke about satire and metaphor in David Hare’s play Racing Demon, while Sigrid Rieuwerts (Mainz) dealt with sacrament and sacrifice in the same play. Heiner Zimmermann (Heidelberg) found the racist biases of Eurocentric nationalist and colonial discourses revived from collective memory in Donal O’Kelly’s play Asylum! Asylum!; and Merle Tönnies (Bochum) described conflicts between the west and the Islamic world in contemporary British and Irish drama. Elizabeth Sakellaridou (Thessaloniki) spoke about „Religion as Strategy“ in plays by Anne Devlin, Winsome Pinnock and Tony Kushner; Guy Stern (Chicago) discussed the problematic relationship between ethics and aesthetics in Ronald Harwood’s drama Taking Sides.

As always during conferences of the Society, there was not only talk about theatre and drama but also practical work and the performance of a play: Michael Cagna (Hamburg) conducted a workshop, and the student theatre group of the University of Mainz, The Day-Old Theatre, entertained the participants of the conference with their production of Craig Lucas’s Blue Window.

The organizers of last year’s conference, Werner Huber and Martin Middeke (both from Paderborn) and the general editor, Bernhard Reitz, distributed the yearbook, Huber / Middeke (eds.), Anthropological Perspectives, Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag 1998 (212 pages, ISBN 3-88476-298-2). The book is free to all paid-up members and for sale at bookshops.

Klaus Peter Müller (Stuttgart)