White Promise: Performance Artist Mbene Mwambene in Conversation
Zambian-Malawian theater artist Mbene Mwambene has spent his career travelling and performing internationally. His piece “The Whispers” charts the impact of colonialism on his family history. Here, he talks to scholar and dramaturg Michel Büch about their collaboration on the piece, the concept of “white promise,” and awkward audience discussions.
Ever since moving to Switzerland in 2016, Mbene Mwambene has been confronted with the realities of living as a Black person in “a white space with white walls.” One way of dealing with these experiences is to bring them to the stage, and in the last years he’s produced numerous plays and performed around the world.
His solo performance piece “The Whispers” premiered at the Schlachthaus Theater in Bern in 2019, using storytelling, music and dance to look at how colonialism shaped his family history and his own lived experience. The piece examines whether a Black man is free to choose who he becomes, and what it means to decolonize oneself while living in Europe.
To bring the performance from Switzerland to Germany, Mbene joined forces with Michel Büch, who has long been active in the improv scene and wrote his dissertation for the University of Bremen about discrimination in improvisational theater. In a wide-ranging conversation, the two look back on their collaboration and analyze the many obstacles facing Black creatives working in a white space.
Michel Büch: Let’s begin by talking about your work in “The Whispers”. It was originally written in English for a Swiss audience. We translated and adapted it for a very specific local context in Germany. In the process, we engaged with figures like Immanuel Kant and the colonial ruler Carl Peters, who was actually born and is still commemorated near the venue where you performed it. What do you remember about that process?
Mbene Mwambene: First of all, it wasn’t a difficult decision to make. My ideas to create the piece were based on my personal relationship with Switzerland, so the question was the same: How do I relate to Germany as far as racism is concerned? Obviously, it cannot be denied how racist Germany as a society can be.
What I remember was the process of zooming in on my personal experience to connect it to Germany’s colonial past, and how that has contributed to today’s racism in Germany. Since Germans have an unwavering love for intellectuality, bringing the racist versions of Immanuel Kant and Carl Peters into play would hit that notch. You are forced to embark on a process of educating Germans on their own history, which is a shame in two ways: a historical, shameful act, but also the fact that, despite all the resources Germany has to educate its citizens about its past, I have to be the one educating them.
Language also became another political dimension of the subject. Adapting the piece for a local German audience meant using the German language as the mode of communication. That is not my strength, and so I was put in another less empowered role. I was asking myself whether the Germans would only be interested in my fluency rather than the content. So I decided to read out most of the texts instead of performing them from memory. Furthermore, I decided that the audience should read some of the text as a way of sharing the burden. What I found hilarious was that I was being asked to perform in German in order to effectively reach the local audience. Here’s the thing, German colonialists didn’t have to learn Namibian languages in order to colonize the locals and to commit a genocide. Their objectives were crystal clear.
MB: Currently you’re working on the theme of what you call “white promise.” If I understand you correctly, the concept refers to a double and contradictory white desire. On the one hand, there’s a desire to imagine oneself as an anti-racist institution or person, but on the other hand, there is a libidinal undercurrent that contains and weaponizes Blackness as a mere representation of this very anti-racism. The “white promise” says one thing and brings about the opposite.
See also Michel Büch’s blogpost “’Reassuring Sounds’: The Impossibility of White Public Apology”.
MM: Yes. Institutions promise that Black people can be part of social change without providing them actual agency. Consider how whiteness strives for what it believes to be excellence in art. This excellence is subjective and the journeys toward that excellence differ. Whiteness says, “We’re looking for this person to fill this position, and this person should have these qualifications. People of color, people who are disadvantaged on the job market, and women, are encouraged to apply.” But no, there’s no agency in this kind of narrative. It’s like saying, “We have a 100m sprint, Usain Bolt is coming, people that are clinically overweight are welcome, women are welcome, people with one leg or in a wheelchair are also welcome. It’s going to be a fair marathon, with a prize money of 10 million dollars.” The narrative sounds nice to a person of color and other socially disadvantaged people. But the hurdles that you’re laying on the track are too high. We all know that at the end of the day, the white person will get the job. And the white person will always, at least subconsciously, say: “I studied for it, it’s my career, it’s my job. Why should I lose my job to a Black person?”
MB: The moral high ground of presenting oneself as an anti-racist person or institution would disintegrate once the promise is fulfilled. You can no longer be the good white institution when there is nothing left to promise, right? The morality that whiteness is capable of requires the non-fulfillment of the promise.
“The plight of black people is not a project that ends with an applause.”
MM: Exactly, I agree. And whiteness is completely aware of the plight of people of color in artistic institutions. But how many institutions are drastically changing to say “We need people of color, because it is important?” The question of sustainability is crucial for the concept of white promise. You hear calls for applications: “Next four months! Artists in residence! People of Color, queer people!” and so on. But that’s not sustainable thinking. The plight of Black people is not a project that ends with applause. It’s a long-term fight and, unfortunately, whiteness can decide to end it. Anytime. Look at how white institutions reacted to the Ukrainian refugees. Doors opened. Special visas got introduced. Special residencies opened doors too.
MB: I often feel that for an institution, the value of an artist-in-residency program mostly lies in the publicity of the call itself. By funding and organizing temporary residencies, especially for BPoC, institutions are doing something. This doing is creating a façade of institutional agency in the critique against themselves. The gesture of “reaching out” carries the symbolic capital of anti-racist practice. But in terms of structural change, the temporariness is strategic: It only makes sense if there is an end in sight.
MM: Yes. “Show the result”.
MB: The result stays. The people go.
MB: This reminds me of Calvin Warren. Looking at history, he observes that “[e]very emancipatory strategy that attempted to rescue blackness from anti-blackness inevitably reconstituted and reconfigured the anti-blackness it tried to eliminate.” His concept of “political hope” links up closely with the “white promise,” I think. The hope for political betterment, the promise of anti-racist social changes is revealed as a strategic concept of enormous political and emotional power for whiteness to sustain itself, because the implied better future is not actually on the horizon.
MM: Exactly. It’s not there. And that is actually violent, because you’re silenced. You stop speaking out so much because things are coming, right? Again, there’s a ready excuse for those who are aware of these problems. They say: “Art is a highly competitive field. These institutions have been built for hundreds of years. It’s hard. We try, but it’s hard.” I heard a woman of color say: “I disagree. The very same white institutions have gone against their policies, their own red tape when it comes to Ukraine.”
MB: You’re no longer speaking about theater institutions specifically.
MM: No, institutionality at large. Whiteness is not only giving promises to Ukrainians on the ground. It’s actually implementing actions. In Switzerland, the government announced there will be 10,000 Ukrainian refugees coming, and was looking for 10,000 beds. 60,000 apartments were offered. So you see that it’s possible. The conditions for Ukrainian artists – just the conditions they have set up now – makes everything easier for them. But there are people who have been calling for that change in the policies towards refugees from the Middle East who have been coming to study here for a long time. This woman said there’s never been any change in policy. It is as hard today as it used to be in the past. This white promise is a conscious move! I am not using the analogy of Ukraine as an attack on the Ukrainians but rather as a critique of the institutions. What has been done for Ukrainian refugees is very humane – or should I say Ubuntu? But why are the same institutions notoriously reluctant when it comes to a Black Lives Matter approach in the field of arts?
MB: Yes. Mentioning consciousness opens another can of worms. As whites, we can register those facts and be aware of that plight, and yet we remain unwilling or incapable of facing what that says about our own behavior and the brutality of our own agency. We should keep in mind that this white ignorance, as Charles Mills named it, is a practice rather than a state-of-being – and this also applies to the promises we’re talking about. In a way, whiteness makes this promise to itself. It likes to think it’s morally OK by telling BPoC artists that they can partake in social change. The desire to uphold this ignorance is so strong that, in a certain regressive way, we actually don’t notice it. I’m by no means trying to absolve white people from responsibility – quite the contrary – but I think it’s worth noting how grotesque it is that our white sense of superiority is so deep-seated that we don’t even know it’s there. We work so hard to not know that we have it.
“Sometimes I crave to know what whiteness learns about whiteness.”
MM: I would like to speculate that this white ignorance is a conscious decision. Whiteness never talks of itself as a perpetrator of brutalities but rather as the savior of humanity. The causes of such brutalities by whiteness are not confronted in debates among white people as a matter of urgency. The discussion becomes irrelevant in the circles of whiteness once this question is raised; the masks fall to an extent that the focus zooms in on a victimized whiteness. What information is there in universities, in families, societies, in everything? Sometimes I crave to know what whiteness learns about whiteness.
MB: We have talked about “white promise” theoretically, but it is also a lived reality. What do you do with it in your professional, bread-winning life?
MM: At one level you have to be smarter than that promise. In this case: I am aware of my power, my boundary, and my plight. If I want to access resources, then I have to speak the language that whiteness wants to hear. To be part of the benefits of this promise, you have to be part of the language. I learned to speak for six to eight hours about nothing. Philosophical debates, political discussions, stuff like that. But that implies a different level of discussion: You begin to lose your values, yourself as a cultured human being. You want the resources; you want to work. But you just can’t be you 100 percent. You have to compromise in a way that you always lose power.
“Oftentimes, I want to quit, to run away, and fight no more.”
The danger of this compromise is that you end up making a career out of struggles, because that is what the white promise wants Black theater to be about. This is the first level: “Let’s talk about my struggles, let’s talk about my Blackness, just give me the resources.” Then, on the second level, I begin to change things and I begin to work the way I want to work. It is strategic: You need to speak a particular language, things that whiteness wants to talk about, but once you get the funding, you can then go do what you want to do. But again, this language is a privilege and an investment. Oftentimes, I want to quit, to run away, and fight no more. I want to scream and curse out loud. Sometimes, I manage to win battles, but mostly I fail. It’s that tiny part that keeps me going and fighting. I know how prepared whiteness is to see myself victimizing my existence through stories.
MB: I realize you are “speaking white” right now because my last question did just that – ask you about your struggles. It shows how quickly the personal and the political get entangled. One difference between knowing as a white and as a Black person is that I and my fellow whites have no sense of what it means to have everything I do or say tied to my physical appearance and reduced to identity politics by default.
MM: Yes, it is always a mixture between personal and political lines. The production manager of my last project was a white woman, an amazing human being. That made things so much better, we got funding easier than ever in my life. But that does not mean that I have to approach every white person to work with me. I constantly have to be careful in order to protect myself. Then it becomes personal: Who is this white person to me? There are whites willing to get out of this conscious ignorant sphere. Willing to say: “I am exposed. Tell me what you want.” My production manager is an example. This conversation is an example that says “Let’s have an honest discussion. And this discussion won’t be comfortable.” But that is not what whiteness normally asks. Whiteness says: “I have an idea how to deal with the horrible situation that I myself continue to cause.” So I learned to put the white people in front of me, like a wall of whiteness, and just say: “Go.”
MM: One example: I was asked to give a workshop on racism in Slovenia. I thought to myself: “What do I give?” Look at me as a Black person giving workshops! Look at me telling them what I feel! What I am. The festival curator explained to me that there is a strong denial of racism in Slovenia because “we didn’t colonize anybody.” So I was trying to expand the idea of white people. Whiteness is part of the brutal history of who I am. My approach was to go into the workshop where white people have to tell me who they are. It should not always be me telling white people “You do this, you did this…” When I talk about racism, white people feel guilty. But I want white people to talk about whiteness and tell me how they can help themselves, in all honesty. I do not want my blackness to be a source of grief or discomfort as much as I don’t want it to be the cause for consolation or relief.
MB: When you speak about that white wall, does that also relate to the theater situation? Why do you think white people come to see a show like “The Whispers”? What do you think attracts them and what might they take away? I am specifically thinking of the audience discussion as a genre of its own. The white members of your audience are confronted with what very often they don’t know or feel, but what they would then necessarily read and feel within the terms they do know.
MM: Living in a white space with white walls is already a heavy load. Jumping to these audience discussions about processes and research to talk about these problems is another level of suffering. I prefer finding a way of empowering myself in this space, of getting that part of myself – the power I don’t have on the streets – and involve the whiteness on the journey. I don’t want to give them answers. I don’t want to lead them. I also don’t necessarily expect them to get anything. Whiteness comes to see my show for reasons I can only speculate about. I make decisions based on these speculations.
Sometimes I fall into this trap. I don’t know if it’s about being white – you tell me! When I present something in a space, then there is a tendency – I don’t know if it’s subconscious or conscious, which could be related to what you said before, this working hard to keep the white ignorance – where the subject matter is avoided so much that we end up talking about other things. Forms, philosophies, skills… And we just leave the matter at hand. “What were you thinking about the light?” “What about the costumes?” Then it becomes a responsibility to say: “Ok, I don’t give a fuck about the costume. Did you hear the story?” It is also a question of priorities. Of course, whiteness is diverse and not one tribe, but it is very quick in describing, naming, discussing forms. It feels safe for them.
Usually, after the shows, there is a feeling of being overwhelmed. Sometimes, I do not want to go into post-performance discussions because there will be someone trying to ask questions that have nothing to do with the performance. There is a different range of reactions depending on the location. But mostly, I don’t even think about the audience.
MB: You said that both in planning and performing your productions, you speculate about possible perceptions. Do your expectations often prove to be true?
“I give myself power to decide what whiteness is.”
Sure, some reactions are expected. With some, I just think “Why? What happened? What’s going on?” I enjoy reading “Dear Mayo,” the letter to my mother. In “Dear Mayo,” I am writing to my mother. I write as a self-proclaimed expert on whiteness, a social scientist. I give myself power to decide what whiteness is. In this case, I see things that don’t make sense in life, but they are very much part of the white world. I am sort of making fun of whiteness, and there is a thin line between “He’s just being stupid, making fun,” and something else. But it’s more than humor. I am not stupid, I know exactly what I am doing and what I am talking about. In essence, I am using the same approach that white people use when they invade the other world: Every nonsensical speculation became a scientific assertion. It becomes personal too, because my mother died, my father died. I wish, indeed, that I could share the letter with my mother and my father.
I swing between sadness and comedy. It always hits me. There are moments in which I am loud and clownish, but there are also points where I get angry. Sometimes, I cry on stage. Sometimes, I can’t speak and just stay in the space because there is so much tension. And sometimes I make it light and more comic – also as a way of protecting myself. Someone described my work as if I bite and then quickly blow the wounds to ease the pain. And it’s true, I am constantly doing that.
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[Title image: © Moritz Lang]