from Opening Nederlands Theater Festival
Allergy for nostalgia | Gable Roelofsen
A little less than a year ago, 50 years of Aktie Tomaat was commemorated here.
In 1969, the first action took place during the performance Toller by De Nederlandse Comedie. Last year’s commemoration was turbulent too.
This time because of the themes of our time and because of the apparent blind spots in the set-up of the celebration. Even beforehand, I felt an allergy towards the commemoration. I was allergic to nostalgia. Especially the nostalgia of people who had never been there.
Fortunately, I was asked to moderate a talk during a teach-in, a thinking session in another legendary theatre just down the road. In the University Theatre, we listened with a group of students and a group of Tomatists to sound recordings from that time. I was struck by a film fragment in which visitors of De Nederlandse Comedie got into a heated discussion with the activists in the rotunda of the Stadsschouwburg. A colourful image of the pillarised Netherlands passes by. Class shows itself clearly in the film. A communist looks like a worker and the theatre-goers in the video look decidedly bourgeois. I was struck by two Dutch East Indian people who are diametrically opposed to each other in the fragment. A young Indian student is bawled out by an older Indian gentleman. And suddenly I no longer felt like an outsider at a nostalgic party. This history is also about me, and so this fragment from the old days gives me the opportunity to testify that my history is also about all of us.
The video fragment hits me extra hard because last year I learned a lot from a group of young people from the OSG Bijlmer, a secondary school where I was allowed to co-create a performance with students about their perspective on the colonial past. Supervised by youth psychiatrist and all-round hero Glenn Helberg, this process proved downright therapeutic. It was mirroring and healing to see young people, 14-year-olds, writing and fathoming how colonial societies are organised and still echo within us.
‘Divide and rule’ was not a general and colour-blind given fact. ‘Divide and rule’ was the way to govern effectively and efficiently in the former Dutch East Indies. You appointed foremen and built a social hierarchy in which access to social and cultural capital correlated with degrees of colour. An older gentleman in a palace of culture scolds a younger Indian student for disturbing the order in 1969. The Indian story and its relationships and dynamics have belonged to us for centuries. In every part of our history, you will find people and elements that reflect this.
Yet the average Dutchman does not experience this as such. And even, or especially, neither does the adapted Indo. (Incidentally, there are almost two million of us in this country with roots in the former archipelago). This adapted Indo follows the rules and has internalised the logic of the pecking order. We are the good immigrants, the informed firsts. If you believe that, it is even more humiliating to discover that when it comes down to it, it is not enough and you are left out anyway or do not belong.
Gloria Wekker points out that in the Dutch academy we have a tradition of studying the Dutch history and the history from overseas separately. As if the national borders and our former whiteness are still credible reference points in the story of who we are. In fact, within myself, the influences and the things that have shaped me are rather boundlessly intertwined. In recent years, we have also seen these confusing waves pass through our public discourse. While technological disruption is allowing more and more people to make their voices heard. Those who used to be alone can now find brothers and sisters with a single text message or hashtag.
We now see the larger culture struggling with these new conditions. On this wave of change, I have had to admit some serious things to myself in recent years: infinitely wanting to adapt and pleasantly bending along ultimately leads to a kind of erasure of oneself. People with long, fragile toes or an allergy to difficult conversation would like you to do that, but that is how the amnesia is maintained. The Netherlands has been coloured for much longer than our selective memory would have us believe. This amnesia prompted an ever-growing group of bicultural makers and players of colour to establish The Need for Legacy last summer; a foundation that works independently but in cordial cooperation and tries to make real change in the school curriculum, to bridge the gaps in our memory and archives beyond the umpteenth diversity debate.
The Need for Legacy is above all a warm table where people can come together to vent, let off steam and catch their breath. Because certain power relations and reaction patterns have been around for a long time and run deep. Gloria Wekker, following Edward Said, calls it a cultural archive. And that is what all these people are up against. Now I also understand the amnesia: if you start to remember far and wide, you will also have to adjust your self-image. And that makes it a socially turbulent time. Not only people of colour live with this archive and in this confusing fallen bookcase. We have a wonderful history as Dutch theatre but we do not remember it well. We have to look again, read more deeply and not simply repeat historical gestures. Nostalgia can after all mimic old relationships and thus reproduce exclusion.
It was a turbulent summer, it is a bizarre time. In the results of the council and the fund, which affect my own company and me personally, I read of a fierce clash, or to define it more positively, a transition of viewing traditions, a shift of values. We also ended up “under the saw line” because in these bodies, progressive and conservative values are fiercely debating each other.
A few people are probably dragging their heels because they experience the same allergy that I experience with them. Privilege shows itself in the fact that many of these people can afford to express these objections without having to investigate them and make them productive. We do not have that luxury.
Today’s bicultural fellow human being does have an advantage. This person has always had to sharpen his or her story along the lines of resistance. When I look at the older and younger Indians arguing in the 1969 film of the Aktie Tomaat, I think: that struggle is in me and that conversation is in us. We do not remember it, but this building was and is the stage for it.
The resistance produced in us knowledge, experience, agility and empowerment. We are no better but we are no less either. We Indos, however, ideally become a useful sort of in-between people who are used to switching between codes and recoding, helping to build new environments and thus practising a broader reading of our common history. So check your nostalgia, your heels and your allergy, blow off some steam with us and catch your breath. After all, everyone, whether you know it or not, needs and benefits from a little less reduced legacy.
Gable Roelofsen is an actor, singer, director, writer and producer from Dutch Indies descent. He specialises in innovative social artistic projects (such as the use of VR in an opera). He writes, directs and performs at the music theatre platform Het Geluid Maastricht, which he co-founded.