Rock and roll didn’t bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989. But in Rogelio Martinez’s Born in East Berlin, the soft power of a Bruce Springsteen concert contributed to its demolition.
The play harnesses present-day nostalgia for the era of MTV’s influential videos but doesn’t present a raft of self-deluded characters who maintain that things were better in the ’80s. Martinez immediately establishes an emotional connection with everyone who has fond memories of watching music videos. Then he expands the narrative to study a particular moment in history, one that pop culture can’t adequately comment on or contain.
The playwright incorporates music into the story with Anne’s (Ash Malloy) arrival in East Berlin. Dressed as a goth-punk hybrid in black leather and red flannel, her hair teased out to its full-on ratted potential, she negotiates the contracts for Bruce Springsteen’s concert tours. If you happened to be alive in the ’80s, you either were Anne, a wannabe Anne, or Anne-adjacent. She’s brash, wholly herself, and armed with an omnipotent sense of her American privilege. The play opens in 1988 during her meeting with East German officials. They’re suspicious of Springsteen’s motives. Why would he want to perform in a communist stronghold like East Berlin? Their answer is, “In order to disseminate Western propaganda!”
Anne’s the perfect person to persuade them otherwise. She has the (American) luxury of being passionate about music and rock stars while remaining indifferent to politics. Martinez makes it clear that Anne’s narrow worldview may be second nature to her but in East Germany it comes across as willful ignorance, her Achilles’ heel. With his depiction of Anne and the cultural repercussions of the Springstreen concert, the playwright stirs up a nostalgic longing for ’80s pop music while simultaneously debunking nostalgia for that age of American hegemony. If Dmitri Vrubel repainted his famous image of Brezhnev and Honecker making out today, Putin would be planting his greedy, aggressive lips on Trump’s receptive mouth.
At the end of Anne’s initial meeting with the East Berlin bureaucrats, Lotte (Lauren Hart), who appears to be in charge, decides to prolong the negotiation for a few days. Lotte, along with her colleague and ex-boyfriend Hans (Patrick Andrew Jones), is part of the Stasi, the secret police who established and enforced a constant state of surveillance over its citizenry. The set design includes a separate partition where an agent listens in to and records the conversations of the characters we’re seeing. In East Germany, we’re reminded that every action someone takes is monitored because everyone is a suspect. We also learn that betrayal, meted out by lovers or family members, is a routine occurrence.
Lotte takes some Springsteen records home to parse them for subversive hidden messages. She explains the lyrics of “I’m on Fire” to her younger sister Katja (Isabel Langen). The literal-minded Lotte believes that the narrator has died more than once, by fire and by a freight train. Whatever Springsteen intended to say about desire gets lost in translation. But the meaning of his lyrics aren’t lost on Katja or her boyfriend Gerhard (Griffin O’Connor). Martinez builds one of two major subplots around them and the way they cope with their oppressive government. Katja is justifiably paranoid about deviating from the law. Whereas Gerhard tries to embrace the freedom that American rock and roll seems to impart.
When the playwright returns to Anne, she’s already begun a flirtation with Hans. Their mutual attraction eventually leads her to make a careless decision. Anne’s playing tourist in a country that follows a different and unfamiliar set of rules. Born in East Berlin reveals the flaws built into both societies. On one side, there’s so little freedom that jokes, real coffee beans, and a new pair of shoes become prized commodities. While the other believes that its posturing, whether liberal or conservative, doesn’t strike the world as yet another form of demagoguery. For Martinez, both sides are found wanting.
Born in East Berlin, through Feb. 29, an S.F. Playhouse production at The Creativity Theater at Yerba Buena Gardens, 221 4th St. $30-$50; 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org/sfph