After debuting in Rio, Brazilian production of the musical ‘A Cor Púrpura’ (The Color Purple) soon to arrive in São Paulo
By Marques Travae with information from Cidade das Artes and Adoro Cinema
It is often said that the back story of a given event is even more interesting than the story itself. For me, this definitely applies to the story of the musical The Color Purple, or A Cor Púrpura, as it is titled in Brazil. Of course we know, the brand, The Color Purple, is not new at all, so what is it that makes this assembly in Brazil intriguing? I would say the historical circumstances of its release as a film and musical in the United States versus its staging and this particular moment in the struggle of black Brazilians for more representation in all areas of Brazilian society.
To understand what I’m telling you, we must first rewind the clock almost eight years, a few months after I created this blog. It was January of 2012 and I had come across the news that there were plans to present the musical of A Cor Púrpura in Brazil featuring an all-black Brazilian cast. There was scant information on the production, but what I did manage to find sounded intriguing. There was a video online showing a number of established and rising stars rehearsing their parts and speaking on their participation in the production. ”Cool”, I thought…I’ll keep my eye on this.
But then several months went by without any more developments on the production. By early 2013 I had already forgotten about the musical. And as 2013 turned into 2014 and 2015, it seemed that the musical had just disappeared and officially passed into the category of ”whatever happened to…?” So, when I started getting news a few months ago that the production was being re-booted for release, I still had a few questions that hadn’t been answered back in 2012. Like I just wrote, I still wanted to know what had happened to the production in 2012. In September, I reached out to a number of people that I knew were part of the original production, and finally, singer Graça Cunha, who was to play the role of Sofia, responded to my question. In a nutshell, the production ended because the funding wasn’t there.
The funding wasn’t there? But why? Well, again, let’s re-visit racial politics in Brazil in 2012. According to one of the show’s producers, Ricardo Antonissi, there was a problem raising the necessary funds to continue the preparations as, in his words, ”people said that a show with only blacks would not bring out the public.” Oh really now? But I thought Brazilian didn’t judge people based on skin color. OK, as I’ve beaten this issue to death since 2011, no need to go down that rode again, but then again, let me just make a few pertinent points here.
First of all, the question of black Brazilians and opportunities in the arts have been issues for a long time. Whether it’s limiting black women to singing samba, the dominance of white artists in the lucrative Popular Brazilian Music (MPB) genre, the lack of black Brazilian instrumentalists, the easier career paths of white rappers, or the few black leading men and women on Brazilian television and movie screens, there is clearly a hierarchy in the entertainment business. The world of musicals and operas is no different and why would they be?
Another good example of this lack of opportunities for black Brazilian artists is the fact that, back in 1986, when the opera of Porgy and Bess was staged in Brazil, the producers had to ”import” singers from the United States to feature an all-black cast because there weren’t enough black opera singers in Brazil. The production with an all-black Brazilian cast was only possible in 2017. So think about this for a minute. Porgy and Bess debuted in 1935 in New York City and it was considered a bold move to put on an all-black opera, but it happened. Mind you, both black and white audiences didn’t fully accept the opera until the mid-1970s, but what does it tell us when, still in 2012, 77 years later, a musical with an all-black cast can’t secure funding in Brazil? I’ll pose the question for the upteenth time: Which country is supposed to be more racist?
Now, in the past decade, theater has become an area that black Brazilian performers have been able to present casts of black actors and actresses, black themes, black aesthetics and black stories to the public in a manner that film and television still aren’t willing to do, which speaks volumes for the advances that Afro-Brazilian activists have been able to secure, specfically since 2012, but in reality, over the course of decades of struggle. I have issues with facets of both The Color Purple and Porgy and Bess, but that’s not really the point here. The question remains, when will Brazilians own up to the fact that their views and opinions are always influenced by the color and physical features of the people involved in a given endeavor? The Color Purple, we already know what that’s about.
A black woman in the southern United States in the first half of the twentieth century, Celie is constantly humiliated by her husband. In one of these moments he assaults her by saying, in a tone of contempt, that she is poor, ugly, black and a woman. She responds by affirming that yes, she is poor, ugly, black and a woman: “mas eu existo” (but I’m here).
The dialogue of A cor púrpura, which opened on Friday, September 6, at the Cidade das Artes in Rio, condenses much of the atmosphere that materializes in the little over two hours of the musical. Featuring a cast of 17 black actors, starring women, the musical – the first Brazilian montage of the show that hit Broadway in 2005 – portrays a story of pain and oppression. And more than that, redemption through love. A saga that, in the view of director Tadeu Aguiar, dialogues directly with contemporary Brazil.
Addressing topics such as racism, violence and machismo, the story follows Celie (Letícia Soares), a black woman from the state of Georgia, abused by her father (Jorge Maya) and her husband Mister (Sérgio Menezes). While the protagonist resigns herself to suffering, powerful women such as Sofia (Lilian Valeska) and Shug (Flávia Santana) show how she is capable of changing her life, raising her voice and finding the whereabouts of her younger sister, Nettie (Ester Freitas). On Broadway in the US, the play has already had two versions, both awarded with Tony Awards.
“A Cor Púrpura speaks essentially of the human question, of the power of transformation through love, which is lacking today. We live in an era of haters,” explains the director. Also, the issue of representation is posed when you see 17 black actors on stage. And it deals with violence against women, another deeply current debate.
Award winning inspiration
Written by Alice Walker and released in 1982, the novel The Color Purple earned the author a Pulitzer Prize – the first for a black writer. Three years later, the story arrived to movie theaters directed by Steve Spielberg and Whoopi Goldberg in the role of Celie.
Both adaptations of the Broadway play were widely awarded at the Tony Awards, the Oscars of theater. The film also competed for 11 Oscar statuettes in 1986, but won none.
Aguiar watched the musical in the US in 2016 and remembers being paralyzed with emotion at the end of the show. But he didn’t think of mounting a Brazilian version on the spot. The suggestion came later, from a director friend of the agency that owns the rights to the play, when he was looking for “a text that appeals to sponsors and says what we mean.”
“I didn’t want a reproduction of the American show. We did a Brazilian reading of light, scenography, costumes… The setting there are only 17 chairs. Here, we decided to wrap it up better.”
The Brazilian scenario is based on the skeleton of a typical southern mansion, flanked by stairs that acquire different configurations. The idea of having no doors and windows, explains Aguiar, seeks to reveal mechanisms that are normally veiled in social dynamics – most notably racism and violence against women.
“The play that touches people’s hearts through history, while addressing latent issues such as femicide and toxic masculinity,” argues Letícia Soares, who plays Celie. “And all from Celie’s point of view, the perspective of love that breaks the chain of violence, that forgives. In the book, at no time does she speak of pain, it is always a look of hope in the future. All this without pamphleteering flags, with incredible light, beautiful music, beauty… At the same time, everything seen on stage is a raised flag.
Lilian Valeska, who plays Sofia (the character played in cinema by Oprah Winfrey), summarizes: “In the play, violence and love are treated viscerally.”
The music that spans 40 years of action testifies to the presence of black people in American culture in the early decades of the twentieth century in the southern United States. There are spirituals, blues, work songs, ragtime, all performed live by the eight orchestra musicians. The vocal requirement is athletic in the American tradition of great voices – Celie’s sheet music, for example, covers two and a half octaves.
The lyrics were translated into Portuguese by Artur Xexéo, who faced the challenge of dealing with verses that he says, play a key dramatic role in the original.
“We often say that in the musical, the songs come to advance the plot, to help define a character, these things, but it’s almost never true,” jokes Xexéo.
“But in A cor púrpura, it’s like that. So, you can’t rave in the version, but stop telling the story. At the same time, I was preoccupied with doing so while maintaining the most phonetic resemblance to the original, thinking of the actors. Because if a sentence ends with an open vowel, up, and you translate a closed vowel, down, that is uncomfortable for interpretation.
Xexéo also recalls more prosaic challenges:
“There are many quotes to the Bible, which I don’t know much. So, I had to write the Bible versions on the side,” says the translator. At one point, a character was referring to a certain Brown Betty, with whom he had spent the night, and that didn’t make much sense in the plot. I left it like this until one day I woke up thinking about it and decided to investigate. I thought it was a dessert, but it is also slang for marijuana. So, it all made sense.
Flávia Santana, the actress who plays singer Shug, praises the versions:
“In English, any “honey honey hall” is beautiful, it’s hard to make these songs sound good in Portuguese – which highlights this as one of the ‘liberating’ aspects of the show. A Cor Púrpura is the letter of manumission to free us from various paradigms of Brazilian musical theater.
Since September 6, A Cor Púrpura has been on exhibition in Rio de Janeiro at the Grande Sala da Cidade das Artes. The production remained in Rio de Janeiro territory until the beginning of November, traveling to São Paulo for performances to begin in December at the Teatro NET – SP. The performances will continue until February of 2020.