As the Brazilian media continues to marginalize their talents, Afro-Brazilian actors take to stages in Rio to bring the black voice and experience to the public
By Marques Travae
It’s a theme I’ve been following for a while and a genre that black actors are increasingly turning to as their objects on the small screen continue to be limited, incomplete and loaded with stereotypes. Black representation in the media has been the rallying cry for some time now ad a number of theater pieces being produced by black theater groups are proving that there is indeed a public that wants to see themselves and their lives represented.
Last month, I posted a piece on the theater group known as Coletivo Preto and the exciting works they have developed for Rio stages. The four principal actors of the group also work with guest actors/actresses in their pieces which attract majority black audiences. With success in Rio, the Coletivo have taken their piece “Será que Vai Chover?” to the rest of the country.
Other actors and theater groups are also finding success bringing a black presence to the stage. Just a few of them include the children’s play entitled “O Pequeno Príncipe Preto” (the little black prince), “Elza” about the legendary 81-year old singer Elza Soares, Brazil’s answer to Tina Turner, that the BBC named the “Singer of the Millenium”, stars seven black women portraying the singer at various stages of her life.
But that’s not all. There are a number of other pieces featuring black artists in leading roles that are also finding an audience that want to see actors and singers that look like them. Among them are spectaculars such as “Luiz Gama”, about the 19thth century abolitionist lawyer, “Ícaro and the Blackstars”, “Favela II”, “O Jornal”, “Inimigo Oculto” and “Amores Baratos”.
Behind the ideology of black protagonists on the stage there is also an economic movement that ties everything together. The so-called Movimento Black Money (black money movement) preaching the idea of black collective economic empowerment has been gaining steam, and it makes total sense. The cast of these plays are overwhelmingly represented by black actors and the average viewing audience is also about 85% black.
Actor/director Licínio Januário spoke about the emergence of these specifically black agendas considering the United Nations Decade of African Descendants and juxtaposed the situation of Afro-Brazilians with African-Americans in US.
“The United Nations has said that a revolution will take place in our history until 2025. There is a unity that began to take place in the United States, where blacks dominate music, film and television, and we are beginning to realize this here in Brazil. We see the need to bring ours to the theater. We still cannot change this on television, unfortunately, but in the theater, yes. So, we are doing our mission. Here we can still be kings.”
What should be noted in movements such as “Black Money” and what can be called “teatro negro”, or ‘black theater’, is that black Brazilians are in the middle of a paradigm shift in assuming specifically black political stances. Brazilian culture has always preached the idea of a (mythical) racial democracy in each all citizens are simply Brazilians with no distinction according to color. But what has become apparent after years of deception under this fantasy is that, the ‘we are all equal’ slogan is simply a powerful psychological weapon that acts to maintain racial inequalities as they are. The ‘racial democracy’ myth coerces blacks to believe in such a fantasy while making sure they remain at the back of the bus in nearly every realm of society.
Mostly ‘blacked out’ of roles of prominence on the small and big screen, the assembly of black theater gives Afro-Brazilians the chance to shine in every aspect of the stage production. They not only take the lead on stage as the lead actors but are also playing starring roles behind the scenes as costume designers, makeup artists, sound technicians, producers and directors.
Januário expresses the idea that the movement truly represents black collectivity, a sort of sentiment that, if blacks don’t take care of their own, no one else will:
“In our collective, we always appreciate to ‘Black Money.’ The press officer is black, the costume designer, set designer, director, producer, all are black. We need to give work to our own. If we have this opportunity to grow together, we will grow. Since they do not give us the opportunity, we create them”, says Januário, the director of the Coletivo Preto.
And the effort is noticeable. Entrepreneur Fernanda Pacheco was one of the few white people in the audience of a performance of “Será Que Vai Chover”.
“The show is incredible; the idea of the play is great. What surprised me most and made happiest was seeing the number of blacks in the audience. It was also curious to think I’d never paid attention to it.”
Pacheco’s comment speaks volumes. One, because the white presence in theater, film and TV is so normalized that most white people will never think twice about. And two, it is common that white Brazilians are not very accepting when something is all-black. A recent example was a Father’s Day ad featuring a black father and an all-black family, a rarity in Brazil’s media. Filmmaker Joel Zito Araújo also faced this criticism when he directed a critically acclaimed film with a primarily black cast. The discourse seems to be, all-white, no problem, but when a production is all-black, the issue is sometimes defined as a type of “reverse racism”.
And these audiences are not just taking in these theater pieces simply because the productions are primarily black; they also connect with the content being presented. For example, in the piece about singer Elza Soares that features seven black women but also an all-women band, the audience went wild when the title and refrain of one of her most well-known songs was sung. “A carne mais barata do mercado é a carne negra“, meaning, “the cheapest meat on the market is the dark/black meat”. A lyric that perfectly captures how many black Brazilians feel society treats them, the audience simultaneously leapt to its feet screaming in applause.
It shouldn’t be surprising that people react in this manner because every day Brazil provides reasons as to why people feel this way. We saw it in the brutal murder of Cláudia Silva Ferreira, who was killed with a stray police bullet, her body thrown in the back of a police van but then dragged on the ground of the moving vehicle for several meters. We saw it in the disappearance of Amarildo Dias de Souza at the hands of the police. And of course, the story of the brutal murder of Rio city councilwoman Marielle Franco that made international headlines back in March.
The presence and productions of black actors, directors and producers also debunks the typical reasoning that major television networks give for the under-representation of Afro-Brazilians in front of the camera as well as behind the camera. The fact is that there countless talented black Brazilians involved in the arts, the reality is that Brazil simply prefers to maintain a “dictatorship of whiteness” in numerous areas of society.
Licínio Januário’s idea that blacks must support and put other blacks to work goes beyond the stage as black stories and black narratives also need black authors and as major Brazilian sellers simply don’t stock works by black writers, there is a need for black publishers as well as black bookstores. On the publishing end, there are a number of book publishers trying to meet the absence of black literature in popular book sellers. In terms of material to fill the need for black dramaturgy, there is the Escrita Preta (black writing) event that features dramatic readings of texts focused on the black narrative.
The Brazilian film industry is yet another area in which the talents of Afro-Brazilian actors and filmmakers is all but ignored. But this, again, is not due to a lack of talent. For 11 years now, the Encontro do Cinema Negro Zózimo Bulbul – Brasil, África e Caribe (Zózimo Bulbul Encounter of Black Cinema – Brazil, Africa and the Caribbean) film festival has given exposure to the works of black directors. The film festival grows every year and this year’s edition saw a 66% increase in the registration and submission of film productions. One of the highlights of this year’s festival is the short film of the terror variety entitled Carne, which translates as meat or flesh. The film directed by Bahian Marina Jaspe is set in a swimming pool on a summer night in which a young black couple are engaged in a heated discussion of how sexism and racism plays a role in the relationship. When one of them gets up to go into the house the other caught off guard by Àmân, a mysterious figure that feeds on fears and human flesh. Besides Encontro, the film was also chosen for exhibition at five other film festivals.
Actor Lázaro Ramos, perhaps the most popular black actor in Brazil, also has a full slate on his agenda. Besides hosting the Globo TV interview program Espelho, Ramos, along with wife, actress Taís Araújo, earned critical praise for their play O Topo da Montanha (Mountaintop), the American play about icon Martin Luther King Jr. as well as their portrayal of a highly successful song and dance husband/wife team on the series Mr. Brau. Having racked up a number novela and film credits over his 20-year career, Ramos continues to explore projects that explore the possibilities of black Brazilians as protagonists of their own stories. One exciting venture that the actor will release is a documentary entitled Bando, which tells the story of the famed Bahia theater group known as Bando de Teatro Olodum, a group that honed the talents of black actors and actresses for almost three decades. Speaking on the importance of Bando and the film, Ramos said:
“As a political act or simply the human need to be represented, the public wants to see stories that speak about themselves, which are not always about exclusion or racism, but also sometimes speak about it, attracts audiences. ‘Black Money’ is strengthened directly by this audience, which is also a consumer and needs to be respected. This is a very important thing. There are already several studies confirming this fidelity with the black public in various products, businesses and advertising are already running after this.”
In the ‘Black Money’ movement as well as the Coletivo Preto, Ramos sees a certain influence from the Bando de Teatro Olodum theater group that was also a self-contained unit that did it all. The documentary arises from the desire to pay homage to Brazil’s largest black theater that emerged in 1990 and has managed sustain itself for nearly three decades without sponsorship.
In a Brazil that still sees productions and creations directed by blacks as second rate and undeserving of major media coverage, Bando de Teatro Olodum, the Coletivo Preto and numerous other black theater groups that are using the stage to present the black experience in Brazil, these achievements should be commended.
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