Debate on black representation highlights a growing rejection of blackface performance

Recently a debate was held to discuss the issue of the usage of blackface in theater
Recently a debate was held to discuss the issue of the usage of blackface in theater

Note from BW of Brazil: On May 5th, we presented a report on the growing rejection of the usage of blackface makeup in performances in Brazil. Although Brazilian performers have skated by unscathed for decades using the ghoulish makeup in television programs, videos, commercials, jokes, Carnaval, etc, in a changing political climate among black activists, the practice is now being increasingly seen as an insult to the black population. Two weeks ago, a theater production was cancelled after protests by the Movimento Negro over characters in a play were seen wearing blackface…

By Natália Eiras

….thus, in place of presentation, Itaú Cultural and Os Fofos will hold a debate on blackface on the 12th of May. “This historic interpretation it has what weight in this debate of black causes? Do these black causes feel really offended by this historical tradition? The artistic work can evolve from this,” elucidates Eduardo Saron, director of Itaú Cultural where the play was staged. “We decided not to go to a direct confrontation, the show is not for a discussion of oppressed/oppressor, it’s a comedy and it’s for laughing,” says the producer.

Eduardo Saron, Eduardo Reyes
Eduardo Saron, Eduardo Reyes

Eduardo Reyes, actor and director of the play, says further that dialogue will serve as a way of the troupe itself to understand how to deal with black militancy and the circus mask. “The conversation will be a transformation. Suddenly if the black mask offends so much, maybe we remove the mask or not do the show anymore,” says producer and actor. “The issue is that the mask is a tradition. We have other characters in which the actor has paint himself black. We have songs that refer to the mulata, mulato…should we forget that? I find this attitude a bit radical.”

The troupe The Fofos Encenam isn’t the first to be criticized when using black makeup. The Carnaval Domésticas de Luxo bloco group created controversy during Carnival inviting revelers to dress up as “negas malucas” (crazy black women). The costume itself, very common in the countryside, was also the target of a campaign to ban it by black militants.

Note from BW of Brazil:It’s funny how the hegemony of white supremacy works. Always accustomed to things being the way they expect them to be, white people often ignore the very privilege of not even having to consider how another group may feel about a given issue. A point even more disrespectful considering it is their image that is being presented, ridiculed or made fun of. I can only imagine how the theater group reacted when they were made aware of the protests: “The nerve of those people objecting to our ‘art'”! We have nothing against black people; we’re even using a few of our actors to represent them!” They makers of the piece even saw the rejection of the piece as “radical”. Very indicative of a country that once (and in some ways still does) considered itself a ‘racial democracy’. Part of  a ‘racial democracy’ would be respecting how a racial group reacts to how their images are being presented, accepting the reaction and making any necessary changes. True, the group actually did this, but not necessarily because they ‘get it’. And speaking of ‘radical’, how about allowing a real black woman to portray a black woman in a piece that depicts her?

Scene from 'A Mulher do Trem'
Scene from ‘A Mulher do Trem’

Debate in São Paulo discusses the role of black and its representation in Brazilian culture –

by Alessandro Giannini with contributions from Paraná Online

The result of a controversy started on social networks involving the theater group Os Fofos Encenam and sectors of the Movimento Negro (black movement), the debate, “Arte e Sociedade: A Representação do Negro” (Art and Society: The Representation of the Black) attracted over 300 people to Itau Cultural, on Avenida Paulista, in São Paulo. On the table, the activist and blogger Stephanie Ribeiro, the theater director and member of Os Fofos, Fernando Neves, the playwright Aimar Labaki, the professor and researcher Mario Bolognese, the educator and professor Salloma Salomão, actress Roberta Estrela Dalva and Professor Dennis Oliveira discussed the role of the black and his representation in Brazilian culture.

After a presentation of the actor and DJ Eugênio Lima, each representative spoke for a few minutes on the subject. Roberta Estrela Dalva talked about the complexity of discussing the use of blackface and other racist habits that are ingrained in Brazilian culture.

Scene from 'A Mulher do Trem'
Scene from ‘A Mulher do Trem’

“I don’t think Os Fofos are racist,” she said. “But we can not let this kind of thing perpetuate itself. You have to know what to throw away so that we can co-exist”.

Mario Bolognese talked about the theater in the circus and the use of masks as a resource that doesn’t go through racism.

“The circus doesn’t know the use of blackface in the same way that the Americans used it in theater and cinema,” Bolognese said.

Aimar Labaki stressed the importance of the debate and the need to discuss the issue of the representation of blacks and use of blackface, but warned of the need to avoid a ban on representations.

“There are other ways of doing this,” he said. “We need to find other means to co-exist with this that don’t erase this representation.”

Debate on the representation of blacks and blackface
Debate on the representation of blacks and blackface

Fernando Neves, director of the play A mulher do trem, explained that the circus tradition sees blackface as a mask and all the characters have their features exaggerated. He apologized for the use of the mask, said he would remove it from the montage and cried, saying he didn’t want it to come to this.

“It’s not what I imagined, it wasn’t what I wanted,” he said, crying. “Os Fofos didn’t want to cause pain to anyone.”

Although Neves apologized and suspended the usage of the mask from the scenario, part of the discussion revolved around the question of the resource being considered blackface or not. The director of Os Fofos said the use of the mask came from circus arts and was applied to all the characters: black and white. He was endorsed by Bolognese, who gave a historical context of the circus, affirming its abolitionist character.

'A Mulher do Trem'
‘A Mulher do Trem’

Stephanie Ribeiro, in turn, argued that it indeed dealt with blackface, noting that those who should take up the issue is the black, not the white. Eugênio Lima echoed the idea in one of the high points of the debate, when, after listening to audience questions, made a question of leaving the mediator position and giving his opinion. For him, even if racism was not the intention of Os Fofos, the technique was built upon a racist ideology.

About the questions of censoring the show, Stephanie defended. “There have been years (that blacks are) voiceless. This manifestation is not censorship but rather taking on something that no one has taken up.” The activist said it was necessary to deconstruct the idea that white skin is a natural skin. “The issue is not this piece, but the vision of whites of us.”

With three hours of duration, the discussion went beyond the imbroglio of the technique employed in A mulher do trem and was expanded to racism in Brazil and the form of black representation in Brazilian drama. Director of Itaú Cultural, Eduardo Saron opened the event saying it was a historic moment for black activism in the country. He said that after the incident, the institute decided to make a series of reflections on the theme, which will culminate in a international seminar on the subject, that should take place at the Ibirapuera Auditorium in November, the month of black consciousness.


A wave of protests on social networks against the use of blackface in the play A mulher do trem made the company Os Fofos Encenam and Itaú Cultural cancel the presentation of the play on Tuesday (12). The feature, which dates back to the early nineteenth century in the United States, consists of painting white actors black to play black characters – a maid in this case. The group was accused of racism.

A French comedy written in the nineteenth century, A mulher do trem was first put on in Brazil in 1920, in Circo Columbo, held by the grandfather of actor Fernando Neves, who directs the montage. Written by Maurice Hennequin and George Mitchell, it’s set in the living room of a house in middle class Rio de Janeiro. On the wedding day, the groom, older than the bride, advised his father-in-law to be more energetic in his marriage, because he considers his mother-in-law a dictator. He also tells of his bachelor adventures, emphasizing the affair he had with a mysterious woman in a train that was en route from Rio to São Paulo.. The mother who is hidden hears everything and plans revenge.

SourceParaná Online, iG

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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