Note from BW of Brazil: As of late, actors and real life couple Lázaro Ramos and Taís Araújo have made a number of headlines in recent weeks. Already arguably Brazil’s most successful black actor and actress of the current generation, the couple has been celebrated as one of the few prominent black couples in Brazilian entertainment circles. The couple have starring roles in the current Globo TV series ‘Mister Brau’ that is being hailed as groundbreaking in Brazilian TV for not only being the lead couple but also (at least partially) breaking from old stereotypical, subservient roles for Afro-Brazilian actors. Besides this site, two other English-oriented sites also reported on the importance of the series.
The latest feather in the shared cap of the duo is the recent opening of an inspiring play which fictionalizes the last day of the legendary civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. King’s life and status as an icon has been celebrated throughout the world, but his significance is very important for an Afro-Brazilian community that, for the most part, has been denied its own heroes. As Brazil’s particular style of racism long denied the very existence of racism, leaders such as King or Malcolm X were seen as only being necessary in the United States, a country known for its violent racial history. And as Brazilian racism managed to exist under the radar for so many decades, many within even the Afro-Brazilian community didn’t believe racism existed in their own country. As such, with such a long history of denial, how could such an icon ever emerge? The emergence of a leader directly addressing the possibility of racial inequality in Brazil would mean the country would have to face the issue.
In fact, there have numerous black leaders who have spoken of the racial problem dating all the back to the 1930s. But the most important black leaders to ever emerge in Brazil are not known by the general population. Within black consciousness circles, activists such as Lelia Gonzalez, Thereza Santos, Beatriz Nascimento, Hamilton Cardoso and the most celebrated of all, Abdias do Nascimento, are all well-known. But ask the vast majority of Brazilians, black or white, about these figures and one will be met with silence. These people were simply never allowed to reach even the status of being well-known. Nascimento, for example, was forced to go into exile in the US because Brazil’s military dictatorship at the time saw him as a threat of undermining a mythical ‘racial democracy’ that the country had so carefully constructed.
As this myth began to be increasingly exposed starting in academic circles in the 1950s and reaching the general public by the 80s and 90s, more black Brazilians began to draw inspiration from the Civil Rights/Black Power, anti-apartheid and anti-colonial movements in the US and Africa of the 1960s and 70s. And as the struggles of King and Nelson Mandela received more media coverage, Afro-Brazilians naturally looked to these figures as points of reference as they began to understand how their messages also applied to their situation in Brazil. Today, most Brazilians have at least a little knowledge of MLK and often invoke his message when they experience situations of racial discrimination. With this history, the opening of a play about MLK starring black Brazil’s most prominent actors was greatly anticipated within black social circles when news of the play’s opening began circulating sometime in September. Below is how the opening was reported in the press.
Lázaro Ramos and Taís Araújo enact The Mountaintop, about Martin Luther King, Jr.
The biographers of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), one of the most important leaders of the movement for civil rights of blacks in the United States and worldwide, reported that on his last day of life, he participated in prosaic situations, such as a pillow fight. But King also remained alone for a few hours alone in his hotel room in Memphis, where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
It is during this period, of which they don’t know the details, that the young playwright Katori Hall focused the play O Topo da Montanha (The Mountaintop), which opened on Friday, October 9th at the Teatro Faap. “The text speaks of the courage of a man in the struggle for human rights,” says the actor Lázaro Ramos, who plays Reverend King, besides directing the piece. “But he didn’t use aggression as a weapon of war, but rather the dignity and tolerance to get the respect of others.”
The title of the piece – that in the United States was played by Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett on Broadway – refers to the last speech of Martin Luther King, one day before he was assassinated in 1968. Lázaro was impressive in his interpretation of the protagonist, but it is Taís who steals the show bringing life to the maid Camae, leading the audience to tears.
In the play, Katori Hall takes advantage of the mystery surrounding those moments to create a hypothetical meeting between King and Camae, a mysterious and beautiful maid on her first day of work at the Lorraine Hotel, where King was assassinated. Played by Taís Araújo, she confronts the leader, questioning him without fear, stimulating a tense and humorous set of provocations that will emphasize his humanity. The play makes the audience think about equality and love.
The intention of Lázaro and Taís was to make the Brazilian public identify with the story. “Giving a greater dimension to the debate about non-prejudice, courage, affect and non-violence,” says Lázaro.
In relation to significant Brazilian figures in the same sphere as King, he cites names such as Milton Santos, Abdias do Nascimento, and Lelia Gonzalez that, according to the artist, are spoken of very little in schools, social networks and the media. “But that, certainly, they would make great spectaculars also. And that, in some way, they’re present in O Topo da Montanha, whoever watches will understand why.”
In the end, the couple thanked the audience and the emotional actress couldn’t contain her tears. The message is clear: the dream not over – nor is the struggle for equality.
Note from BW of Brazil: In past interviews, Araújo has spoken openly on how her husband’s influence has widened her understanding of the racial dynamic in Brazil. And while it’s true that the actress has often spoken of her experiences with racism an exclusion, her statements of the past few years have become increasingly bold as it appears that she is deconstructing the maze of race relations in Brazil with more precision, as we see below in one of her recent comments.
Taís Araújo: “We are in the 1940s on the racial question”
Courtesy of Brasil 247
Next to her husband, actor Lázaro Ramos, actress Taís Araújo performs in the series Mister Brau on Globo TV, whose treatment of the issue of racism led to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian comparing the two to American singers Beyonce and Jay Z; she highlighted advances in the debate, but says that we are still in the 1940s on the racial issue
Actress Taís Araújo again criticized the delay on the race issue in Brazil. Beside her husband, actor Lázaro Ramos, she performs in the series Mister Brau, on Globo TV, whose treatment of the issue of racism lead to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian comparing the two to American singers Beyonce and Jay-Z.
In an interview with columnist Monica Bergamo, she spoke on the publication: “I was surprised. In fact, here in Brazil they came out speaking about the comparison with Beyonce and Jay-Z, but not just that, right? She talks about how Brazil is behind in the racial question. It’s a critique of Brazilian society. Such a series should have existed for a long time ago,” she said.
Asked about the progress of the question in Brazil, she added: “I think we also discovered how to deal with it in a way that reaches people. But I have American friends who say we are in the 1940s on the racial issue.”
Note from BW of Brazil: Araújo’s view on the racial question mirrors that of numerous scholars who have studied the Brazilian situation over the past several decades. As such, with this rising awareness and often divisive debates on topics such as affirmative action, one would expect that the opening of the MLK play would have galvanized the Afro-Brazilian community into turning out in big numbers to see a play about the icon starring two of their biggest stars. But, surprisingly, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Below is a brief dialogue in a social network initiated by a woman who saw the play and noted something strange among the spectators….(comments in original Portuguese at bottom of article)
Fernanda: Yesterday I had a marvelous experience watching the spectacular O Topo da Montanha. My only disappointment was seeing that the great majority of the spectators were white. In this group (on Facebook) I see daily complaints about the lack of black representation and when there is an opportunity we don’t honor ourselves. The play has: a black theme, black protagonists, lack director/producer and accessible prices. Now I ask myself, why wasn’t there an audience of a black majority?
Humberto: do you know how many blacks there were at the showing of the film Selma about Martin Luther King when I went with Sheila. Does it make any sense to believe this?
Fernanda: Here in São Paulo, I watched this film in Cinemark cinema, it was made available on different malls (popular and elitist class). What happened? Due to the low turnout, the film was discontinued and only remained in one mall in a noble area and in a bad showing time for those that depend on public transportation.
Cristina: What was the price of the tickets?
Humberto: It’s expensive. R$45 was half price. A Santander client pays this price.
Cristina: Even so, Humberto, here in Porto Alegre there will be a play, with a cost of R$20, I want to see if the people will go.
Mariana: In reality, a theater event, something that’s not part of our formation, in Faap theater, that anthro of the white bourgeois that thinks they’re better than everyone else, masters at cultural and social turnstiles at 45 reais at half price…Don’t come telling me that this is accessible for blacks because it’s not. It’s very important, us having visibility and all, but still we are not even close to the possibility of demanding black presence in this type of space! We will keep on!
Humberto: We pay R$50 to see (samba singers) Arlindo Cruz, Diogo Nogueira and Péricles, Cristina. The argument of not having money doesn’t stick anymore.
Cristina: Look, you pay R$60 here in Porto Alegre, I’ve already seen R$70, plus drinks and transportation and some have cars.
Cristina: I only know one thing, we should NEVER stop going somewhere only because there are whites there, (or) if there there are situations of racism? But what place doesn’t have? We’re going always live in ghettos in the places of “blacks”? This is the same thing that we used to use and some still use in order to not go to the public universities, or if they want to try, because there are people that don’t even try.
Jornal da Gazeta report on ‘O Topo da Montanha’
Note from BW of Brazil: So how are we to interpret this situation? The telling of MLK’s story, a black man of international status, was apparently seen by a vastly white audience. The community that one would assume most identifies with the man’s message, struggle and life, for the most part, didn’t show up to see a piece of his story. This writer can attest to the fact that the same thing happened in 2014 in a São Paulo showing of a documentary about the late Nigerian Afro-Beat musician Fela Kuti. Kuti’s popularity has grown immensely in Brazil over the past decade, particularly within the black community where “Fela-brations” of the singer’s music have been quite common in recent years.
So, what’s going on here? Were the ticket prices too high for black Brazilians, many of whom entered the middle class in record numbers over the past decade? Well, considering the endless stream of black Brazilians who are quick to spend R$300-$600 for the latest Nikes, the black hair salons that stay full and the increase of black people buying new cars and traveling by plane, I, as stated above, would rule out the idea that the ticket prices were too high. But I will agree that there is in Brazil a certain idea that there are places where black people don’t belong. We’ve seen society’s reaction to a large black presence in shopping malls and beaches, so could this idea really be far fetched? As black demands for equality have led to some significant improvements, but only after many years of advocating for the necessity of change, we cannot expect that some customs and beliefs weaved into the fabric of the society will change overnight. It’s just a shame that many will miss out on such an important piece of black history because of it.