Along with Léa Garcia and Zezé Motta, one of the most important black Brazilian actresses, Ruth de Souza is a legend of the performing arts with a major career in world of theater, television and film. De Souza was born on May 21, 1921, in Rio de Janeiro. She would live with her family on a farm in Porto do Marinho, a small town in the state of Minas Gerais, until she was 9 years old. With the death of her father, she and her mother returned to Rio living in a village of laundry washers and gardeners in Copacabana. She would soon become interested in theatre watching productions in the city. Reading the magazine Revista Rio, she became aware of a group of black actors that had come together in 1944. It was with this group, TEN, that Ruth de Souza made her debut onstage in 1945. The Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theatre) was a theatre group put together by the great Afro-Brazilian activist and playwright, Abdias do Nascimento, to give training and exposure to black talent and to bring Afro-Brazilian themes and issues to the Brazilian stage where actors of color were largely invisible.
With the recommendation of Paschoal Carlos Magno, an influential producer, critic and director, she received a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation to study for one year in the United States: at Harvard, in Washington DC and in the National Academy of American Theatre in new York. In 1948, she starred in the film Terra Violenta of author Jorge Amado, which was directed by the American, Edmond Bernoudy. From then on, she would focus her career on cinema.
She would participate in various productions of three pioneering film companies: Atlântida, Maristela Filmes and Vera Cruz. Starting in 1948, she performed in a string of productions, including Falta Alguém no Manicômio (1948), Também Somos Irmãos (1959), A Sombra da Outra (1950), Ângela (1951), Terra é Sempre Terra (1952), Sinhá Moça (1953) and Candinho (1954).
For her performance in Sinhá Moça, she beame the first Brazilian actor nominated for international award: the “Leão de Ouro” at the Venice Film Festival of 1954, in which she competed with stars like Katherine Hepburn, Michele Morgan and Lili Palmer, to whom she lost by only two points. In the 1958 film, she appeared in the film Ravine, with Reuben Biafore, a milestone in Brazilian cinema.
In 1959, she experienced a special moment on stage, starring in William Faulkner’s Oração para uma Negra, with Nydia Licia and Sergio Cardoso, at the Teatro Bela Vista, in São Paulo. In 1962, she appeared in Assalto ao Trem Pagador with Roberto Farias which also featured Eliézer Gomes, Luíza Maranhão e Reginaldo Farias.
After performing in radio soap operas, she go to work in the TV theatres of the Record and defunct Tupi networks. In 1969, she was part of the cast of TV Globo soap opera A Cabana do Pai Tomás, a Brazilian adaption of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, becoming the first black actress to star in a novela. In this novela, she shared the spotlight with Sérgio Cardoso, a white actor whose role was controversial because he was painted in blackface, with corks in his nose and an afro wig in order to portray a black man. In the 1980s, de Souza began to appear in few films turning her focus to television and novelas, where she had started in the 1960s with her appearance in A Deusa Vencida (1965). For 30 years, de Souza has actively participated in the tele-dramas on Brazilian television.
In A Cabana do Pai Tomás
Through the years, she has continued to work in cinema with young directors like Walter Salles, in em A Grande Arte (1991), Aluísio Abranches, in Um Copo de Cólera (1999), e Joel Zito Araújo, in As Filhas do Vento (Daughters of the Wind) (2004) a film that featured a predominately black cast.
To each character she portrays, de Souza lends each character a certain dignity that is all her own, managing to develop a long-lasting career featuring roles of distinction that are rare for black actors in Brazil. With this longevity have also come various awards including a 1976 APCA award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film Pureza Proibida and an award for Best Actress at the Gramado Festival of 2004 for her work in As Filhas do Vento.