Note from BBT. The month of May just passed the halfway point and just in two weeks, there’s been enough noteworthy news to fill up the entire month. The biggest story thus far has been the police massacre that left nearly 30 people dead in the favela slum of Jacarezinho in Rio de Janeiro made not only national, but international coverage.
The month has also seen the recognition of 133 years since the abolition of slavery in Brazil, the death of two legendary figures in black Brazilian music and news that one of the important names in the production of black Brazilian culture is now making the products of hundreds of Afro-Brazilian entrepreneurs available for e-commerce.
Those last two stories I have yet to post about, but today I want to recognize the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great actress Ruth de Souza. De Souza’s groundbreaking career that spanned seven decades opened the doors for numerous Afro-Brazilian actors and actresses that have benefitted from her illustrious career.
Ruth made her transition nearly two years ago, on July 28th, 2019, at the age of 98. To celebrate and recognize 100 years, several current stars shared memories and homages to the veteran actress via their social networks. Google Doodle also published an image of the actress on its front page on May 12th.
Below is a brief piece on the late, great Ruth de Souza and a few of the people that celebrated 100 years of her birth.
Ruth de Souza, 100 years of art and inspiration that revolutionized Brazilian theater and cinema
Actress from Rio de Janeiro was the first black woman to perform onstage at the Municipal Theater in Rio, 76 years ago, and the first Brazilian nominated for an award at the Venice Film Festival for her performance in Sinhá Moça
Actress Ruth de Souza in ‘Duas Vidas’, a 1976 soap opera by TV Globo. Actress would have turned 100 on May 12, 2021.
Courtesy of El País with additional information by Paulo Uchôa
“Immortal. Legendary. Iconic”. Thus, the also lady of theater and cinema Zezé Motta defines the actress and friend Ruth de Souza (Rio de Janeiro, 1921-2019), who would have turned 100 this yesterday, May 12, 2021. A pioneer on stages and on screens, Ruth de Souza revolutionized the art and customs of Brazil by being the first black actress to perform, 76 years ago, in the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro, with the staging of the play O Imperador Jones, by the American playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), for the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN) company, founded and led by the actor, activist and politician Abdias do Nascimento.
Ruth de Souza was the daughter of a farmer and a laundress. Despite being born in Rio, she spent her childhood in the state of Minas Gerais. She used to say that her passion for the seventh art was at first sight, when she was a child, she watched the movie Tarzan, o filho da selva (Tarzan the Ape Man) (1932). Then she decided that she would be an actress, even though she didn’t know how she would do it. After all, there were few references for black actresses and actors in cinema and theater, not only in Brazil, but in the world. “I wanted to be an actress, but at that time there were no black actors, and a lot of people laughed at me,” she said, in an interview shown in 2014 on Globo television.
She returned to Rio de Janeiro at the age of nine with her mother, after her father’s death. Years later, she read a report on the Student Theater of Brazil (TEB), the group that gave rise to TEN, the Teatro Experimental do Negro or Black Experimental Theater, founded in 1944 in Rio, and that would take her to the stages of the prestigious Municipal Theater of the capital of Rio de Janeiro on May 8, 1945. “It was beautiful that day. People celebrating our debut, and the world celebrating the end of World War II. The city’s downtown was crowded,” narrated the actress, in an interview with the newspaper O Globo.
The film debut took place shortly afterwards, in 1948, when ―by the recommendation of the Bahian writer Jorge Amado― the Terra Violenta cast, adaptation of the work Terras do Sem-Fim, alongside names like Grande Otelo (1915-1993) and Anselmo Duarte (1920-2009). Two years later, she won a scholarship from the Rockefeller Foundation to study theater and cinema in the United States for one year.
Back in Brazil, she acted in the film Sinhá Moça (1953), directed by Tom Payne, for which she became the first Brazilian to compete for a Golden Lion as best supporting actress. She lost (but by very little) to Lilli Palmer (1914-1986). “When the news came that Lili Palmer had won the prize and I lost by two votes. Two votes … So, Katherine Hepburn and Michèle Morgan [actresses who were also competing for the Venice Film Festival’s highest award] were left behind, they were in fourth place, I don’t know…For me, it was as if I had won the award, it was very important for my career, really,” recalled Ruth.
She worked for more than seven decades, having acted in more than 30 films, in addition to dozens of plays. But she was also giant on the small screens. She gave life to characters of more than 20 soap operas on TV Globo, the broadcaster for which she worked for 50 years. “I worked a lot in these 70 years of career. I never stopped, which is something difficult for any actor in the world, especially for a black actor,” she told the newspaper O Globo.
The fight against racism was also a mark of her trajectory. She always took a stand and used to say that she had to fight hard for good roles, although modesty was another mark of her personality: she attributed success to people’s “generosity”. But, in truth, it was Ruth de Souza who was generous with generations and generations that came after her.
“She came before all of us. She came before Chica Xavier, she came before (actresses) Léa Garcia, before Zezé Motta. She came before, much before us. Always with a sweeping talent, a professionalism to stand out, a charm and a respect for the profession, when this profession was not respected, when actresses were not respected or admired. She opened all the doors, she opened these doors wide open,” defined the actress Taís Araújo.
Ruth de Souza said goodbye to television in 2019, in the miniseries Se eu fechar os olhos agora (TV Globo), in the same year in which she died. She left a legacy that will never be forgotten and that yesterday was celebrated in a Google doodle.
Actors celebrate the centenary of Ruth de Souza
De Souza was remembered through tributes on the internet. Actors like Lázaro Ramos, Camila Pitanga, Cris Vianna, Olivia Araújo and Jéssica Ellen celebrated Ruth’s centenary on Instagram. Taís Araújo, who was recently on the air in the novela Amor de Mãe, wrote: “There is no way to measure the privilege it was to witness and learn from the immensity of Ruth de Souza. Rest in power, your legacy will never be forgotten.”
Zezé Motta, who also made a point of remembering Ruth, told her followers that it was an honor to have already worked with the actress. “She paved the way for future Afro-Brazilian artists,” said Zezé. Ruth de Souza died in July 2019, at the age of 98, due to complications from pneumonia.
Collecting great characters in cinema, theater and TV throughout her 60-year career, Ruth de Souza was the first black actress to perform on the stage of the Municipal Theater in Rio de Janeiro, in the 1940s. She was also the first black protagonist of a soap opera on Globo TV’s, A Cabana do Pai Tomás, in 1969.