Episode 98: Brazil’s Teatro Negro and Afro-Brazilian Identity

Host: Marcelo Jose Domingos, Department of History
Guest: Gustavo Cerqueira, Department of African and African Diaspora Studies

Nearly half of the ten million Africans brought to the Americas over the course of the Atlantic Slave trade were brought to the shores of Brazil. Yet, despite having the largest African descended population of any country outside Africa, Brazil has long struggled to deal with the legacies of slavery and the racial equality that has persisted in its society. In the years after WWII, a new movement called teatro negro sought to put black bodies front and center in a rapidly changing Brazilian culture, a development that has been seen as political, social, and cultural.

Guest Gustavo Cerqueira explores the cultural sterotypes that centuries of slavery left in post-emancipation Brazil, and the ways that teatro negro sought to re-position Afro-Brazilian people–literally–on the national stage.

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One of the things that prompts my work is that I always felt interested in investigating the relationship between politics and aesthetics in the arts, especially in theater and more specifically in teatro negro. When I say that I want to investigate that relationship, one of the things that really prompts me is – can we really investigate or understand what are the political dimensions that we can have in the ways in which we put our bodies on stage? In the ways that we turn on lights? In the ways that we wear costumes on stage, the kind of texts and dramaturgies – how can we think about those political dimensions that are not explicit in the lines that we say through our characters, or even if we do not have characters. So, I was always interested in that, and more specifically how teatro negro does it.

I worked for seven years in Companhia dos Comuns which is a teatro negro group in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2001. It keeps working until now, but I worked with them until 2008. It’s a very prominent teatro negro group in Brazil , both artistically as well as politically. I realized that I could dive in the process of Companhia dos Comuns to investigate a little more how it can bridge those connections between the artistic-aesthetic dimensions and the political dimension, and I think that the black body can be the best instance to bridge those connections.

So, what is the teatro negro?

Well! That’s the hardest question that we have. I think that the common sense, we can say that teatro negro is the theater that’s made by black people. But first, let me explain why I use teatro negro in my research in Portuguese and I do not use “black theater.” The option that I have in doing so is having people understand what is teatro negro without trying to make it related or somehow making it a consequence of black theater in the US or any other part of the world. I think that we can talk about different relationships and how it is related to theater made by black people in the US or in France or different parts of the world, but I don’t think that we should establish a hierarchy between those different forms of doing theater.

So, doing my research in English, I would have to write ‘I’m doing my research on Brazilian black theater,’ so it has a thought of ‘Is that a kind of derivation of US black theater?’ so I use the term in Portuguese so that I can talk about something that has its own autonomy. So, that’s one of the first things that I would like to say.

But then, there are several different definitions that we can use for teatro negro, and some of these definitions go through any kind of cultural performance that is made by black people. Others say that any kind of theater that is made by black people can be considered teatro negro, and some others will say that, no, it has to do with the kind of political commitment that you bring to the stage and the sociological issues that are related to races, so this is what we should call teatro negro.

Abdias do Nascimento (1914-2011), founder of Teatro Experimental do Negro.

Well, whatever is the definition that we choose or adopt in order to make a study of teatro negro, one of the things is that it’s unavoidable to consider the foundation of Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN), which some people translate as ‘Black Experimental Theater,’ in 1944 by Abdias do Nascimento. It was a landmark leading to the foundation of many other teatro negro groups in Brazil, especially those that are politically informed, those that are concerned with enhancing the political subjectivity of black people, and that was in 1944.

1944, and we’re talking about the Vargas era, right?

Exactly, that’s a very important era in the whole world – we’re talking about the end of World War II. That’s the moment that we have a lot of different shifts. There are some authors that also say that we have what can be called a ‘racial break’ exactly at point. So, the ways in which racial relations change a lot in the world, starting at that moment. So, yes, that’s a moment when we’re talking about very strong government in Brazil that was very concerned with the formation of a national identity, especially since the 1930s. The discussion of a national identity is a very old one – we have the first half of the twentieth century especially when this kind of discussion was really really strong.

I think that was one of the very smart moves by Abdias Nascimento at this point, which was that if we’re going to have this discussion, where are black people in this discussion? So, let’s go into culture, let’s go into theater, and let’s have this discussion and review our own contribution to the Brazilian national project. That’s very important at that point.

But then! Something that we also need to remember, because a lot of people when they talk about teatro negro, they talk about Teatro Experimental do Negro in the forties and many people have the presence of black actors on the Brazilian theatrical stage started at that point, with Teatro Experimental do Negro, but that’s not true. Actually, the presence of Brazilian black actors on the stage maybe dates back to the 17th century, and for sure in the 18th century and beyond.

According to you, teatro negro did not begin with the Teatro Experimental do Negro? Can you discuss the participation of black actors in Brazil before the 1940s?

Yeah, sure, because – depending on how you define teatro negro, you can say, well, teatro negro was initiated in the 1940s. If you talk about what Evani Tavares Lima is going to talk about “Teatro Engajado do Negro” or Engaged Black Theater or Black Engaged Theater or something like that, which is also one of the definitions used by Jose Bastid – if you think in this way, you can say that Brazilian black theater began in the 40s as an intentional political aesthetic project that makes explicit and anti-racist discourse. Maybe they were talking about a very specific kind of experience that has this particular intention – to change things in the theater market and at the same time to have consequences in Brazilian society, being explicit about that. But, this does not mean that the initiatives that happened before the 40s did not have those political dimensions as well. Also, we should not say that the very presence of black actors comes from the 40s – no, it comes from way back.

Let me give you some examples. When we talk about theater in Brazil from the end of the 18th century, for example, we are going to have Nélson de Araújo who is a theater historian, he argues that most of the Brazilian casts in theater were composed of black people.


Yeah. And it goes until the mid 19th century, most of the casts were composed of black people. There are some reasons for that. Emilia Garcia Mendes, for example, another Brazilian academic, she says that maybe because theater was not considered a good occupation, it was not something that the sons and daughters of society should be occupied with, that they were practiced by those who were marginalized in Brazilian society at that point. That’s why we’re going to have lots of black people participating in that, because we cannot forget something that’s really important – we’re talking about a country that was founded upon slavery. We are talking about a country that was founded upon colonization. So, colonization and slavery are two important axes when we are talking about Brazil, and of course not only Brazil – when we talk about the United States and all the other nation states that we have across the Americas, we are talking about slavery and colonzation.

But, in the case of Brazil specifically, we had a high number – a gigantic number of enslaved Africans who were brought to Brazil and enslaved in Brazil. There is a website that is very interesting and didactic that talks about it – SlaveVoyage.org. If you go to that website, you have different tables – and some of the data is very shocking. So, if you pay attention to the number of slaves that officially disembarked in the Americas between the 1500s and the 1800s, you’re going to have a total number of 10 million enslaved Africans.

10 million?

10 million who went across the Americas. But if we talk about Brazil, only Brazil, you’re gonna see that almost half of this number went to Brazil. So, we’re talking about almost 5 million enslaved Africans who were brought to Brazil. So, that’s a huge number. If we compare that, for example, with North America, we’re going to talk of a total of almost 400,000 – not even a million. But in Brazil, we’re talking about 5 million. Which means that we had a huge presence of black people in Brazil at that point.

So, when we’re talking about theater and we turn to the 19th century, lots of things change in Brazil. You know very well that in 1808 we had the Portuguese royal family move to Brazil.

They were running from the Napoleonic Wars, I think.

Exactly! So, they move to Brazil. And when we’re talking about the Portuguese Royal Family, we’re not talking about three or four people we’re talking about lots of different ships full of people because we had all of those people who were following them to Brazil as well. So, we had Dom João VI who was the Portuguese Emperor at the time, he was a person who really liked performing arts, because things were already changing in Europe – people really liked opera and all these things. It was different in Brazil, people didn’t know about or like these things. But then when we have the Portuguese emperor arrive in Brazil saying, “yes, I like opera and theater,” he gave money to build the first national theater in Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro. So, that was the catalyst and things started to change. So, we had different people moving and trying to do theater.

But there was another thing, which is that in 1822, Brazil got independence. So, with independence, all of those discussions about Brazilian national identity intensify – and what is one of the biggest concerns that the politicians and Brazilian society has at that point? The proximity to the black body. What are we going to do with this amount of enslaved people here? At the same time, we’re having a lot of slave revolts happening. All those slave revolts across America – not just in Brazil but all across the Americas – were happening, and people were really concerned. So, Brazilian theater starts to reflect all those anxieties and all those concerns. All those anxieties come to theater, and they begin to pull black actors away from the stage and they begin to configure and consolidate the black actor. so, instead of having black actors on stage, you start to talk about them. Instead of having them performing European characters and European dramaturgy, they become the object of discussion. And with that, you start to consolidate several sterotypes that you have in Brazilian society about the hypersexualization, laziness, disloyalty, all those things that you see as stereotypes of people you start to see consolidate in the black character.

When we go to the end of the 19th century after the abolition of slavery [ed’s note, slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888], what you see is that slavery has been abolished but you still have all those stereotypes, you still have that objection to the black body, you still see those bodies as exotic. If you say that they are exotic you mean that they do not belong, that they are external influences that you have in that society. So, in a certain way, when we study through theater the racial relation and racial politics in Brazil, you see that those tensions do not change a lot with the abolition of slavery.

One of the things that we need to consider when we talk about that is exactly because it depends on how we understand slavery. How can we define how we understand slavery? I think it’s pretty much common sense that when we are talking about slavery, we’re talking about forced labor, and that’s one of the things that we need to start to question. Because when you talk about forced labor, you are only thinking about those things that are related to the development of capitalism in an economic sense – which is very interesting and very fruitful.

So most of the times we think about these enslaved people, we think of them as exploited workers. But that’s not exactly the point. Because we are talking about these people who were brought to Brazil not being considered people, but being considered things. That difference will result in things when we think about the ways in which our bodies are perceived in societies, and they are subjected to an amount of violence that people who are not black in Brazil are not subjected to. I’m talking very specifically here about Brazil.

In thinking of one of the theories that I was studying here in the US that comes from Frank Wilderson, he brings in some ideas that are very interesting – he’s based on Orlando Patterson, who makes a comparative study of slavery, and one of the things that he argues is that forced labor is not one of the constitutive elements of slavery.

Orfeu Negro, (Black Orpheus, 1959), was based upon the play Orfeu da Conceição, originally staged by Teatro Experimental do Negro.

Oh no?

According to Patterson, no, and it makes sense with all of the elements that he brings that are constitutive ones. So he thinks that forced labor is one of the contigencial conditions of slavery. He argues that we have three constitutive elements of slavery, one of which is natal alienation, which means that the kinship between slaves are not socially recognized. Another is general dishonor, which means that the slave does not have his or her honor recognized, only the master’s honor is the one that extends to the slave; and the final is gratuitous violence. And here we’re talking about violence that’s both material and symbolic.

Let me tell you here that when Orlando Patterson argues that these are the three constitutive elements of slavery, he’s saying that these are the constitutive elements of slavery, not specifically of black slavery.

Any kind of slavery?

Any kind of slavery, because that’s the kind of experience that any kind of people around the world have gone through in different times. The difference, and that’s the argument that Wilderson is going to bring, is that the idea of slavery in a kind of way became too attached to the ways in which the black body is perceived. So., even after the abolition of slavery, even after emancipation, even after reconstruction, we are still subject to an amount of violence that most people who live in the societies that we live in are not subjected to. That’s one of the things that I am investigating – how can we, as black actors, bring this kind of experience to the stage, and how can we deal with the ways in which we are misperceived? I’m using this term mispercieved as Harvey Young proposes in his book Embodying Black Experience to say that many times people look at us and they do not perceive us, but instead they project on to us lots of ideas that they have already built about us. So how our bodies are able or not to deploy politically and aesthetically some notions and strategies of identity, visibility, and representation to enhance black political subjectivity.

So, what is the relation between the teatro negro and Brazilian racial politics?

I’m going to go back to the Teatro Experimental do Negro and also to bridge with the group I’m working with, which is Compania dos Comuns, but if we go back to Teatro Experimental do Negro it’s very interesting, you’re going to see many people talk about Teatro negro as a landmark for teatro negro in Brazil in the broader sense, and many people are going to talk about Teatro Experimental do Negro as a landmark for black movements in Brazil. It’s very interesting how that particular initiative, and of course all the personality of Abdias do Nascimento was able to make that political. That’s why I used to say that Teatro Experimental do Negro is a political aesthetic endeavor – it’s not only political, it’s not only aesthetic. Even at the time of foundation of TEN – a few years later, a newspaper named Quilombo they said that Abdias do Nascimento used to say that Teatro Experimental do Negro was a sociological experiment, actually. It was a sociological investment. And one of the main objectives he had was to insert black people into Brazilian society, to make them part of Brazilian society. It was making teatro negro paleological in a sense – there is a goal that goes beyond the aesthetic experience that they want to achieve, and that’s pretty much what we have nowadays with Compania dos Comuns.

When we talk about Compania dos Comuns in 2001, let’s remember that in 2002 we elected Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva as the president. That’s when we start to have lots of people from social movements start to participate in political institutions as well. All the artistic research that’s made by Compania dos Comuns since 2001 goes along with the very closed debate with some state agencies and institutions. One of the things that Compania dos Comuns did was to found the Fórum Nacional de Performance Negra, which is the National Forum for Black Performance, and one of the main reasons for its foundation was to put groups – teatro negro and danza negra (black dance) – together so they could discuss and propose some public policies. So, that discussion happened not only among us, the artists, but we also invited to those discussions the representatives from several state agencies in Brazil, and we actually had some results from it. FUNARTE, which is an organ of the Ministry of Culture in Brazil, started to make some of those announcements and give sponsorship, but in the criteria of selection of projects, they started to take into consideration race, which was absolutely uncommon to do in Brazil. So, affirmative action, in a way, since 2000, goes into the cultural policies in Brazil as a consequence of not only the National Forum for Black Performance but also the initiative of these kinds of groups like Compania dos Comuns for sure.

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