Increase of blacks at Curitiba Festival exposes racism in theater
Celebrated by the artists, the growth of black men and women at the Festival also served to reveal structural racism
I only recently learned of this, the 28th Curitiba Festival, that took place in April, in Curitiba, the capital city of the southern state of Paraná, yesterday. But even five months later, I feel that the incidents that happened at the festival, as well as the festival itself are important to discuss on a blog in which race, racism and representation are topics that always featured.
This year’s edition of the Curitiba Festival presented the largest ever representation of black artists on its stage. The festival featured over 400 shows in a period of two weeks, ending on Sunday, April 7th. The festival is recognized as the largest performing arts event in Latin America and was promoted with the slogan “O Festival para todos” (The Festival for All).
Celebrated by the artists, the increased presence of black men and women performers at the Festival also displayed the structural racism that is still present on Brazilian stages as well as the society in general. I’ve paid particular attention to theatrical pieces featuring black artists for a number of years, especially the last five, as it appears to me that, with the continuous under-representation of black actors and actresses and black themes in Brazilian film and television, these artists have taken to the stage to present a black presence and protagonism that simply cannot be found in the mainstream media.
So many black men and black women on the stage is no coincidence and represents the result, above all, of the recent changes in not only Brazilian theater but, again, in the society as a whole. Although the black struggle for representation has existed for decades, the demands and victories of black activists have reached a significant plateau in the past decade. There is an active, aware parcel of the black population that no longer simply accepts the racist “jokes”, insults, invisibility and placement of black people into the subservient “place” that Brazilians society has always reserved for them. And with an increasing number of black actors and companies, the inclusion of black themes and the fight against racism has been taken to the stage, there always being a strong public demand for this kind of play.
We need look no further than many of the sold-out shows for musicals such as Elza and O Frenético Dancin’ Days and also in the shows like Isto É um Negro?, Navalha na Carne Negra, Quando Quebra Queima, Por Que Não Tem Paquita Preta? and Negro Não Nego, all with the strong presence of black men and black women in their casts to see the evidence of this change in the air. In view of the high demand, the latter had to do an extra session at the Fringe, the independent showcase of the Curitiba Festival.
Racial tensions break out in Curitiba
The presence of large-scale black artists and professionals at the Curitiba Festival has not only been applauded, but has also given rise to previously camouflaged racial tensions. I’ve always maintained that, rather than racial conflict not existing, as so many Brazilians would have us believe, these tensions have often skated under the radar because, in general, the black population just accepted the dehumanizing treatment that Brazilian society dished out. With the rise of social networks, discussions about what being black in Brazil really means, more access to university educations, we are seeing a new militancy among black Brazilians that has declared that it is ready to stand up in the face of oppression.
The stage is one of the places where this activism is presenting a sort of “new black” to Brazil. After all, until very recently, seeing black artists in the cast, especially the Official Showcase, was rare. The usual thing was a theater made up by a mostly white, upper-middle-class elites, that never concerned itself with considering ethnic representativeness on the stage, nor the issue even being questioned.
“Talking shatters the mask of silence”
“Talking shatters the mask of silence. There is no need to carry weapons, we need to carry the voice.” This line is taken from the musical Elza, applauded in an open scene by the more than 2,000 people who filled the Teatro Guaírão (theater) when declared in the powerful voice of actress and singer Larissa Luz, is a kind of synthesis of what happened in Curitiba in this year’s festival, be it on the stage itself or behind the scenes. Having been fortunate enough to have seen the Elza musical, I see the production as a pivotal presentation and moment in Brazilian entertainment history.
The seven black women in that show symbolically kicked down a door that has always restricted the majority of black female singers to the genre of samba, not allowing many talented black women the opportunity to fully explore the realm of the lucrative Brazilian Popular Music market. The intriguing thing is that, the black women that starred in Elza put the full range of their talents on display through the repertoire of a black woman who was mostly known for singing sambas, the legendary Elza Soares. Through Elza, both the musical and the woman, these women signalled that they had arrived and that they would no longer be relegated to singing only traditional sambas nor would they be considered ”the cheapest meat on the market’‘.
The last session of Elza was emblematic and dedicated to the dancer Priscilla Pontes, who during the session, experienced a racist attitude from a white person in the Guairão audience, verbalizing her discomfort with the artist’s braided afro hair. The Curitiba Festival team supported the offended ballerina. Upon learning of the episode, still during the course of the show, Larissa and the other colleagues who portrayed different eras of Elza Soares’s life in the production decided to dedicate the April 6th session to Priscilla and to request respect for afro hair. Such a statement and act speak volumes for a rising militancy of black Brazil that for years simply straightened its hair or shaved it to acquiesce to a society that rejected this hair texture that reminded Brazil of its African roots.
“We want more respect, for people to respect our hair, our crowns, our turbans. I wanted to dedicate this piece today to Priscilla Pontes, a black woman from Curitiba. It was a pleasure to have you here with us, thank you,” said Larissa Luz, being widely applauded.
At her side, her castmates were strongly moved, like Késia Estácio, who collapsed in tears at the situation and raised her fist on the stage as a gesture of resistance, as well as her colleagues, a gesture repeated by many people in the audience of a chilling and impacted Guairão.
“Vai se fuder, negão!” (fuck you, nigger”), heard the actor Érico Brás in Curitiba
Actor Érico Brás, star of Globo TV and the musical O Frenético Dancin’ Days, in which his character, DJ Dom Pepe, delivers important lines about racism, also suffered prejudice during his time in Curitiba. “Walking the streets of Curitiba a beggar asked me for money and I didn’t want to give it. He immediately said, “….vai se fuder, negão (go fuck yourself nigger). Go back to your fucking country,” he revealed in his account of the situation. The word negão can be interpreted in a number of ways, from the compliment to the insult. For black men, negão, which can be loosely translated as “big black man” or “straight up black man”, it is often used as a badge of honor and re-affirmation of a black identity that Brazil has long tried erase. On the other hand, the same negão can come across as a racist insult in other scenarios, such as the one just mentioned.
Another point I must mention here is that the beggar told Brás to “go back to (his) country”, this even though the actor was born and raised in the northeastern state of Bahia, a state known for its enormous black population and a vibrant African culture. On the other hand, Paraná, whose capital city is Curitiba, along with two other states, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, are home to the largest concentration of white Brazilians in the country. Historically, the southeastern and southern states of the country have long looked at the primarily non-white northeastern states as symbols of Brazil’s backwardness while the south and southeastern regions are considered the country’s economic engine, more advanced culturally and, not coincidentally, closer to the European standard.
“I began to think about all this and saw that racism is in fact a destructive phenomenon that is part of the conscious, never unconscious, Brazilian. The beggars were white and they looked like Curitiba natives to me. If they were not originally from that city, at least they were already a reflection of their social life and customs. And if they were not beggars they would be racists anyway,” says the actor. “I wondered what they had already said about the number of black gay men, black women, black artists who were new to the city because of the Festival’s unprecedented attitude of putting on so many blacks into the event, parading through the city streets!?”, he remembered.
Absence of blacks is questioned in debate
And this was not an isolated situation facing structural racism during the 13 days of the Curitiba Festival. In a debate about theater in Curitiba, held by the 15th Mostra Stavis Damaceno (showcase), a black artist in the audience pointed out that the table is composed only of white artists. And he reminded that the Curitiba theater always denied space to artistas negros (black artists). The white artists at the table were embarrassed. This is a common occurrence in events throughout the country in which blacks are consistently shut out. We’ve seen this in numerous poetry and literary events in which black writers were not invited at all or their presence was minimal (see here and here). For example, only in this year’s edition did black writers have a significant participation in the annual FLIP festival, Brazil’s most important literary showcase.
A black actor mistaken for a ‘flower vendor’ and ‘Do you know who you are talking to?’
The Cia. de Teatro Os Satyros (Os Satyros Theater Company) of São Paulo, which celebrated its 30 years of existence at the Curitiba Festival, also went through two unpleasant and racist situations. A black actor from the group entered the restaurant where the Festival artists eat after staging the play Mississippi carrying a bouquet of flowers he had received at the premiere.
Seeing him enter the space wearing shorts and flip-flops, as so many other white artists did at the festival, an artist from another participating company, white, uttered the following phrase to his peers, witnessed by the blogger Arcanjo: “Wow, they let the flower vendor enter the restaurant here.” Of course, the obvious question here would be, what was it about the black actor that made the white actor automatically assume that he was a flower vendor rather an artist equal to himself?
Another situation was when a Satyros technician, also black, according to a report by actor Ivam Cabral, was prevented from entering the opening party by the Guairão security, who claimed it was sold out. However, shortly thereafter came a white actress who played in Globo TV soap operas and in musicals. And her entry was allowed after she uttered the classic phrase, “Do you know who you’re talking to?”, a popular phrase used in Brazil in which the speaker, either because of race or social status, invokes a certain privilege that they believe they are supposed to have.
Offended spectator interrupts play
There was also a moment of tension at the premiere of the play A Mulher Monstro (The Monster Woman), a blockbuster at the Fringe in the Ruínas de São Francisco. One black woman in the audience was offended by a sentence in the text, in which the character of the monologue utters racist insults at her cabelo crespo (kinky/curly hair). The actor José Neto Barbosa stopped the play and made himself available to the viewer to talk at the end of the show, and stressed that the racist view presented in the play was not his own, but that of the character who is the target of criticism in the montage, according to him, made precisely to criticize prejudiced people. The spectator countered and said such scenes only reinforced racism, even when they intended to fight it.
The climate continued to be heavy and tense until the end. In an exclusive interview, the actor commented on the episode: “The lady who spoke out was following the piece standing on the side of the assembled tent, there were many people on the street. She refused to dialogue. She didn’t see the whole context of the show nor did she watch it until the end of the work, where everything is justified. We received a huge support from blacks, who emotionally wrote to us and hugged us, encouraging us. I would also like to remind you that I am not white, besides being gay, a northeasterner, drag, or better, an artist.”
In the second session of Isto É um Negro (This Is a Black Person), a white spectator decided to interrupt the unfinished play to make a lengthy speech in which she praised the montage and said that this kind of speech against racism was needed. Despite making a complimentary speech, the spectator ended up taking the word in a context in which had not been offered to her, generating a strong tension in the air.
On stages in Brazil nowadays, we are witnessing a symbolic shift in black Brazilian identity politics. Just seven years ago, the Brazilian staging of The Color Purple musical with an all-black Brazilian cast apparently disappeared into thin air without so much as an announcement that the show had been cancelled, much less an explanation as to why. Could it have been because, as one of the production’s producers revealed, securing the funding for show was difficult to secure because there was a belief that the public would not come out to support a musical with an all-black cast? From then to now, the tide has changed. And with black Brazilians playing the starring role not only on stage but behind the scenes and in the streets demanding these opportunities, they are writing a new chapter in their struggle. And if they have their way, Brazilian society is gonna just have to deal with it.
With information from Brasil de Fato