Note from BW of Brazil: Ya know, this is getting to be very predictable. A white person or group of white people don blackface, black activists protest, white people proclaim ignorance on the issue or that they meant no disrespect. When I first started covering this issue almost five years ago I never imagined it would still be necessary to discuss the issue so many years later. I’ve written before, I will express this thought again. There comes a point when one has to wonder if there is a ‘hidden hand’ guiding such acts just to provoke controversy. Of course, there’s no proof and there is always the ‘copy cat’ possibility when people see something they think is ‘cool’, ‘controversial’ or ‘provocative’ and decide to imitate what they saw.
But on the other hand, even though Brazil has its own history with this practice, how does one explain this sudden fascination with performers, Carnaval blocos and common, everyday people wearing blackface? When I first brought the issue up back in February 2012 there was still very little repudiation of this spectacle. But in recent years, calls for the end of blackface have been mounting and seemed to reach a peak when another theater performance featuring the usage of blackface led to protests and a call for a debate on not only this historically racist practice, but racism and the place of black people in Brazilian society as a whole. It was that incident back in 2015, ironically also featuring a theater piece with word ‘trem’ in the title of the piece, that put this issue on front page headlines. It is also because of the controversy provoked by that play that makes it a little difficult to believe when the actors in today’s feature saw this as some sort of ‘homage’ with no racist intent. The world of theater is relatively small and I simply have a hard to believing that these actors didn’t hear about what happened in 2015, as if theater news doesn’t reach its performers.
Whatever the case, I believe the time has come to pursue more aggressive punishment for those who continue not to see anything wrong with this practice. And with reactions such as that of the activists at the show inn today’s feature, that time may be closer than we think.
Blackface is no homage: Theater piece ‘Trem de Minas’ generates controversy with usage of ‘blackface’
Spectacular features white actor made up as a black character in a stereotypical manner. In the show Trem de Minas, actor makes use of blackface to represent a black nanny
By Joyce Athiê
Blackface, a technique for characterizing white actors as black characters from the use of black ink on the skin and using other stereotypical elements, is a racist tool that began in the nineteenth century in the United States in popular minstrel shows that ridiculed black subjects.
With the use of the same tool, the piece Trem de Minas (Train of Minas) generated controversy, even before its debut in the Campanha de Popularização do Teatro e da Dança (Campaign for Popularization of Theater and Dance), scheduled for January 18th, when the journalist Miguel Arcanjo Prado called attention to the technique ion his blog, which had repercussions on social networks.
Trem de Minas is a comedy of the actors and twin brothers Leosino and Leonildo Miranda Araújo, or Leo and Leo, as they are known, that deals with the Minas Gerais culture, in its historical aspects, referring to some of its typical characters. It’s from this perspective that the artists represented, with the use of blackface, a mulher negra (black woman), in reference to the twins’ nanny. “We have a mãe preta (black mother) (see note 1) who helped our mother take care of us. We pay homage to her, who carried us on her lap, but people understood it differently,” says Leonilson. “We have to accept criticism, but our proposal is different. It’s a way of portraying the culture of Minas Gerais in a diversified way. We are not playing with the ethnic issue to ridicule, but to pay tribute. I still don’t understand this issue, I’d even like to understand it,” the actor adds.
If the act of blackface already presents racism, the justifications are revealing of its naturalism and impregnation in Brazilian culture. “The point is that people do this kind of thing as if it were something natural. They don’t see prejudice. But enough, no more,” comments Marcos Alexandre, actor and professor with a Ph.D of the Faculty of Letters of UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais).
“I understand that they are well-intentioned, but would their nanny see herself represented in this way that they present? To paint the face, to put on a strange outfit and to make a caricature, what homage is that? This is working with the clichés. It is incoherent, even though, behind it, there is a good intention. We can’t fail to say that they are wrong,” he points out.
For Soraya Martins, actress and researcher, the example is a reflection of the reproduction of racism in the country. “These artists must not even know what happened with the Os Fofos Company in 2015. We have to open and extend this to society in a broad way. We’re going to have to do pedagogy. To point out where racism is, which means not calling a black actor to play a role,” she emphasizes.
Soraya cites the episode that motivated Abdias do Nascimento to create the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN or Black Experimental Theater). In 1941, he watched an assembly of Emperor Jones, a piece by Eugene O’Neill in which the protagonist brings reflections on the life of a person of African origin in racist societies in the Americas. “He was shocked when he saw a white actor doing blackface, because a white man was portraying a black man in that way, painting the body,” says the actress and researcher.
Marcos Alexandre recalls the place of speech, so demanded by social movements and segments in search of the guarantee of representativeness. “It is the place from which the subject utters his speech. We, as black subjects, have a repertoire that allows us to speak about this subject. It is the place of our experience, our affective memories. It’s not that other people can’t talk about it. Otherwise, we fall into our usual speech. In art, everyone can do it. The theater is for everyone to do. The question is how. What do you want to bring with this representation? Stereotypes of this subject? That doesn’t work,” he observes.
Another point that the example of Trem de Minas raises is the representation of blacks within instances of selection and curation. The piece is part of the program of the Popularization Campaign, an event of the Sindicato dos Produtores de Artes Cênicas de Minas Gerais (Sinparc or Union of Producers of Performing Arts of Minas Gerais) and takes the same character to the spectacular Contos Afro-Brasileiros (Afro-Brazilian Stories), which was put on with resources from the Municipal Incentive Law For Culture. “There are no blacks in these places of choice, of curatorship. There are whites who, for the most part, don’t dialogue with issues that are outside of their universe,” says Soraya.
Sinparc said in a statement that it believes “in freedom of expression.” “The actor possesses several appropriate scenic resources for his work. One of them is the characterization of a character,” it said. The union also advised that offended persons contact the ombudsman of the Campaign or public agencies.
The use of blackface in Emperor Jones presented at the Municipal Theater in Lima, in the capital of Peru in 1941, was one of the motivators of the creation of the Teatro Experimental do Negro, idealized by Abdias do Nascimento.
Actor Marco Nanini also made use of blackface in some chapters of the 2016 novela (soap opera) Êta Mundo Bom!. To interpret the character Pancrácio, an unemployed teacher that resorted to begging in the streets, the director of the novela (soap opera) opted for the use of blackface as the teacher’s disguise, making an embarrassment of his condition.
Interpreted by actor Rodrigo Sant’anna, on Zorra Total, the Adelaide character was characterized as a disheveled black woman with missing teeth, also reproducing racism.
Recently, a discussion about blackface gained repercussion with the piece A Mulher do Trem, by the theater company Os Fofos Encenam. After a manifestation of activists of the black and feminist movement, the piece was cancelled, which opened space for reflection among the actors, the Itaú Cultural (space where the play was shown) and interested people in the debate.
Black citizens and artists protest against the use of ‘blackface’
Protest took place at the end of the show Trem de Minas that used a racist tool to represent blacks through stereotypical elements
By Joyce Athiê; photos: Mariela Guimarães
At the end of the performance of the show on Saturday night (21), at the Raul Belém Machado Theater, the actors and twin brothers Leosino and Leonildo Miranda Araújo heard a cry of protest from the audience. A group of black citizens and artists carried out a “rolezinho“, a demonstration against the use of blackface.
The comedy that appeared in the Campaign for Popularization of Theater and Dance last Thursday (19), and immediately came under fire.
After watching the show, the citizens, with their fists clenched, read a manifesto in which they made public the repudiation of the adoption of the practice by the artists of the show, which was changed by the actors after the repercussions of the case. The production of the piece chose not to paint the face of actors black, but kept arms and legs in black imitating black skin, which, as the text in the manifesto states, “does not show a position towards a more critical reflection that portray, among other things, black men and women as a laughable costume.”
“Blackface was a practice used in the 19th century, when blacks were banned from going on stage. In the 20th century, the technique was condemned after the black movement won civil rights.” In the end, the protesters invited the artists to an open, sincere and respectful dialogue about racial issues, or better, about racism that passes “unperceived” in the everyday and on stages, gradually undermining the dignity and humanity of black people,” stated the group in the manifesto.
“This type of call for reflection on black arts didn’t start now. Last year there were several meetings in this direction and this year is the first call for debate on the representativeness of the black body on the scene. We are here to call the artists and public for a reflection,” says Denilson Tourinho, an actor who is a member of Pretos em Movimento (Black in Movement), a group formed to articulate and discuss the representativeness of blacks in society.
The actors stood open for dialogue and said they had no intention of depreciation in the show. In front of the demonstrations received, they also stated that they will no longer use blackface, in respect to the offended people.
Group calls on responsibility of the institutions
The demonstrators also took a stronger position on the Minas Gerais Performers’ Guild of Producers, Sinparc, director of the Popularization Campaign.
Read the manifesto in its entirety:
“We are a group of citizen-artists who, believing that art goes hand in hand with political issues, publicly express our repudiation of the practice of blackface used by the producers/actors of the show. Keeping the actor with his arms and legs covered, with his face without the black ink does not make the new version/”solution” that you have arranged less blackface. It does not show a position toward a more critical reflection on racial practices that deal with, among other things, black men and women as a laughable costume.”.
Blackface was a practice used in the 19th century when blacks were barred from going up on stage. In the 20th century, the technique came to be condemned after the black movement conquered civil rights.
Have you ever seen yourself in a whiteface (see note 2)? Or as a “brancos malucos” (crazy white people) costume? We are not attire nor a costume. No matter how naturalized this practice may be, it is racist, for it takes away the humanity of black men and women. Therefore, we have come publicly to invite the actors to an open, sincere and respectful dialogue on these racial issues, or rather on the racism that goes “unnoticed” in daily life and on stage, undermining the dignity and humanity of pessoas negras (black people). In the 21st century, as artists and citizens, blacks and whites, we have an obligation to talk about this. Here is our invitation.”
- Although literally meaning black mother, for many the mãe preta image is often seen as a Brazilian equivalent of the Mammie/Aunt Jemima stereotype in the United States.
- Even as I understand the logic of what he was saying here, there’s no way to make such a comparison. Even if hundreds of black people suddenly started painting white makeup on their faces and walking the streets, this would have no sort of historical connection to dehumanizing an entire people in the way that blackface does, and as such, it wouldn’t have the same effect. In fact, people would probably see it as simply dressing up as clowns.