20 Νοεμβρίου 2009

το Βραζιλιάνικο λαϊκό θέατρο.....

The Hybrid Identities of Brazilian Popular Theater

By André Carreira

Dr. André Carreira, writes and teaches about Latin American theater movements, and is also a theater director. He's presently professor at the Department of Performing Arts of the University of Santa Catarina (UDESC). He can be reached at carreira@udesc.br

The ABAÇAÍ street theater

group of São Paulo.

Cannibalism and Hybridity

Latin American popular or folk cultures appear when oppressed groups deliberately appropriate aspects of the hegemonic culture in a process that Brazilian scholar and poet Mario de Andrade called "antropofagia." The term can be translated as "anthropofagy," and was used by Brazilian modernist artists to celebrate their "cannibalistic" appropriation of European influences.

With this understanding, I propose that Brazilian popular theater is a process where diverse cultural elements are "devoured and vomited" to create a hybrid product. The product is a new popular theatricality that is distinct from the folklore traditions, but that cannot, on the other hand, be strictly labeled as "popular theater."

To talk about popular theater as a category is not an easy task, since the very act of attempting a definition of "the popular" already entails a series of conceptual difficulties. However, and without the pretense of exhausting the field in this brief essay, I propose to approach the subject based on the concept of hybrid cultures as defined by the Mexican theorist Nestor García Canclini. The postmodern concept of cultural hybridization draws from the older process of "mestizaje," that is, a mixture that produces a culture based on diverse sources and references. Thus, the popular is not a purely preserved cultural object, but the result of fusions from diverse cultural elements.

Popular Theater

As in other Latin American countries, the gap between rich and poor in Brazil is very wide. Brazilian society also presents a very diverse cultural spectrum where we can find sophisticated European-style theater coexisting with subaltern (grassroots) cultural expressions.

In talking about popular theater, we could start by addressing the many staged spectacles of village festivities. There are a great number of "ox festivities" (a kind of performance staged by peasants that tells the sorry life of oxen under evil ranchers), carnivals, and other highly theatrical celebrations. These could be considered as the roots of Brazilian popular theater.

On the other hand, it's interesting to note how these modes of performance are somehow related with the ecumenical mysticism that characterizes a vast segment of Brazilian popular culture. From music, to staged performances and social ceremonies, we can see a strong presence of syncretic religiosity. Catholic ceremonies are mixed with Afro-Brazilian cults, both in sacred spaces (churches or the umbanda terreiros) and in everyday life. Researcher Armindo Bião has noted the proximity of performance genres and possession cults in Brazilian culture.

Popular theater also derives from diverse medieval traditions that reached Brazil in fragmentary form during the colonial period. Examples are the very popular puppet theater of the north-east, known as "mamulengo," the ox performances (that span the country from south to north), diverse carnival celebrations, as well as para-religious performances that serve as a model for contemporary theater.

Political Theater

Many specialists in Brazilian theater hold that the work of Augusto Boal was an example of popular theater. (Boal was one of the most influential practitioners of political theater in Latin America. He created the "Theater of the Oppressed" based on Paulo Freire's theories of education and Bertolt Brecht's drama manifestoes, while he worked with grassroots communities in Brazil, Argentina and Peru during the sixties and seventies -- ed.) However, it would be impossible to find any connections with Brazilian popular performances in the Theater of the Oppressed, since what Boal's experiments attempted was to apply to the Latin American context traditions of political theater developed in Russia and Germany early in the century.

Boal's ideas were associated with the Popular Culture Centers (CPCs), organized by the National Students' Union (UNE). The CPC's objective was to link intellectual theories with social movements in order to create a propaganda (agit-prop) theater. The results were widely imitated by Latin American grassroots movements of the seventies. However, the CPCs ultimately failed, due to lack of organization, political repression, and lack of social support. (García, 1992)

Many groups that attempted to create a popular theater during the 60s and 70s used forms of agit-prop and Brechtian didactic theater, in order to establish dialogues with the disempowered sectors of the population. To this end, various themes and visual elements from the popular cultures were put into practice. The trend was particularly felt in the industrial city of São Paulo, where several labor movements appeared during the 70s.

(These groups worked under extremely dangerous conditions. Ruthless dictatorships were taking power across the region, and unleashed the persecution of all social workers. Boal was imprisoned and tortured in 1971, and fled Brazil that year -- ed.)

The Political in Search of the Popular

Also during this decade, a movement of theater groups appeared which sought audiences at the periphery of the great cities. Historian Silvana Garcia has identified dozens of groups that held in common their rejection of the professional market circuits catering to the middle and upper classes. These groups strived to take theater to sectors of the population that normally had no access to theater houses, and thus insisted that their work belonged to the category of "popular theater." Unfortunately, popular response was not strong enough to ensure the long-term survival of these groups.

There are, however, exceptions, such as the Teatro União e Olho Vivo (Union and Live Eye Theater), directed by Cesar Vieira during the past 20 years. Throughout, this group has maintained its activity in the poor slums at the edges of the city. Their concept of popular theater is based on their work with popular narratives and their direct contact with the subaltern sectors of the population. União e Olho Vivo holds that the path to popular theater lies in providing opportunities for the workers themselves to create their own performances. Thus, the group has permanent members from the working class who join them during the neighborhood workshops.

The Tá na Rua troupe performs in a plaza of Rio de Janeiro.

Another group is Tá na Rua (It's in the Street), based in Río de Janeiro and founded in 1980 by director Amir Haddad. This group seeks the popular through a radical approach to street life. They try to discover elements within the behavior of street dwellers (beggars, vendors, bums) for the construction of spectacles that can establish a dialogue with all of their audience. For Amir Haddad and his troupe, popular theater is where no barriers exist between the stage and the audience, a theater that does not seek to "educate" in a pragmatic sense, but to provoke an encounter with what the director calls "the magic of Dionysiac spectacle." Haddad believes that his work is "much more that simple entertainment, it's an intervention into people's everyday life, awakening their senses in spite of the suffocating city life." (Haddad, 1983)

An aspect of Brazilian popular theater worth mentioning is the movement of rapprochement with the circus. Many groups have taken to the use of circus techniques as a way to create spectacles with popular character. Some groups that work in this vein are Teatro do Anônimo (Río), the Doutores da Alegria (São Paulo), the Tonheta clowns (Antônio Nóbrega), Xuxu (Luiz Carlos Vasconcellos).

Beyond the metropolitan Río de Janeiro São Paulo axis, it's important to note that a great number of popular forms originate in the country's Northeast region. The Northeast is Brazil's poorest region, subjected to severe droughts and to oppressive forms of rural exploitation. The region is dominated by reactionary oligarchies that control the population by maintaining it in conditions of abject misery and illiteracy. In spite of this, the Northeast boasts a strong movement of amateur theater with close links to popular culture. Their productions can be followed in the innumerable theater festivals around the country, where plays by Northeastern groups employ elements of popular culture as an essential component of their mise en scène. It can be said that Northeastern theater exemplifies the fusion of "high culture" theatrical traditions with traces of popular theater, as has been developing for centuries in the Brazilian streets.

Several groups and playwrights have turned to traditional street performances and carnivals, as an essential practice that aims to reconstruct the cultural references that deliberately draw "high" and "popular" cultures together.

This exercise in hybridity taking place in the Northeast is clear in the work of João Cabral, Melo Neto, Antonio Sussassuna and Hermilo Borba Filho, as well as in the spectacles of Teatro Piollin of Recife, or the Teatro Brincante of Antônio Nóbrega, among others. Thus, for example, the Cordel literature (stories printed in cheap magazines sold during popular fairs) is present in dramaturgy and in the creation of characters.

The fusion of religiosity and humor, the use of street satire and the popular hero result in a theater that directly feeds into national theater practices, and thus aims to insert itself within the larger discourse of national identity.

Identity as Resistance

It's important to note that this "popular" theater, while not overtly political in the militant sense, does demonstrate a practice of cultural resistance. Its main feature is to affirm itself as an alternative to mass-mediated culture, basing itself in a purported national identity. Indeed, this quest for identity is a main concern for those who attempt to build Brazilian popular theater today. This trend is not particular to the 90s, since already in the 60s groups like Oficina and Opinião had proposed the quest of a theater both national and popular.

With the absence of the strong ideological drive common during the 60s and 70s, theater groups today have resorted to "identity building." To this end, they try to balance the ideas about "Brazilian-ness" that circulate in the social imagination (Bazcko, 1984) with the aspects of the dominant culture that exert pressure through the mass media.

While it can be said that popular theater in Brazil is articulated as a site of resistance, this is not done in a programatic way. The social role that these theater practitioners play has not yet been articulated, nor has it been clearly identified by the specialists. Theater researchers strive to theorize the political and aesthetic meanings of these performances as they exist around the country. Indeed, this has been the subject of an increasingly large number of studies and graduate programs in the universities. This trend has put Brazilian popular theater under an unprecedented scrutiny, and suggests that contemporary theater productions will be studied from a previously disregarded perspective: that of popular/folk culture.

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