Afro-Latin@ Theatre Series

Actor and Activist Gustavo Melo Cerqueira

Addressing the call to action in the article “Why We Need Afrolatin@ Theatre,” this series highlights many outstanding Afrolatin@ theatre artists around the United States who diligently offer the world their art.

two actors arguing on stage
Gustavo Melo Cerqueira in a 1999 performance at Teatro Vila Vilha in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Photo by Marcio Lima.

I met Gustavo Melo Cerqueira in Rio de Janiero, Brazil in 2012. He was the brilliant and resourceful teaching assistant for the study abroad program I was part of and my supervisor for the research project I completed while in Brazil. I remember my entire cohort being captured by his passion for the African Diaspora and theatrical talent. We later found that Cerqueira was a seasoned actor and activist whose work has been seen internationally in the Portugal, the United States, and Brazil. He has acted in television shows and films, written plays, and fought for the recognition of Afro-Brazilian artists. His work shows how performance and activism are connected.

Gustavo Cerqueira’s acting journey began surprisingly after he finished law school in 1998. “I started to work with theatre a few months before graduation, so I’ve never worked professionally as a lawyer,” states Cerqueira. While he never defended a witness on the stand, Cerqueira’s passion for theatre took over after he graduated. The first professional play he performed in was in his hometown of Salvador, Bahia, at Teatro Vila Vilha. From there, he began to appear in films and television shows such as Sabor da Paixão and Um Anjo Caiu do Céu on TV Globo, plays, and even ventured into playwriting. “I also wrote a play on my own, which I also directed: OriBe-saga de um Herói que confrontou a Morte, which premiered in 2010 in Nova Iguaçu,” Cerqueira informs. The play was held by INDEC (Instituto de Desenvolvimento Cultural do Ilé Omiojuaro), a Brazilian NGO that fights against racial, sexual, gender, and religious discriminations.

I always think that the text must come after the ways in which the actors are bodily presenting themselves during the creational process. The text should be a consequence, not the origin of a theatrical play. —Gustavo Melo Cerqueira

an actor holding a mop on stage
Scene from OriBe -saga de um Herói queconfrontou a Morte. Photo by Andre Pinnola.

After acting and writing, Gustavo’s path led him to “invest more in theatre, specifically the research of the aesthetics of teatro negro.” Cerqueira completed his Masters in African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) and is now a PhD student in the same field. His research focuses on the work the teatro negro group named Cia dos Comuns.

Cerqueira wears many hats in the theatre, primarily as an actor and a writer. When asked about the differences between these two ventures, he notes that the performance comes first in his creative process, not the script. Gustavo says: “I always think that the text must come after the ways in which the actors are bodily presenting themselves during the creational process. The text should be a consequence, not the origin of a theatrical play.” Having seen his performances at UT Austin, I can see how movement is immensely important to his work.

As Afrolatina/o art continues to shape our artistic landscape, I am often curious about how identity plays a part in the work artists do. When asked how has identity has played into his art, Cerqueira replied “Which one?” and listed the host of identities that he carries. It can be easy to get caught up in racial, national, sexual, and gender discussions; yet Cerqueira has something interesting to say about that. “In any case, I live on the edge of knowing that I am not the identities I carry on me and at the same time, I am defined by them,” he states. “I understand identity as a strategic position you take based on how others see you and how you manage to alter, combat, engage with, or simply accept it. In other words, I usually do not confound myself with my identities, but I am in constant—and many times tense—dialogue with them.” Being in constant dialogue with several identities is something that many artists of color face when producing work.

Cerqueira recognizes that Latina/os of African descent do take part in theatre, but not in a “traditional” European sense. According to Gustavo, the religion of Candomblé, an Afro Brazilian faith, “can be seen as a form of opera.” The gestures, poses, dress, and songs performed by the orishas are associated with the faith, and count as a form of theatre. The parallels to Western theatre performance are the thought, preparation, and time put into the “performance.” These forms of theatre are not just in Brazil; there are many forms of theatre that Afrolatina/os engage in, like the Carnival in Trinidad. “Perhaps what is necessary is not to call Afrolatina/os into theatre, but expand what we understand as theatre, so that we can realize that we have always been involved in theatre,” states Cerqueira. By expanding our notion of theatre, we are inviting the varied and beautiful experiences of Afrolatinidad to be seen and appreciated.

an actor dumping water on themselves
Segment from Cerqueria’s I (re)suicide for political reasons at UT Austin, 2014. Photo by Gustavo Melo Cerqueria.

[O]ur bodies are trespassed for political and ideological forms of perception that inform the ways we present ourselves on stage, and how we are able—or not—to produce representations of our diasporic lived experience.

While Cequeria recognizes that spotlighting Afrolatina/o identity in theatre is important, he even questions the definition of the term “Afrolatina/o.” “I’ve seen some people that consider Afrolatina/os as those who were born in USA and have family from some Latin American country, especially those where people speak Spanish. If this is the definition of Afrolatina/o, I am not one of them,” points out Cerqueria. “I was not born in the USA; I was born in Brazil—a country where we speak Portuguese, a Latin language that many people just forget.” Afrolatina/o representation should stretch beyond the Spanish-speaking realm and include all members of African descent. Including English and Portuguese speaking countries like Jamaica and Brazil. When is the last time that you’ve seen a play that focuses on Afrolatinidad in a non-Spanish speaking context?

Cerqueira believes that theatre is the space where we can grapple with the questions of representation and identity. “This is not to say that our representation needs to be the main concern in our theatrical practice. This would reduce all the relevance that theatre in particular—and performance in general—has in our lives,” states Cerqueira. He urges us to “not forget how our bodies are trespassed for political and ideological forms of perception that inform the ways we present ourselves on stage, and how we are able—or not—to produce representations of our diasporic lived experience.” Theatre is a way to explore our various identities, but we should not become limited by them. We can’t forget how they affect our lives, or the histories that we carry with our bodies; we believe in the limitlessness of our artistic scope. Cerqueira leaves us with this note: “We should not try to fit in any kind of definition. We need to perform, to act, and definitions will be challenged, revised, and expanded—or even destroyed—because of what we do.”

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Thoughts from the curator

Addressing the call to action in the article “Why We Need Afrolatin@ Theatre,” this series highlights many outstanding Afrolatin@ theatre artists around the United States who diligently offer the world their art.

Afrolatin@ Theatre

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I love this so much. I had the pleasure of being in grad school with Gustavo and it's such a delight to see his words and work represented here. The point about how language, and specifically Spanish, complicates who counts as Afrolatinx or even Latinx in general is so important and one that definitely needs more mulling over. Thank you for sharing this with us, Jelisa and Gustavo!