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Teatro Preto do Candomblé’: The Art of Eco-Reconnection

It’s dawn. A woman wakes up, stretches, yawns, opens her eyes, and lets the light in. Feeling the morning breeze, she gets up from the straw mat and hears the distant voice of the Yalorisha, the leader of the Terreiro de Candomblé (communal place of worship), singing in reverence to the water to elicit its axé (the vital energy). Barefoot, she feels the ground, its texture and coldness. Slowly, she folds the sheets that cover the straw mat. Above her, a few birds sing on a low flight over the roof of Oyá’s barracão (the space where the terreiro’s community parties are held, named for Oyá, the deity of storms and winds). She rolls up the straw mat and leaves the barracão. She takes in a deep breath, calmly enjoying the clean morning air as the sun smiles timidly on the horizon. The Yalorisha calls out to her and takes her to the asacá (open space for the sacred Candomblé baths) for the morning ablutions. She undresses, feels the dew from the orange leaves touch her skin, and smells the scent of wet earth. The Yalorisha salutes Ossãe, the deity of leaves, protector of the forests, her orisha, and bathes her using the water. It has been like that every morning for a few months: wake up and connect with the earth, the water, the leaves, the dew scented breeze, and the weather.

No, she is not an omon orisha (a Candomblé initiate), she is an actress in the terreiro preparing for a play. This is an immersion process, an eco-reconnection process, and part of Teatro Preto do Candomblé’s training.

The above narrates the creative process of the shows I produce. They are organized around the Candomblé religion and its power to reconnect with nature and see the environment, which requires one to feel it within and outside of one’s body. Actors are invited to decolonize their thoughts and behavior and to rid themselves of the distorted notion that nature is only a source of energy to be dominated and exploited. It is important to highlight that this distortion is a result of Western anthropocentric thinking, which insists that nature is not part of our humanity, but rather a locus for energy exploitation and human domination and exploitation.

Eco-reconnection consists of an actor and scenic action that takes our planet’s environmental reality as a daily theme for reflection, problematization, and artistic creation.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole world has been invited to rethink its posturing vis-à-vis the environment, and the theatre cannot shy away from this discussion. Over the past twelve years of theatre creation and production, I have worked with actors regularly to lead them through an eco-reconnecting experience, to see themselves as animals, to realize they contain and are contained by Nature. To understand this process, we must understand Candomblé’s linkage with nature and its capacity for eco-reconnectivity. I use this term, “eco-reconnectivity,” to refer to a reparative practice that increases the subject’s awareness of the interconnected relationships humans have with the non-human world. Colonized cultural conditioning enhanced by modern capitalism reenforces polarization and disconnection between “us” and “nature” that the I identifiy as a myth.

Practicing Candomblé

The European colonization of Brazil established one of slavery’s strongest regional pillars in the trafficking of African men and women. Brazil is considered one of the enduring centers of the transatlantic slave trade due to the long period it took to abolish slavery based on comparative historical timelines. England abolished slavery in 1833 and the United States of America did so in 1865, but Brazil only abolished slavery in 1888 after strong international pressure. The colonizers’ lust for supremacy and trade without boundaries robbed the enslaved Africans of their dignity, subjectivity, land, and material existence. One critical resistance strategy used to fight this cruelty and retain identity was Candomblé. As a widely embraced cultural and spiritual practice, Candomblé united and reunited different ethnic African communities to develop and execute strategies for their re-existence in the Brazilian territory.

Candomblé, an African diasporic religion, started in Bahia, Brazil in the mid-eighteenth century. As for the etymology of the word Candomblé, the elders in the axé tell us and it was written by Babá Fernando de Oxaguiã, that the word stems from a distortion of the Quimbundo phrase Ka Nzo Ndombe, where Ka is used as a diminutive, Nzo means “house” (as attested by the names of many terreiros of Angolan origin that carry the word Nzo in their names), and Ndombe means “Afro-descendent/Native.” Taken together, the phrase means Small African Peoples’ House or Small Native Peoples’ House. Ka Nzo Ndombe turned into Ka Ndombe until it became popularized as we know it and speak it today as Candomblé.

From the origins of Candomblé in Bahia, the places for worship of African deities were small, shack-like dwellings in quilombos (communities formed by freedom-seeking enslaved individuals and part of the resistance). According to Candomblé elders, and as confirmed by historian Renato da Silveira, it was most likely from the Calundús—important spaces for organization and adaptation of African rituals in the Brazilian diaspora, probably the first ever attempt at developing an African religious culture in Brazil—that Candomblé was able to evolve into its current ceremonial configuration. Candomblé has firm roots in the totemic concept of belonging, of origin, of containing and being contained by nature.

The axé communities in Brazil are composed of different ethnic nations. The better known Candomblés come from Angola, of Bantu origin; Jeje, of Fon origin; and Ketu, of Yoruba origin. The deities (Inkisses, in Angola; Voduns, in Jeje; and Orishas, in Ketu) are mythical and primordial ancestors who begot all other ancestors. It is a complex group of precepts that has brought together Afro-descendants to keep African and Afro-Brazilian traditions alive, to reinvent and adapt traditions and preserve the memory of their culture.

A woman sits in the dark in front of a candlelit bowl of water.

Fabíola Nansurê in a performatic experiment in Earth Ritual. Photo by Jô Stella.

Not inconsequential is that Candomblé is the result of the joining of different ethnic African communities and of their descendants born in captivity. Africans from different nations overcame their ethnic, religious, economic, philosophical, intellectual, and political differences to forge an alliance with other Afro-descendants born during the time of transatlantic slavery to co-exist in resistance. Candomblé therefore does not reflect a single point of view because each ethnic community was governed by one or more deities—which were not organized in a pantheon—that were brought together in a single physical space, in this case the terreiro. Enslaved Africans in Brazil were mixed to prevent the organization of a resistance; however, this became the path for unity and resulted in rival ethnic communities forgetting their differences and joining spiritual and cultural forces.

Candomblé reacted and continues to react against racism. Its emergence is an emblem of this fight that has crossed centuries of affirmation in the Afro-descendant community. As priestess of axé, I can state that Candomblé is a religious and epistemological space for maintaining ancestral traditions, for spiritual, emotional, intellectual, cultural, economic, political, and social affirmation. Formed by a rich fabric on which diverse cultures and memories amalgamate, it is above all a space for Afro-Brazilian empowerment. Samuel Vida, the ogan (a Candomblé priest and/or someone who presides over Candomblé ceremony) of Terreiro do Cobre and professor of the School of Law at the Federal University of Bahia, highlights this force’s matrix in the documentary Povo de Santo (2007): “Candomblé is a cosmovision; it is an African-matrix based civilization project that reproduced and reinvented itself in the Brazilian territory, acquiring new appearances while maintaining, essentially, the traditions and ethnic references developed by African civilizations, creating a civilization-building project for the country, which respects diversity and bets on inclusion.”

That statement emphasizes the various contributions of Candomblé to many spheres of civic life. As this African civilization-building project and cosmovision, Candomblé represents a possibility of existence with dignity for many Afro-descendent men and women. It is a pragmatic non-catechism-based religious expression that relies on inclusion on the freedom of the human being, and by definition it respects and depends on diversity. Across the centuries, Candomblé has developed the subjectivity and the individuality of each Afro-descended person, breaking away from the destructively dehumanizing practice of colonization, thus reestablishing pride for Blackness.

Besides all of these attributes presented here, Candomblé is a powerful space for reconnection with anything environmental. One of the basic principles of this cultural and religious tradition is the reintegration of humankind into nature, an understanding that humans don’t dominate nature, but rather that they are part of nature and descend from nature. This principle is based on the precolonial African cosmogony of integrality, of belonging, and of the origin of the individual from within the environment.

A person lying on their back in the middle of a forest.

Fabíola Nansurê during the creative process for Exu–A Boca do Universo–Ilê Axé Oyá L'Adê Inan directed by Onisajé. Photo by Jô Stella.

Origin in and belonging to nature are at the basis of this culture and are present in its mythology and daily activities. Each African deity is intimately connected to a function of nature and of the human body, which the deity represents and materializes. Each deity is ruled by one or more elements of nature: air, water, earth, and fire. In the world of Candomblé, we are immediately asked to recognize, respect, and value nature in an effective manner, that extends beyond rhetoric into our daily acts that work against the destruction of “natural” spaces.

By learning to keep sacred spaces clean, not wasting water, valuing sustenance, dealing with our own recyclable waste, and holding all other lives—animal, mineral, and vegetable— in esteem as our own, we then recognize the environment as our home. Thus, the importance of forests, awareness of the violence in industrial abuse, and unbridled extractivism are all understood. In reassessing our connection to nature, we reclaim our ancestry in a natural symbiosis with the cosmos. In the Olubajé ritual (a ceremony to worship Nanã and Omolú), for example, the earth is lauded, greeted, and revered in thanks for the ground, the food that comes from its womb, for the possibility of staying in the material plane.

Teatro Preto do Candomblé

Since 2009, these are the precepts and fundamentals that I have followed when preparing my actors at Teatro Preto do Candomblé. Teatro Preto do Candomblé is an Afro-Brazilian performance approach that aims to place actors, playwrights, and all other creators in deep contact with the ethics of Candomblé, so that the work is created from this cultural engine. Elements such as racial and cultural identity, belonging, origin, re-territorialization, aesthetic decolonization, and personal and artistic “Blackening” serve as influences for the scenic formation and creation. Re-territorialization is important when we talk about relationship to land as the process of slavery removed Black women and men from African territory. Upon arriving as enslaved people in the Americas, these people had to develop ways to recreate their customs, their culture, and their relationship to land and place. Therefore, the relationship of Black people to Candomblé and other manifestations of popular culture enhances the process of Black re-territorialization, which seeks cultural, political, intellectual, artistic, and religious values and belonging in foreign lands.

Straddling the worlds of Candomblé and theatre, I have been developing a deep poetic process of eco-reconnection through my scenic practice.

Through connection with these elements of Black cultural identity and immersion in Black ancestral values, the individual immersed in this experience “Blackens” metaphorically and socially—that is, activates their connection with their Black African descendent identity. Straddling the worlds of Candomblé and theatre, I have been developing a deep poetic process of eco-reconnection through my scenic practice. Teatro Preto do Candomblé uses a theatrical and lyrical approach developed through the scenic research method Ativação do Movimento Ancestral (Ancestral Movement Activation). It affords eco-reconnection between the individual and the environment.

The actors form a community incited and inspired by the ethics of Candomblé. The immersion into the terreiro shows the actors another type of social existence that both the original peoples of Brazil and the pre-colonial Africans enjoyed: their relationship with nature and their daily life was one and the same. Eco-reconnection consists of an actor and scenic action that takes our planet’s environmental reality as a daily theme for reflection, problematization, and artistic creation.

Besides connecting the actors with their African ancestry, Teatro Preto do Candomblé invites them to assume a more positive and less destructive attitude in their relationship with the environment where they live. This is a scenic-sensory-spiritual immersion that uses ceremonies for the construction of the scenic action. Organized and overseen by the yalorixá Mãe Rosa de Oyá and me, the ceremonies range from ritual offerings to energizing baths and requests for authorization of divinities and/or ancestors to carry out scenic improvisations through the intimate contact of the actors with the four essential elements of nature.

After organizing the deities according to their predominant nature element, we salute them liturgically and scenically in four rituals: fire ritual (Exu and Xangô), earth ritual (Ogun, Oxossi, Omolú, Ossãe, Obá, Iroko and Logunedé), ritual of air (Oyá, Oxumarê, Ewá and Oxalá), and water ritual (Oxum, Yemanjá, Logunedé, Ibeji and Nanã). The objective is to put the actors in contact with the energies, colors, music, dances, foods, aromas, textures, sacred signs and legends of each of these orixás and with the energetic emanations of each primordial element. Through this Afro-scenic-poetic immersion, the performer establishes contact with the divinities and the images and sensations derived from it to generate raw material for the scenic construction, alongside the reflection on ethical, liturgical, historiographical issues that yield materials for the performance and staging. The initiation rituals bring the actors into contact with the past, family and mythical memories; and lead the ori-ara-emí (head-body-spirit) to the dimension of spirituality, ancestry and nature.

Besides providing a closer contact with the daily activities of the terreiro, this immersion allows the actors to observe and learn about the cosmogony of the ancestral African and Afro-Brazilian cultures and establish a contact with the deity in question. The goal is to connect the actors with the energies, colors, music, food, and legends of each one of these orishas, as well as with the energetic reverberations of the element present in the personality of each deity. Through this process, actors are filled with images and sensations that are the raw material for scenic construction.

Once the priming activities establish the context of the research, we can them bring it into the rehearsal room, where we further discuss ethical and liturgical issues. These priming rituals served as launch pad in the methodology for the actor’s physical conditioning that we call bodily temple. This is a notion of a sacred body, a divine abode, a living altar where the presence of the orishas can be summoned. The elders of the axé introduced me to this definition of body during my earlier schooling into Candomblé. It was academically coined by Ana Claudia Moraes de Carvalho in her article “Corpo-encostado.” The bodily temple, in the religious sense, is the body filled with the cosmic forces in close contact with the divine, in deep eco-reconnection. In the theatrical sense, it is a body overtaken, connected to its ancestral roots, aware of a cultural identity, and in a state of readiness. This forms the actor’s “scenic self”—or their identity on stage—an element also present in Eugênio Barba’s Theatre Anthropology. Teatro Preto do Candomblé situates the search for this scenic self inside of Candomblé’s universe to create performance exercises that bolster the actors’ energetic creativity and their performative presence while strengthening the relationship between Candomblé and Theatre.

I have been developing this work in search of eco-reconnection, Black ancestry, and affirmation of the three important fields—Candomblé, theatre, and ecology—for a qualitative change in our societal construct and rights. This three-pronged consciousness provides training and ethics based on those of the original peoples of Brazil and of those inherited from the African peoples we keep alive in each ceremony performed in the axé communities. May the theatre, our restless art, with its powerful possibilities for meetings, reflection, and problematization, add to its repertoire such creative processes and performances that lead us to eco-reconnect.

A woman stands over candlelight with a candle in her hands.

Fabíola Nansurê in the production process for Exu–A Boca do Universo–Ilê Axé Oyá L'Adê Inan directed by Onisajé. Photo by Jô Stella.

Thoughts from the curator

There is a long history of performance entwining with environmental activism in Brazil. This series builds upon the HowlRound series and convening, Theatre in the Age of Climate Change, to highlight some of these Brazillan performances, research, and training initiatives. These works of eco-performance and ecopoetic theatre model creative paths forward for the reparative processes necessary to face climate change.

Climate Emergency

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