Character Without Owner

The door opened, I entered the hall with my high school colleagues and didn’t understand what was in front of me.

At that time high school came after elementary school, there was no mid-school. Who took us there, was my chemistry and physics teacher, a dynamic young man, who used to arrive at the school on foot, after getting off the bus on the avenue, running to exercise and at the same time to arrive on time for the class. He was a college student during the day and taught classes at night. I couldn’t comprehend how an ungraduated student could be hired as a public school teacher, but I didn’t care, I loved his classes. He made his classes fun, capturing student’s attention, making the subject interesting, even considering that the school lacked a laboratory. To this day I like chemistry and physics because of him.

The hall looked like a miniature Roman colosseum, oval in the shape of a horseshoe, open on one side. There were three rows of seats, one top of the other, no divisions or chairs, as in a football soccer stadium before the FIFA standard. We entered the room, talking, playing, making noise, like young teenagers always do. I sat in the second row talking to my classmates and after a while, I saw that my teacher was sitting on the other side, in the front row.

That’s when…

All lights went out! It became total dark, pitch black, you couldn’t see anything. The voices and the buzz stopped so suddenly that my ears started ringing.

On my right side in the open part of the horseshoe, I heard sounds, almost imperceptible sounds. That’s when the samba  started in that darkness, fast, loud, full of drum beat. That sound entered my ears and penetrated my brain so hard that my thoughts disappeared. I couldn’t think of anything.

When the lights came back on, I saw that the music was performed by a trio that sneaked in while the lights were out, one on drums, one on the atabaque and a guitar player. I didn’t even have time to focus on the trio, because in front of me were, whom I’d soon realize, actors. The tone of the music dropped and I noticed that the actors wore simple clothes of solid colors, practically dressed the same way. Blue or black t-shirt with no details, white pants and sneakers, which I remember had latex studs on the soles.

Accompanying the music one of the actors began to recite:

Arena tells the story
For your listening enjoyment…
If you like it, hold our hand
And if you don’t, there’s another way to enjoy…

I was watching in São Paulo Brazil, the musical “Arena Conta Zumbi”, literally “Arena Theater Tell the Zumbi Story”, by Augusto Boal, Gianfrancesco Guarnieri and Edu Lobo, a few months after the premiere. A wonderful cast with Lima Duarte, Gianfrancesco Guarnieri himself, Marília Medalha, David José, Dina Sfat, Anthero de Oliveira, Vanya Sant’Anna, Chant Dessian and José Luiz de França Penna. That night the guitar player was Theo de Barros, who would become the music director in later montages, replacing Carlos Castilho.

I didn’t know at that moment that Arena Conta Zumbi, would be the most interesting, different, innovative, creative and exciting musical I’ve ever watched. As I left the theater I became another person. The play created in me a lasting love for musicals and theater plays.

I had participated in primary school performances. In one of them I was King Ferdinand, the Catholic, wearing a crepe paper royal mantle with a slingshot firmly stored in my pants’ back pocket. Therefore I had an idea of what theater was and that is why I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

For starters, the actors wouldn’t change clothes and didn’t leave the stage during the change of scenes, they just created a new scene, right there in front of our eyes. The characters followed, according to the creators, the Joker system, where no character was private property of any actor. In the new scene, the character played by one actor could be played by another and as everyone dressed almost the same, it was up to the audience to identify which actor was representing which character. There was also no change in the scenario, in fact, there was no scenario at all. The stage was in the center, in the arena. It was for the actors themselves to create the scenario for the new scene.

In one of the best scenes of the musical, Lima Duarte, standing pretending that arms were tied behind his back, represented Zambi. Around him, the other actors, seated in rows, simulated a ship and swung imitating the slave ship sailing in the open sea. The text helps identify Zambi: “King Zambi so famous, traveled prisoner…”, and the music accompanied.

Oh! the music, how wonderful. No musical I watched afterwards could create in me the same feeling of that night. I confess that songs from some famous Broadway musicals stirred and still mess with me, but not as much as the Brazilian music of the time when bossa nova was just beginning.

Today I know that history which should be a fixed thing, immovable, always changes. A new discovery, a new book, a musical, a samba theme, a photo, a leader giving his opinion for the history to be perceived in another way. Arena Conta Zumbi created the Zumbi myth in its own way, showing the suffering of slaves with a poetic connotation.

The musical claimed to be a struggle for freedom and contained a strong political message against the military regime which had begun in Brazil just over a year. This part I only came to fully understand later, attending college, when I participated in some acts of protests against the dictatorship that brought as a consequence a greater hardening of the regime.

Years later I took my girlfriend to watch a new montage of the musical. They had made some modifications to the text, probably dictated by censorship. The different actors, less experienced, did not produce the same effect as the first time, but I still find Arena Conta Zumbi the best musical I’ve ever watched.

Nowadays one can find just about anything on the Internet. Here you can listen to an almost complete audio in Portuguese, of Arena Conta Zumbi, of course without the resounding effect of being live in the theater.