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PORTUGAL: Black Actors Coming Into Their Own

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Oct 3 2007 (IPS) - Africans and dark-skinned Brazilians and Portuguese, who already have a strong presence in the fields of dance and music, are now appearing ever more frequently in films, television serials and plays in Portugal.

Black actors and actresses are also treading the boards on traditionally "white" stages at the Teatro da Trinidade and Teatro Nacional Dona María II, both in Lisbon, and the Teatro Municipal de Almada, in the outskirts of the capital, and are going on tour to other large cities like Porto and Coimbra.

However, Angolan-born Eric Santos, one of Portuguese television’s best-known actors, said participation by Africans or persons of African origins is limited, and "it’s still very difficult for a black actor to be cast as a doctor, lawyer or engineer," in spite of the growing presence of Africans from Portuguese-speaking countries in these professions, although they are not as numerous as Brazilians.

To illustrate, Santos pointed to the soap opera "Vingança" (Revenge), produced and broadcast by the private channel Sociedade Independente de Comunicação (SIC), "which is set in Lisbon and portrays not a single black character, although if you walk along the street in this city you will see many dark-skinned people."

At night, Lisbon is transformed into the European cross-cultural capital of music. Rhythms from Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde and Mozambique rock the old warehouses in the port zone, where bars, restaurants and dance clubs are sprouting like mushrooms.

Young people of mixed ancestry, in particular, have brought a flourishing new economy to the banks of the Tagus river. Ignored for decades, it has now been transformed into a huge park, in what might be a premonition that the riverbank may once again become the soul of the city.

The mixing of races left an indelible mark in most of Portugal’s former colonies, especially Brazil, Cape Verde and East Timor, as well as Goa, Daman and Diu in India and Macao in China, and to a lesser extent in Angola and Mozambique. In Guinea-Bissau and Sao Tomé and Príncipe, much less mixing took place.

Today Portugal is home to many Africans, Brazilians, Timorese, Indo-Portuguese and Chinese-Portuguese who are aware of their origins only from what their parents and grandparents tell them, or from television.

Black and mixed-race people also came to settle in Portugal from the 15th century onwards. Historical accounts indicate that in 1444, half a century before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, 235 Africans disembarked from a Portuguese ship in the south of the country.

A century later, historian Cristóvão de Oliveira claimed that one-tenth of Lisbon’s 100,000 residents in 1545 were slaves. By 1761, when Portugal officially decreed the abolition of the slave trade in its dominions, there were 30,000 slaves.

Today, in the early 21st century, the mixing of Lisbon’s peoples is such that the descendants of these slaves can no longer be clearly distinguished, while Brazilians can only be identified by their different accent.

But this is not the case for the new wave of immigrants who began to arrive after the fall of Portugal’s 1926-1974 dictatorship, many of whom were educated in Portuguese schools and universities, and some of whom have studied theatre and film.

Others, like Angolan actress Laurinda Chiungue, started in drama in high school, and today are renowned in Portuguese theatre.

Born in Huambo, in the high central plains of Angola, 31 years ago, Chiungue has lived in Portugal since 1981. She told IPS that "it wasn’t easy to overcome certain barriers," which have more to do with being African than with her accent, "because I came to Portugal when I was five, so my pronunciation is just like that of a regular Lisboner."

Since secondary school, she spent many years in drama training, and now she performs at the Teatro Municipal de Almada, which organises the annual Almada International Theatre Festival.

The Almada Festival stands beside the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and the Avignon Festival in France as one of the three leading performing arts festivals in Europe.

But she has followed a circuitous path. "I graduated with a social work degree, specialising in community work. I always liked working with children and elderly people, but that wasn’t all I wanted in life. I always felt the call of show business," Chiungue said.

Her first experiences on the stage, in 1997, were with the small amateur theatre group "Bambolines" in Santo Domingo dos Cavaleiros, on the outskirts of Lisbon. Later, opportunity knocked and she acted in plays presented by the group "O Bando" at the World Fair of 1998 (Expo-98), held in Lisbon.

The years went by, and Chiungue’s talent kept her going, in spite of the generally discriminatory attitude of theatre directors, who said that black actors could not be cast in all roles, because the characters in the play were not black.

"This isn’t true. Directors can decide what to do with a play when they put it on stage, and the possibilities depend on their imagination," Chiungue said, referring for instance to "an African Hamlet that was, indeed, controversial, but it succeeded because the actor was brilliant."

She said she was all for "putting ourselves a step ahead of reality, because there are limitations, there really are, but we mustn’t give up looking for opportunities, which are beginning to open up."

Miguel Sermão from Angola and Ângelo Torres from Sao Tomé and Príncipe are two further examples of Africans who have been successful before Portuguese audiences.

Sermão, born in Luanda 32 years ago, left the Angolan capital 17 years ago. He said "they used to tell us that our problem was pronunciation, and they were right, but now there are many dark-skinned people who grew up or were born in Portugal, and speak with a Portuguese accent."

His growing fame, his work in a number of films and soap operas, and his talent led to Sermão being hired by the A Comuna Theatre, one of the most prestigious in the country, as part of the permanent troupe – unprecedented for an African actor in Portugal.

But the prospects for black African and Portuguese actors and actresses are now bright, to judge by the casting advertisements that appeared at the end of summer.

Miguel Sousa Tavares’ novel "Equador" (The Equator), one of the most widely-translated Portuguese books ever, will be made into a television serial by the private channel Independent Television (TVI), which has already begun to select African actors.

The story is a fictionalised version of life in Sao Tomé and Príncipe in the early 20th century, based on historic events from 1908, when Britain accused Portugal of continuing to use slave labour on the then colony’s coffee plantations, by bringing forced labour from Angola.

And Polish director Andrzej Kowalski has begun rehearsals of "Namanha Makbune", an African version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, at the Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II in Lisbon, with actors from Guinea-Bissau and South Africa. The play is to go on tour to Porto and Coimbra.

Portuguese-Cape Verdean agent for artistes from the former colonies, Amira Pereira, said "the stereotype that an African actor can’t get work because he or she is black no longer holds true."

Quite the contrary, she said: in theatre, film and television, "at the moment, being black is good for finding work, because this is a time when African authors and works are enjoying great popularity."

"Being different is all the rage. More and more people are curious about different cultures, whether in film, theatre, music or exotic dancing," said the theatrical agent.

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