Catarina Neves[1]

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In the following article you will meet nine actors for whom Africa is more than thirty million square kilometers of land that make a continent.

Put simply, Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique are a little part of what we call Africa.

In 2008, these countries were united on the Lisbon stage, using the bodies, words and memories of the men and women introduced here.


1. THE ACTORS FROM THE PLAY LISBOA INVISÍVEL (Filmed by Catarina Neves)

2008 was the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. More than five hundred events and projects were promoted by private and public entities from all over Portugal. It was in that context that the showLisboa Invisível (Invisible Lisbon) emerged.

The invitation came from the artistic director of the Lisbon performance venue São Luiz (a theatre which is financed by the municipality).

The idea was to develop questions related to the African, Eastern European and Brazilian communities living in the Greater Lisbon area. To do that, three Portuguese theatre companies―Teatro Meridional, Teatro Praga and Bando―were given challenges.

Poster of the performance
Poster of the performance

Meridional has existed for 17 years. It is a Portuguese company that was born from the meeting of the desires and projects of actors from various countries. Bearing this in mind, it makes sense that Meridional draws upon work it experiences outwith Lisbon and Portugal, and also values touring its own work throughout the country and internationally. The company explain that their modus operandi entails a “negation of set design.” Meridional believes that in the body and voice there are all the tools the actor needs to tell stories, to experiment, to improvise, and to take risks.

In the Lusophone (i.e. Portuguese-speaking) universe that Meridional explore so much (the company says that 30 per cent of their work is related to Lusophony), the parts of Africa where Portuguese is spoken constitutes a major strand of their work.

Eight countries in the world, six of them African, have Portuguese as their official language. Lisboa Invisível was born in this context: a show that Meridional says is not typical of the company’s work. We will see why.

Once the project was accepted it was necessary to find the actors. The company conducted auditions. From 30 people that applied, nine were chosen: two from Cape Verde, two from Mozambique, four from Angola and one Portuguese. All of the actors are of African origin. Within the group there are a variety of skin colours, which the actors experience as being significant in the Portuguese context (as we will see below).

One of the company’s concerns was to show the diversity among the African countries which are former Portuguese colonies.

The participation of an actor from Guinea was also planned, but he got sick. If that hadn’t happened, the show would have had actors from all of the former Portuguese African colonies except São Tomé.

The directors Natália Luíza and Miguel Seabra then researched the most important  themes about the African immigrant community in Portugal today: Who are they? Where do they live? What industries do they work in? How do they travel? What motivates them?

First conclusion: most of this community is today the second or the third generation of immigrants. They are Portuguese-born children and grandchildren of immigrants. They work in construction, in the kitchens, in cleaning, in security. They wake up when most people are still sleeping and they don’t return from work until most other workers are relaxing at home. The public transportation takes them to the suburbs where they live, closed in ghettos. Almost no white Portuguese go there.

The community is invisible, although we all know that it has achieved some prominence in our society, especially in sports and music. For example, since the football player Eusébio (in the sixties), a growing number of internationally recognized Portuguese sports people have been and are African or of African descent.

Second conclusion: some themes crossed all African communities living in Portugal. Some were inevitable themes. The most prominent themes included: saying goodbye to family, friends, and to the “mother” country; arriving in Lisbon; the bureaucratic legalization process; working in the construction industry; the difficulties of integration; the feelings of anger and saudade (nostalgia); the neighbourhood; the parties; the music; the body that dances; the jealousy; the violence in and out of the neighbourhood; the abuse of power by the national authorities; the loss of a son who stayed back home; the death; the cultural differences; an African way of being versus a European one; and, again and again, the saudade!

In the production, little narratives are sewn one into another. Everything is built around scaffolding, providing the audience with the inevitable sense of construction work, culminating in the building of a metaphor for the idea of harmonious social relations. It takes us to a place where accent is not a problem when the time comes to sing all together the hymn of a country that sometimes doesn’t know how to welcome.


2. TWO EXCERPTS FROM LISBOA INVISÍVEL (Filmed by Patrícia Poção)

The directors of Lisboa Invisível started by asking the actors to improvise. Each performer had to talk about their own identity. The border separating person and actor then became fragile. The actor doesn’t need to live a situation to be able to show it, we all know that. However, in Lisboa Invisível the performers were asked to contribute with parts of their own real lives.

Teatro Meridional emphasizes the need they felt to “respect the limits of each actor” as a professional and a human being.

If it is true that the nine men and women who performed Lisboa Invisível on stage describe themselves as actors, it is no less true that they vary, as actors, from one to the other.

None has a theatre degree, but all of them have been involved in acting for a long time.

Lisboa Invisível. Photo: Patrícia Poção
Lisboa Invisível. Photo: Patrícia Poção

For the three actresses, it is very important to keep on studying, in order to constantly improve the work they do on stage. However, for most of the actors in this play, more acting training does not lead to more work.

Josefina Massango has the highest academic degree of all nine actors. She has an accountancy degree in the Maputo’s Commercial School, in Mozambique. She also has a degree in history from Évora University, in Portugal.

She is now finishing a Masters degree in European historical studies and she has studied acting in Évora’s Drama Centre. No wonder she is one of those who give most importance to acting training. Josefina has been in Portugal for more than 10 years. She is 37. She came to Portugal after she met the theatre group Cena Lusófona in Maputo, and fell in love with a Portuguese man.

Célia Alturas came from Mozambique with her parents. She was only two years old. She has always heard stories about how it used to be in Mozambique, what it was like to escape the colonial war. Her father is Portuguese, her mother Mozambican. She started studying dance in the Superior Dancing School. Later, she studied acting in the Summer and Fall Conservatory in Michael Howard Studios, New York. She went back to Mozambique when she was grown up to develop a theatre project with Portuguese and local actors.

Cláudia Semedo is the only actress in Lisboa Invisível who was born in Portugal. She is the daughter of a Guinean man and a Goanese woman. Cláudia studied acting in the Professional School of the Cascais Theatre. When the time came to move on to higher study, she wanted to do it in New York, but she had so much work in Portugal that she decided to stay rather than move into higher education. Nevertheless, she kept doing workshops related to body, voice and acting. She is now 26 years old and she says that she is going to study journalism and culture. Cláudia explains that it isn’t a “professional need,” but only a way of answering the “need to expand horizons” even more because life demands that she has a “socially interventionist attitude.”

The Cape Verdean António Coelho is, of all the nine actors, the one who has studied the least. He stayed at school only until fourth year. The first time he came to Portugal was in 1999, as an actor in the theatre group of the Mindelo Portuguese Cultural Centre. At that time he worked with Meridional as an actor. He decided, later on, to return to Portugal to live because, he explains, “the standard of life in Portugal is better than in Cape Verde.”  He argues that “without luck and recommendations one cannot be an actor in Portugal.” To feed his four children he has to work in the construction industry. António says he is ready to leave the country if the professional situation continues to be as complicated as it is now. He will go where he can find work, any kind of work. He has Portuguese nationality. He lives on the south bank of the River Tagus, in Cruz de Pau. He says that he gets emotional each time he sees a play. António explains that living as an actor is still a dream.

Adriano Reis, also Cape Verdean, studied humanities until the twelfth year. He did theatre and performance studies in the Portuguese Cultural Centre, in Mindelo. He also did several acting workshops. He has already been a call centre worker, he was responsible for cheese production of a Cape Verdean food centre and, even, a member of his local municipal administration in Cape Verde. He acted in some plays, movies, commercials and soap operas. He has been in Portugal since 2003. He came “after a dream,” the dream of “being able to make a living from acting.” He was illegal in the first two years. Today he has a visa.

Like António, Adriano doesn’t know if he is going to stay much longer in Portugal. He says he “works hard” to be an actor, but he also says that what is lacking is “invitations to go and have a drink with VIPs”. While he waits for the work to come as an actor, Adriano hands out free newspapers at Lisbon traffic lights.

For Carlos Paca, one of the four Angolan actors who participates in Lisboa Invisível, being a part of the Portuguese social artistic network is not enough. The actor (who is best known simply as “Paca”) is, within this group, the one who has done the most acting training outside of Portugal. He studied acting in South Africa and in New York. The first time he came to Portugal he was 18 years old. Today he is 30. He is the one who seems to be most revolted by the situation facing actors of African origin in Portugal, and to have the most will and initiative to try to change the fact that, as he explains, “black actors are invited to be seated at the same table as white actors, but they are not invited to work together.”

He is convinced that “no one has to do anything for us. We have to do it all by ourselves and for ourselves.” To survive and especially to start being more respected as actors, Carlos argues that black actors have to “create a market” for themselves. Carlos says that black actors are paid less for the same role and that they are only used to do small parts in soap operas, and most of the time they are criminals, poor or stupid. Carlos wants to “change Portugal” and the Portuguese acting market. For that to happen, the actor has listed five steps that are a kind of anti-discrimination manifesto. 1: All professional black actors have to have a good and well respected agent. 2: To bring black actresses from their countries by organizing workshops in Portugal. 3: To give each year an encouragement prize for black actors. 4: To create a black actors’ association. 5: To promote a monthly black actors’ meeting.

Lisboa Invisível. Photo: Patrícia Poção
Lisboa Invisível. Photo: Patrícia Poção

Ery Costa is one of Carlos’s “friends in struggle.” Ery is the oldest one in Lisboa Invisível. He is 44 years old. His life story is enough to create a theatre play by itself.

He arrived in Lisbon when he was 14 years old. He was running away from the war. He had 5000 escudos (25 euros) in his pocket and the address of a relative that didn’t know he was arriving. A Portuguese family that was standing in the airport, waiting for someone, took that little boy home. Ery had just got bed and breakfast, but also the responsibility to pay for part of his needs. He has always done whatever work he could find. As the son of a theatre director, Ery had already some contact with theatre, but not the passion he had later.

Just downstairs from his apartment in Amadora there was a club that had a theatre company. One day he knocked on their door. He got in and decided he wanted to act again. And that was what he did. He was 25 years old.

Also, like the Cape Verdean António Coelho, the Angolan Ery Costa thinks that “studying is not worthwhile” in Portugal. Nevertheless, he studied acting for two years.

Also running away from war in Angola, Paulo Oliveira arrived in Portugal when he was 14 years old. He went to live in Viseu, in the centre of Portugal, with his uncle. He studied acting for three years in Balletteatro Contemporâneo in Oporto. The first time he lived in Lisbon was last year, while he was doing the play Lisboa Invisível. He says that he was pushed to perform by people that were already active in theatre. His parents didn’t like the idea that he was going to be an actor. He is 37 years old now and he is one of those who explains that “he is not white enough to play a white character and not black enough to play a black character.”

Félix Fontoura was a dancer in TV shows in Portugal when the film director Leonel Vieira gave him the main role in the movie Zona J. That was more than 10 years ago. Dancing has always been the big dream of this Angolan man who is also an exile from the war. When he lived in Angola he didn’t act. He only studied until the twelfth grade. He has worked as an actor in some plays and some soap operas. Félix says he wants to keep on trying to live as an actor, but while that it is not possible he keeps on working in construction, like he is now. He has been legalized for 10 years. He is 36 years old.

The differences between the actors regarding background, nationality and life-long experiences helps to explain Teatro Meridional’s description of Lisboa Invisível as a play which is made by Meridional, but which is not a typical Meridional work.

Miguel Seabra explains: “The shows made by Meridional have certain characteristics; the work is very focused on the actor; it has poetry, tragicomedy, evocation, and subtlety; the actor is enough to communicate using text or no text.”

In Lisboa Invisível the circumstances of each actor conditioned the final theatre “product,” but the need to communicate was still there.

“The social point of view parted us a little from the artistic path. So the theatricality changed,” Miguel Seabra concludes.

There isn’t one story, but moments where stories are told. From the diversity of the actors was born a net of moments to which every immigrant feels attached, especially Africans.

“Within diversity there is a rule,” Natália Luíza explains. That is also why the company knows that this show has stereotypes. It even has some caricatures, but that also comes from the fact that it’s impossible to reflect so many different social groups as the Angolan one, the Mozambican one and the Cape Verdean one.

Natália says: “Stereotype is a compromise between the nine actors and the social groups they represent.”

What the company wanted most was that these actors and the Africans who live in the ghettos would feel an identification with the play, rather than the work merely connecting with Portugal’s African intelligentsia. The fact that the intellectuals did not identify with the play is something that doesn’t surprise Natalia Luíza. They are the minority. For them it is probably constraining to see exposed the fragilities of the communities they belong to. It is probably difficult to accept the “dislocated outcries” and the fact that sometimes their voices are “silent voices, forbidden lives.”

From the other side, the side of the country that receives, but sometimes doesn’t accept, there are some who consider that the Africans in Lisboa Invisível are presented in a very naive way. As if they were “all good people,” without sin or shortcomings. As if they are always victims and never aggressors. To those who think like that, Meridional replies: “associating these communities with crime is something that the media does and it is a mistake. We didn’t want to do that.” Meridional contends that there is crime in all social groups. To talk about that in this play it was necessary to put it into context.

Natalia Luíza says: “with little work opportunities given to these communities, traffic crime is just a way to get somewhere, but that is as true for a black person as it is for a white one.”

Let’s take a quick look at the numbers. The most recent study, made in 2008, by the Observatório da Imigração (Immigration Observatory) says that crime is “the theme that most influences the statistics in newspapers and on television.” This means that most of the time when immigrants and ethnic minorities are the subject of the Portuguese media they are being related to crime.

In that study, the investigators concluded that “bad news (crimes, mafia, prostitution, etc.) are still seen as good news,” meaning raw material for the media. But something changed in recent years. In 2003 and 2004 the immigrants and the minorities were almost only talked of in the media as criminals. In the last two years, there has been a difference between the representation of the immigrant as a criminal and as a victim of a crime.

The authors of this study also noticed that in newspapers and television there was (or should we say there still is?) “a lack of diversity in the subjects they chose regarding the immigrant communities and also not enough journalistic investigation about them.” So, the media was (or, again, is) contributing to the general lack of awareness which, Meridional says, exists in Portugal regarding African cultures.

Natalia Luíza says: “we know little about each other. For example, in Portugal, not that much people know who José Craveirinha [the Mozambican poet] is.”

And what do the African actors know about Portugal and about the Portuguese theatre? Does it make any sense to talk about a European way of acting, as opposed to an African one? If the differences exist, should they be abolished or should we make the most of them?


3. THE ACTORS TALK ABOUT THE DIFERENCES BETWEEN ACTING IN AFRICA AND PORTUGAL
(Filmed by Catarina Neves)

There seems to be a consensus that there is a significant difference in the movement of the body between those who train to be actors in Africa and those who were born and raised in Portugal. But, Miguel Seabra asserts strongly that the company didn’t start having more corporality after working with the Lisboa Invisível actors. In fact, Seabra says that “nothing changed in the work of the company.”

Natália Luíza explains that she had to take special care with the actors because she was working with the “identity of the actor himself.” It could not be “psychodrama”; rather, they felt the need to respect “the manner in each actor was projecting his or her own way of being.”

The actor is a product of the cultural and social environment in which he or she was born and has grown up in. So, is it possible that these different ways of being are not reflected on stage?

For example, Josefina Massango is a woman who cannot stay in bed if the sun has already risen. She says most of her Mozambican friends are the same. Her Portuguese husband can stay all morning in bed. These cultural differences may seem small but perhaps they help to explain the surprise Josefina says she felt when she first saw a play in Portugal. She says: “the actor didn’t talk to the audience and I, being in the audience, look to where the actor is looking. If he looks to the emptiness I’m lost.”

Maybe this simple explanation helps to explain the empirical perception that the African audience is lacking in the Portuguese theatres in Lisbon. And this is a statement that all of the actors from Lisboa Invisível confirm.

Josefina Massanga says that most of the Portuguese theatre companies do a “very static and verbose theatre”, and that is why the African immigrant community keeps far away from the theatres.

In Lisboa Invisível, according to Meridional “on some nights, 40 per cent of the audience was African.” The company considers that “gratifying”; because, in a way, it means that the show reached part of the 87,500 immigrant community from former Portuguese colonies in Africa who are legalized in Portugal and living in the Greater Lisbon area. These are the most recent numbers from ‘Serviço de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras’ (the state organization which deals with immigrants in Portugal).

Lisboa Invisível. Photo: Patrícia Poção
Lisboa Invisível. Photo: Patrícia Poção

In fact, something must be wrong if the African community doesn’t go to the theatre.

The connection between Portugal and Africa is an old one. The Portuguese colonial empire and the politics of Salazar led to the arrival in Portugal of many African migrants.

Decolonization and the African liberation movements increased migration to Portugal. More recently the immigration has had a lot to do with economic, political and military problems.

In the eighties and nineties, half of the immigrants living in Portugal came from the PALOP, the African countries with Official Portuguese Language. Most were illegal. They lived in tents with poor conditions. Some still do. It’s the beginning of the so-called “problematic neighbourhood” on the outskirts of Lisbon.

So it is no surprise that most of the young black people say that they don’t feel any identification with the Portuguese, although they were born in Portugal (26%) or live in Portugal for more than 10 years (25%).

The Immigration Observatory concluded, in 2007, that “the foreigners are much more concentrated in the professional artistic groups than in other professional groups.” Most of those foreigners working in the artistic world are men that live in Greater Lisbon area and come from Europe. Most of the Africans working in the artistic market came to study performance.

In the artistic immigrant community, the natives of Guinea are the oldest ones and that is the nationality that has more men. The Cape Verdeans are the ones who have studied less and most of them are under 34 years old. Angolans have studied the most. And finally, the Immigrant Observatory says that it’s easier for the African artistic community to be integrated in music and dance than in theatre.

Also, most of the young Africans (80%) say that they are discriminated against, especially in health institutions, schools and courts of justice. They consider that being called “black”, “negro” or “black race” means social stigma. This information was taken from the study of ISCTE.


4. DO AFRICAN ACTORS FEEL THAT THEY ARE TREATED DIFFERENTLY
FROM WHITE PORTUGUESE ACTORS? (Filmed by Catarina Neves)

The legalization process is one of the biggest headaches of the immigrants in Portugal and, also because of that, it had to be in this play. One of the Lisboa Invisível actors confessed that the improvisation on this theme led to a much more violent moment than the one that we just saw in the play.

The few critics who wrote about the show liked it. The group of actors were described as “energetic and enthusiastic.”(Rita Martins, Público) The play as “prodigious in its aesthetic rigour and in its continuous tension” (João Carneiro, Expresso). One critic also noted the importance in this work of the shift “from comfortable talk about differences to the profound discovery.” (Cristina Margato, Expresso) The audience answered with full houses every night. But did anything change in the life of the “Lisboa Invisível” actors?

Something always changes, but, as one of them told me (and the Meridional Company and the actors agree): “everything stayed more or less the same.”

Some of the actors are right now repeating the temporary condition of being an immigrant and that is to leave the country, again and again, to look for work.

In Portugal it seems that an African on stage or on the screen can only be… “an African,” with all the implications inherent to this phrase.

At the end of the day, it makes us ask why it is that the Portuguese artistic community seems to have so many difficulties in understanding the benefits of letting in immigrant voices.

I end with a quotation from the book Ebony written by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. He was an Africa correspondent for 40 years. It shows how it all depends on the perspective. Finally, where are the dislocated outcries?

The chapter is called: ‘Me, the white’ and at a certain point he writes:

I arrived in a city like this as a correspondent of the Polish news agency. While I was walking in the streets of the city, I quickly realized that I had penetrated the net of apartheid. I felt again the problem of skin colour. I am white. (…) To be white is a synonym of being colonial, conqueror, occupier. I enslaved Africa; subjected Tanganyika; attempted to murder the person who is now standing in front of me; I killed his ancestors; I made him an orphan, moreover, an oppressed and foresaken orphan, always starving and ill. Yes, looking at me, he must think: ‘a white man, the one that took everything away from me, that stabbed my grandfather in the back and raped my grandmother.’ Now he is standing in front of you, take a good look at him!

Work Cited

KAPUSCINSKI, Ryszard. 2001. Ébano, febre africana. Trad. Maria João Guimarães. Porto: Campo das Letras.


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[1] Catarina Neves is a Portuguese TV journalist for SIC, in Portugal. For her MA in Theatre Studies (University of Lisbon) she studied the life and work of Jorge de Faria, an important Portuguese theatre critic of the first half of the 20th century.

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Portugal’s African communities on stage