Mala Voadora: Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro? and Teleculinária

Has the American Dream Been Achieved at the Expense of the American Negro? was the premise of the 1965 debate at Cambridge University between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. The show is staged by Jorge Andrade with assistance from Maria Jorge, performed by José Mata and Marco Mendonça, costumes by José Capela and lighting by João Fonte.

Baldwin was a black American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and social critic. He was also one of the first black men to come out about his homosexuality. His political activism was critically important and is today an essential legacy for anti-racist and LGBTQI+ struggles. Buckl Jr was an American conservative author, intellectual and political commentator. This debate is fascinating and gripping. It is fascinating because it takes place in one of the world’s most conservative and elitist arenas. The topic under discussion, as well as the arguments used, are highly relevant and urgent in contemporary society. It is passionate because of Baldwin’s intervention. Baldwin experienced everything he is talking about and this is felt and echoes in the spectator. But his speech is not sentimental or victimising. On the contrary, it is assertive and pragmatic. The coherence and honesty of Baldwin’s images/examples are based on arguments founded on historical facts. The author criticises the whole logic of thinking behind the way US history is taught and disseminated, something quite radical for the time. We cannot help but remember that, in Portuguese schools and universities, the fantasy of the hero and the nice coloniser is still widespread and seriously ingrained in the imagination of the Portuguese population. The fantasy of the Discoveries, of how it wasn’t that violent, or of cultural accommodation, is the same as Buckl Jr’s fantasy that racism and discrimination are not US structural problems. Buckl Jr is rather inconsistent in his argument. He is constantly ducking the issue to justify and excuse the structural problems of that society. His intervention represents the usual victimisation of the white westerner.

This performance is stripped of any performativity. The actors on stage merely say the words of each speaker simultaneously with the original voices recorded live. The actors’ presence doesn’t add anything to the scene, making it childish and confusing. During the play I found myself looking more at the screens showing the debate than at the actors playing it. I guess there would have been little difference in my experience if I had watched this debate on YouTube. This play thrives on the concept and the urgent issue it brings to the table: it certainly is an essential reference for anti-racism.

Teleculinária is the most recent collaboration between Mala Voadora and British playwright Chris Thorpe, the play’s author. It premiered on November 28 at Escola do Largo, in Lisbon, and was presented on December 13 at Teatro Municipal da Guarda, during the Critics School event (the aforementioned play was shown in the same context). This play makes it clear that even a cake can have a political speech. The creation, translation and interpretation are made by Maria Jorge, the co-creation and video by Rita Barbosa, the set and costume design by José Capela and the technical direction by João Fonte.

The costumes stand out. The flaming leather high-heeled boots reach the character’s knees. They are wonderful and represent a possible image of how that woman would look like. Maria Jorge acts with great intensity. Her theatrical research is geared towards the encounter between her life and that of the character. Maria Jorge does not act according to the classic canons of Stanislavski’s theatre, for instance. Her gestures are accurate and her presence is charged with meaning. The theatrical aesthetics of this performance belongs to the contemporary (but not new) tendency of making acting (of performing) without automatic recourse to representation, embarking on a personal quest for actions and tensions that are born parallel to the relationship with the character. Teleculinária explores the relationship between the body and the video. The projected videos are extremely well prepared and enhance the show’s aesthetic quality. The stage design boils down to this relationship, which results in an intimate environment between actress and spectator. The cake and its symbolism are dealt with as political analogies. The character has devised a cake ideologically: made exclusively with national products and put together in a balanced, stable way, just like the society she aspires to: balanced and stable. A society in which all people are governed by the same values, “true values” rooted in tradition and history. This cake is intended to be pictured at a moment of celebration: an attempt designed by herself. This is a claim on behalf of a political change in the country.

The analogy to the far right and the Portuguese political party Chega are obvious. This play is an example of the so-called political theatre, as it deals with populism and the different nationalisms around the world. It refers to an increasingly divided and polarised society. Playwright Chris Thorpe invites us to follow a woman who, as a reminder of the need for a society with strict values, prepares a terrorist action.

Rodrigo Fonseca (1995, Sintra). He studied at António Arroio, has a degree in History of Art and a master in Performing Arts from FCSH/UNL. He was co-founder of the publishing house CusCus Discus and of the festival Dia Aberto às Artes. Besides Umbigo magazine, he writes music criticism for Rimas e Batidas. He is a sound technician specialized in concerts and shows and resident artist at the cultural association DARC.

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