“…a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.”
Michel Foucault, Des Autres Espaces
25 Junho 2017
Teatro Oficina, Bixiga, São Paulo, Brasil
Bixiga lies in the belly of São Paulo. Once home to the Tupiniquim, this patch of the Paratininga plateau has digested five centuries of development. A seething, concrete palimpsest, both built up and buffeted by incessant waves of immigration. A messy mesh of peripheries nested in the centre of Brazil’s economic powerhouse, flanked by avenues of affluence.
Bixiga does not exist. The municipal authorities recognize the area as Bela Vista (“beautiful view”) – a canny rebrand with uncanny consequences. This is a place outside of space and time, within which so many different spaces and times exist.
Teatro Oficina sits on the edge of Bixiga, resting in the shadow of the Minhocão (“giant earthworm”), an elevated highway that roars through São Paulo’s urban centre. Built between 1970 and 1971 during the military dictatorship, the Minhocão’s path was brutally designed to tear its way through Bixiga, skilfully avoiding the wealthy neighbouring boroughs. But its long, dark underbelly offered shelter for new communities to grow. Bixiga appropriated the regenerative power of the Minhocão, soon engulfing the mighty viaduct into its mass of sprawling structures.
Meanwhile, Teatro Oficina was also regenerating. Having burned down in 1966, the theatre was partially rebuilt until being fully renovated in 1984 by Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi. The converted office block now stands as a living monument to the bold multi-layered heterogeneity of Bixiga and Brazil.
From the outside, the theatre looks more like an auto repair shop than a cultural hub. I would have assumed I had the wrong address were it not for the jostling throng gathering there. Noisy chatter begins to drown out the Minhocão’s roar.
I have come to see Macumba Antropófaga, the revival of a play devised by Teatro Oficina in 2008 to celebrate their 50th anniversary. The piece is an adaptation of Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago, paying homage to the cannibal theories upon which both the theatre and the wider Tropicalismo movement were founded.
The crowd is silenced by the sound of a bass drum. After four beats, the chanting begins and the crowd is led away from the theatre, down the street and through Bixiga.
“Entra na roda, cobra grande”1
These words ring out as we snake through the borough’s winding roads. Everyone is singing and dancing. Costumes and makeup seem to be spreading through the crowd like some colourful contagion. A tambourine is thrust into my hands from nowhere. What was before an indiscriminate mob of plain-clothed pedestrians has become a cohesive uniformed chorus, marching and playing in harmony.
Our journey through Bixiga is punctuated by brief scenes of dialogue and mysterious rituals, one outside the home of Oswald, another by the old comedy theatre. Even these rehearsed displays appear to be spontaneous and organic. There is no audience. The spectators have been swallowed by the actors. And now we return to the theatre, pouring into its shadowy depths.
As intended by Bo Bardi, the interior is an extension of the exterior, an extension of Bixiga, an extension of Brazil. Arranged in a partial traverse, the stage is a long narrow strip surrounded by scaffold seating that reaches up to the ceiling, three-stories high. A vast row of windows looks out over Parque Bixiga, whose foliage appears to pour in, infiltrating the stage. Among the drooping fronds, a full electric band is already set up. A troop of camera and boom operators circle us as we proceed onto the stage. There are several screens dotted around the cavernous auditorium, broadcasting our own images back at us. Blackout.
Lights up as audience members are beckoned into the seats. Actors race around the stage and up into the scaffolding. They change each other’s clothes and redo makeup as they continue to sing and dance. Between the stage and the screens, you can see at least four different scenes playing out at once.
This frenetic energy somehow continues to build throughout the six-hour show, as the cast guides us through the Manifesto’s labyrinth of cultural references, interpreting and reworking each of its proclamations. Just as aggressively appropriative and satirical as the original, they weave in figures of contemporary politics, including President Michel Temer, Donald Trump and Theresa May, presented as grotesque, ghoulish embodiments of modern capitalist decadence. Meanwhile the music is constantly changing genre, from candomblé beats to covers of 90s American pop.
While trying to follow the complex web of plot lines and characters –both on stage and on the screen– up high in scaffolds and down under our seats, I realise that everyone is naked. All clothes have been purged from the space and now the audience are being beckoned from their seats. The stage is filling with nude bodies, covered only by paint and sweat. Once again spectators are consumed by the spectacle. Theresa May grabs my waistband, playfully coaxing me to strip. My trousers were a barrier between the interior and the exterior.
“O que atrapalhava a verdade era a roupa, o impermeável entre o mundo interior e o mundo exterior”2
I leave the theatre exhausted. I have lost all sense of time and space. I am covered in red paint. The Minhocão’s roar has calmed to a rumble. I wander back through the streets of Bixiga. Theresa May passes me on a bicycle, gliding into the night.