Tropical Babylon

Marcel Duchamp, Rotorrelevos, 1935


Considerations about the production directed by Marcos Damigo


In the theater play Tropical Babylon: the nostalgia of sugar, the period of Dutch domination in Brazil is the backdrop for the presentation of the mythical Ana Paes, a figure in the historiography of the period whose fame is linked to her libertarian character and a note addressed to Maurício de Nassau. The epistolary attempt with the Flemish commander was seen by history as parsimonious, full of interests in a quest to build a typical clientelistic relationship with the powerful of the time, characteristics that would highlight an impetus for submission in exchange for protection and economic opportunities under the rule. Dutch in Pernambuco.

The interpretations of the letter to Nassau have always been marked by accusations of betrayal of the Crown by Ana Paes, but also by the subversion of condescension to the condition of women in the 1600s, by the promises of freedom attributed to Dutch Calvinism, especially in relation to life of women and, the most controversial of the brands, a flirtation addressed to the Count of Nassau.

Another interpretative line of the history of Pernambuco, clearly adopted by the play, is that of Ana Paes, a slave owner. In the text, which takes place today, the character is constructed by an actress who must represent her in the theater while, in this process, she acts alongside four other characters, including two black people whose function is to oppose to the bad white conscience the denunciation of the slave exploitation of the past.

The search to remove the narrative focus from the character, in an attempt to subvert even her status as main character, does not exempt itself from the attempt to present her based on a complex construction, however, the task is unsuccessful – and the same is repeated with the other characters. The failure of this construction is due to the guiding thread of the entire text, that is, the reproduction of the discourse of part of today's hegemonic identity movements, in the tone of a podcast program discussion.

Not only the character Ana Paes, the historical representation within the actress-character's attempt at staging, but especially problematic is the characterization of the black characters, wasted powers, who are assigned the role of spokespersons for a denunciation that reduces them to mere issuers of a discourse full of ideological expressions.


What we will say is that in the attempt to problematize secular racism, black people, here, are, once again, deprived of action and reduced to the role of supporting actor, voice of the victim's discourse and characterized by a one-way reactive aspect, something which the text contradictorily intends to overcome.

The dichotomous essentialism of the white colonizer, portrayed as today's alienated individual compared to the emerging conscious black person, constrains the viewer. In the plot, five actors, three men, two white and one black and two women, also one white and one black, try to build a play based on the initiative of these white people.

The text's theme is precisely the protagonist from Pernambuco and the entire conflict on stage takes place in the construction of the perspective adopted by the authors of this future show. In the scene, the character appears in front of a table full of crumpled papers – two temporalities seem to contrast there, the attempts to start the text/letter on the part of the actress and author and Ana Paes herself, who comes to life almost as if by a projection onto the character-actress.

The author's desire to amalgamate the slave-owning white of the past with the white man of today stands out to the viewer, not only through the forced subtleties of the interpretation, but through the omniscient voice of another character, the black actress. His entry onto the scene takes place through the audience – this will be repeated with the character of the black actor. It's like the entry of a critical consciousness that comes from outside the scene that the character arrives at the place and encounters those characters.

Therefore, she is faced with the afflictions of a frivolous white woman castellated and in search of the character she will have to play at some point. Such an entry could not happen in a worse way. The character emulates a caricature of the activist who unloads, without mediation, concepts reduced to a verbiage that encompasses the terms of whiteness, corporeality, privileges, representativeness, identity; like a post on a social network.

In militancy, she would be the caricature of the pseudo-militant, as she was reduced to the spokesperson for a didactic denunciation for the bourgeois to see. A similar caricature is that of the young white intellectual, who appears on the scene as a so-called critical consciousness ready to consolidate the ideology of “whiteness” in the construction of the protagonist character, alienated from his racial and class condition that doesn’t-know-what- speak-because-you-don't-suffer-nor-do-you-want-to-listen, we, the victims.

The fourth character enters and leaves the scene as yet another critical conscience that comes from outside – and doesn’t know where to go. The actor, a black man, gives his turn to yet another character who enters the scene to give voice to racial denunciation in the form of an appeal to the conscience of white people, always through a historical recovery of the condition of black people yesterday and today. There is also a fifth character, the musician who actually performs the show's soundtrack and who participates in the performance as an interfering voice – offering no more than that...

Added to the picture are the sugar baths taken by the white actors that are displayed on screens at the back of the stage, the sugar resulting from slave exploitation – an intertextual redundancy of dubious aesthetics. The characters' impasses also occur between the not-so-hidden desire of the whites to condescend to the condition of the slave owner Ana Paes in the face of the black actors who would not even accept the character's performance. And this reduces the condition of these last two.

The dramatic solution is an insurmountable plea for conscience, which becomes a moral lesson. Black people have no action, they just suffer. And he complains. Once again, black people are portrayed only as victims, individuals devoid of agency. In the past of criticism, we would say, not without some harshness, that the play suffers from historical relativism (in the text, the temporal interrelation slips in jumps without any mediation) or even from pamphleteer didacticism, especially due to the simplism in the construction of the loaded characters of stereotypes.

The moral lesson is skewed by a lack of solution to racial problems in Brazil when the black character says to the white person: “You are racist. Even if you don’t recognize it, privilege puts you in that position.” What these privileges are and how they are socially distributed, whether they are reduced there, is beside the point. When the victim becomes uncomplicated by attributing all of his or her yoke to the other, he or she loses the possibility of action. This is what the play takes from black people, the strength of the setback.


The performance in Pernambuco was well used by the direction and actors, who were able to establish to some extent a space-time connection, especially in front of a mostly middle-class audience, with many well-known nostalgic people nostalgic for colonial Pernambuco, proud of the achievements of the economy in the past. of sugarcane exploitation that hide the suffering of the land and of men and women.

The creative work required the author of the piece to dedicate himself to research at the Archaeological, Geographic and Historical Institute of Pernambuco as well as other institutions, which did not seem to be reflected in its results. The text remained as a great promise of writing a history against the grain which, however – although it is unnecessary to repeat – is hostage to a hasty and ideological discourse, which underestimates the public's intelligence and fails to achieve what it intends to do: help us fill in the gaps in that history.

* André Ricardo Dias Professor of Philosophy at the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of Sertão Pernambucano (IF Sertão PE).

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