Americans have been voracious consumers of Latin culture easily since the westward expansion that led to the Mexican American war. Yet, for all our consumption of music, dance, art, and cuisine, we remain generally ignorant of the history of Central and South American Theater and its profound influence on our own stage. At this time, it is worthwhile to explore the rich history of theater in Latin America.
Similar to the growth and development of theater in the West, Latin American theater began in Aztec, Mayan, and Incan roots. These groups performed songs, dances, and festivals to honor their gods. From the Yaucuicatl songs dedicated to the Aztec gods of war to the Mayan Dance of Conquest depicting the Spanish invasion of their lands, these aboriginal groups used performance as an expression of wants and needs while also employing them as a means to understand the world around them.
With the invasion of the Spanish, the performing arts changed direction significantly. Out of that influence rose two particularly interesting forms. The Sainete is a brief farce usually accompanied by music while the Zarzuelaa was a more realistic and dramatic form. Both involved song, dance, and brightly colored costumes that are closely associated with Latin American culture.
While theater in the United States became fixated on realism, political theater controlled the landscape in Latin American countries. The focus was more on raising social awareness than a strict adherence to any “rules” of the stage. The original movement was called the “Nuestra America.” It sought to dramatically pull the countries of Central and South America out of their colonial identity into a more current and meaningful landscape. It is impossible to imagine the United States only being known as derivative of its English cultural forebears, but a lot of Latin America was dominated by that impression from the rest of the world.
Some amazing playwrights rose out of Nuestra America. Maria Irene Fornes was born in Cuba and her work certainly grew out of a need to strengthen cultural and personal identity while studying in the United States and Paris. She won an Obie for her work, The Conduct of Life, about a soldier who torments his wife, their maid, and a young woman he holds hostage. Luis Valdez brought this dramatic tradition more directly to the United States with his important masterwork Zoot Suit. Ariel Dorfman’s play about Pinochet’s coup in Chile, Death and the Maiden was made into a film by Roman Polanski. It combines political and personal terror in a unique way frighteningly familiar in Latin America.
One of the most important theater practitioners of the 20th century is Augosto Boal. This Brazilian theater artist was responsible for the creation of Theater of the Oppressed. This is a form that uses theater for promoting social and political change. As with the work of Brecht, Theater of the Oppressed is designed to keep the audience active and in dialogue with the performer. Much of Boal’s work has expanded the boundaries of what we consider art and where we understand theater to take place. Essentially, Boal sees everything as potentially theatrical and then also potentially changeable by the same theatrical devices we see in plays.
Some less esoteric but incredibly powerful forms that persist to this day in Latin America are Carnivale and Candomble. These both recall the ancient performances of the Aztec, Incas, and Mayan people within the European context of Catholicism. Condomble adds the element of Afro-Brazilian culture into the mix, creating a truly unique artistic experience. That is where Latin American theater has a lot to say to the world. There has been a true conglomeration of the cultures that share the continent in a way that is unique in the world. Through this practice, something new and completely distinct has arisen that is fascinating intellectually and profound emotionally. There are some things so meaningful, they will jump over any wall.
Check out some of BroadwayHD's South American titles through Teatrix.