Capoeira-based action musical tells of the escaped slave republic Palmares
Phillipos Haile (l.), Felicia "Onyi Richards, Nasr Ismail. | Photo by Gustavo Leon

LOS ANGELES — These are woke times in the theater! This past weekend I saw a play about the women of the French Revolution including a Haitian Marianne demanding the end of slavery in the colonies and the independence of Saint-Domingue. And the next night (June 3) a musical drama about the Republic of Palmares that resisted the Portuguese in the Northeast of Brazil for almost a century (1605-1694). Take that, you fascist deniers, banners, and censors!

Let’s visit them chronologically—Brazil today, Paris tomorrow.

Decades ago, Communist historian Herbert Aptheker was among the very first to document that where there is slavery, there’s going to be resistance—rebellion, escape, sabotage, and in many instances the establishment of free communities, often in hard-to-reach swamplands, bayous and mountain redoubts. Such places existed all throughout the Americas—North, South, and the Caribbean.

Palmares was historically one of the longest such places in existence, pointedly calling itself a “republic,” recalling a form of democracy from the ancient world even before the first modern republic was declared (France, 1792). This republic had its great warrior King Ganga Zumba.

Felicia ‘Onyi’ Richards, Drew Love, Maurice Shaw. | Photo by Gia Trovela

Political uncertainty helped give rise to the settlement of Palmares. For a time, Portuguese rule in the Brazilian Northeast, then the most developed part of a vast subcontinent still largely unexplored by the European invaders, was challenged by the Dutch. So while the Portuguese forces were distracted, some of the enslaved African population, mostly engaged in sugar production in the coastal regions, saw their opportunity to slip away. Eventually, the republic they built, their jungle paradise of Palmares, comprised a territory larger than that of Portugal itself, forswearing loyalty to the Portuguese crown which had only brought them exile, the whip and the chain.

As a successful, economically productive, and well-organized society free of slavery, Palmares attracted not only escaped Africans, but also Indigenous from the region, people of mixed racial identity, and even some whites, such as conscripted Portuguese soldiers who made common cause with the republic. The combination of knowledge about crops, land use, building trades, defense, animal husbandry, industry, and trade, made for a fully functioning society where a new model of human happiness flourished, albeit under constant threat from the Portuguese.

By 1675, when the play is set, some 30,000 free men and women are living in their Palmares nation. Their children are born free of the curse of slavery. Once the Dutch have been defeated and expelled, the Portuguese redouble their efforts to conquer and subjugate the republic.

Comparisons to modern history are inevitable: What kind of example to the world does a non-aligned Cuba or Chile or Venezuela set?—or Vietnam or Libya or Grenada? Such symbols of resistance to imperialist oppression must be destroyed!

The Portuguese are persistent. Despite their best efforts at self-defense, the inhabitants of Palmares are not always capable of monitoring the entry of spies and traitors into their midst. (One character in the play is the Bush Captain, a Black man who hunts down people of his own kind for ransom.) The Portuguese are aware that King Ganga Zumba is getting old and tired now. He would like to make peace and avoid fighting a bloody, perhaps suicidal war. His earlier signs of mercy, releasing captured Portuguese prisoners, are interpreted as signs of weakness. He also would like to believe that the Portuguese have exhausted their treasury and now seek peace.

The Portuguese governor in Recife, the main coastal city and capital of Pernambuco, offers a peace treaty in exchange for the escapees’ return to a fertile plantation named Cacaú near the coast and closer to the authorities. There, although given a limited local autonomy, they will once again fall under the aegis of the Portuguese crown (and over time, having lost their independence, perhaps can be effectively reenslaved—slavery in Brazil was not abolished until 1888).

Amen Santo. | Photo by Gustavo Leon

King Ganga Zumba and his entourage are invited to Recife, where people line the streets to witness their arrival. They are wined and dined, honored and feted as equal powers to the Portuguese, and promised a future of peace and comfort. Governor Almeida is at once seductive, flattering, and threatening as he sets his last and best offer before the king.

But the king’s General Zumbi, Palmares-born, younger and bolder, knows the Portuguese and sees through their deceitful trap. Part of the Governor’s deal is “full pardon for your people,” but what crime have they committed? The proposed treaty also states that Cacaú must return all runaways to their masters. Zumbi prefers to go on defending the Republic of Palmares, believing the Portuguese are offering nothing the citizens of Palmares don’t already have. If the Portuguese truly want peace, they should just leave Palmares alone! Indeed, even in Brazil as a whole, slaves on the plantations outnumber the whites four-to-one, so if anything, with the right leadership, the entire land could instead become part of one big Palmares.

A power struggle between the two great leaders unleashes a kind of civil war, and in the unsettled times that follow, with part of the population decamping to Cacaú and the rest remaining to fight to the death, their unity is broken. Eventually, the independent state is destroyed.

All this is told with blessings and incantations to the African spirits, and animated dance, song, drumming, and movements typical of Brazilian candomblé, comparable to santería or voodoo in other Western Hemisphere expressions of diaspora African culture. Capoeira, highly evolved into a thrilling, athletic dance form without disguising its roots as a martial art, is much in display among the highlights of the 90-minute pageant.

Palmares is part of the 2023 Hollywood Fringe Festival. Conceived years ago in another form and now enjoying its latest elaboration, it was scripted by Vayabobo on a story by himself, Maurice Shaw, and Amen Santo, and directed by Shaw and Vayabobo. Produced by Nayla Santo and Earl Cole, it is presented by Brasil Brasil Cultural Center, a Brazilian arts organization in L.A. The choreographer is Ashley Monique Blanchard and the musical director is George Karpasitis. The sound design is by Karpasitis and Amen Santo. Costume design is by Sanni  Diesner. The critical stunt coordinator is Phillipos Haile.

The cast includes Ashley Monique Blanchard, Eurico Senna, Evan Cristo, Felicia “Onyi” Richards, Jelani Lateef, Amen Santo (as Ganga Zumba), Marquisha Walker, Maurice Shaw, Melvin Dawyan Oliver, Oshunde Shango Oshun, Phillipos Haile (as Zumbi), Ricky T. Johnson, Gulu Monteiro, Singa Diesner and Tulani Simone. In his one scene as the duplicitous Governor Almeida, People’s World contributor Peter Lownds, the applauded translator of Urariano Mota’s revolutionary novel Never-Ending Youth (International Publishers), does an especially insinuating turn.

Palmares is a compelling story of a people fighting to preserve their freedom against the imperialism of their time, told in the most accessible and exuberant way possible. This true history is the stuff of which legends are made.

If you travel south from Recife today, in the state of Pernambuco, you will pass the town of present-day Palmares, and then cross into the small state of Alagoas, whose capital city is Maceió. As of December 1999, the international airport there (MCZ) is named after Zumbi dos Palmares (1645–1695), nationally recognized among the pioneers of resistance to slavery in Brazil.

Palmares plays at the Broadwater (Main Stage), 1076 Lillian Way, in Hollywood, just around the corner south of Santa Monica Blvd. Additional performances take place Sat., June 10 at 8:00 p.m.; Fri., June 16 at 6:30 p.m.; Sat., June 17 at 12:30 p.m.; and Sun., June 25 at 1:00 p.m. For online ticketing go here.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.