The theater inside of me

Abdias founded the Black Experimental Theater (TEN) to confront the lack of representativeness and dignity of black people in the national performing arts. From 1944 to 1961, the company staged leading foreign works and paved the way to the creation of a typically Afro-Brazilian playwriting.

He also played a part beyond the stage. He promoted literacy courses and debates, published his own newspaper, Quilombo, and provided black people with psychological support. The TEN brought the anti-racism fight to the 1946 Constituent Assembly and influenced the proposition of the Afonso Arinos Act, the first legislation geared to curb racism.

Abdias Nascimento como Othelo, personagem de Shakespeare, no Teatro Fênix, Rio de Janeiro (RJ)
Abdias Nascimento as Othello, Shakespeare's character, at Teatro Fênix, Rio de Janeiro (RJ) | Ipeafro's Collection



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Black Experimental Theater: history and legacy


Timeline – Black Experimental Theater

1943 – Abdias leaves jail after advocating for himself. While in Sao Paulo, he goes for support to develop the project of a black theater. With the help of writer Fernando Góes, he meets with Mário de Andrade, who shows no enthusiasm for the idea. Return to Rio de Janeiro, where he begins to work as a temporary librarian of Palácio do Catete. The Black Experimental Theater (TEN) is created.

1945 – The Emperor Jones, put on by the TEN, premieres at the Teatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro. Along with intellectuals of the old Brazilian Black Front, Abdias organizes the National Convention of Brazilian Blacks. During his address on The Blacks and Democracy, he announces (through the Manifesto da Convenção Nacional do Negro à Nação Brasileira [Manifesto of the Black National Convention to the Brazilian Nation]) the reasons for his breakup with integralism and foreshadows the first anti-racism law, which would eventually be incorporated into the future Constitution enacted in 1946.

1946 – Under the flag of the TEN, Abdias promotes the Black National Convention in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The event is the inception of the Manifesto à Nação Brasileira [Manifesto to the Brazilian Nation], which will provide the grounds for the proposition to be forwarded to the Brazilian Constituent Assembly, convened in 1946.

1949 – In his visit to Brazil, Albert Camus attends the reading of his play Caligula done by the TEN’s actors.

1950 – With the TEN, Abdias promotes the 1st Congress of Brazilian Blacks and, as a result of the debates held during the event, the idea to create the Museu de Arte Negra [Museum of Black Art] under his curatorship emerges.

1957 – The TEN stages, at the Teatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro, Sortilege – Black Mystery, a play written by Abdias in 1951.

1960 – Cast for a part in Cinco Vezes Favela [Five Times Slum].

1961 – Abdias goes to Cuba at the invitation of the Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos [Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples] for the celebration of the second anniversary of the Revolution. On that occasion, pictures of the TEN are displayed and Abdias lectures at Casa de las Américas and the Dramatic Art Department of the Teatro Nacional, directed at the time by Mirta Aguirre. Gathering articles written by several authors for the TEN, Abdias coordinates the publication of the book titled Dramas para Negros e Prólogo para Brancos [Drama to Blacks and a Prologue to Whites].

1962 – Abdias becomes a member of the Partido Trabalhista Brasileiro [Brazilian Labor Party] (PTB) of Leonel Brizola.

1963 – Travels again to Cuba and meets black activist Carlos Moore.

1964 – The TEN celebrates its 20th anniversary by promoting an Introductory Course to Black Theater and the Black Arts. Some of the prominent speakers include Florestan Fernandes, Grande Otelo, Alceu Amoroso Lima, Thiers Martins Moreira, Raimundo Souza Dantas, Edison Carneiro, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, and Abdias himself.

1968 – Opening exhibition of the Museu de Arte Negra [Museum of Black Art] at the Museu da Imagem e do Som [Museum of Image and Sound] (MIS) in Rio de Janeiro as conceived by Abdias Nascimento. Mentored by Sebastian Januário, Abdias begins to devote himself to painting.

Abdias publishes O Negro Revoltado [The Black Rebel] and organizes a seminar and a book about the 80 years of the abolition of slavery for Cadernos Brasileiros magazine. In October, he lands in the United States as a Fairfield Foundation’s scholarship student. Scheduled for a month-long, the end of the trip coincides with the enactment of the Institutional Act No. 5 (AI-5) and Abdias Nascimento is debarred from returning to Brazil. Exiled, he would return to his country only in 1981.


Peça Todos os Filhos de Deus Têm Asas: Ruth de Souza e Abdias Nascimento
All God's Chillun Got Wings: Ruth de Souza and Abdias Nascimento | Ipeafro's Collection


Much more than a theater

Sede da UNE no Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro (RJ), 1944: aula de alfabetização e cultura geral para adultos, organizada pelo do TEN e ministrada pelo professor Ironides Rodrigues |
Headquarters of the União Nacional dos Estudantes [Brazilian Students' Union] (UNE) in Flamengo, Rio de Janeiro (RJ), 1944: lesson of literacy and general culture for adults, organized by the TEN and given by Ironides Rodrigues | Ipeafro's Collection




List of plays staged by the TEN

The Emperor Jones

It was the view of this play put on in Lima, Peru, with a cast formed by white actors with their faces painted black, that made Abdias Nascimento start thinking about a group that would ultimately become the Black Experimental Theater. Written by Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), the play was staged at TEN’s premiere at the Theatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro in 1945 directed by Abdias.



The classic of English playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was staged as a sketch in December 1946 as part of the program of TEN’s Second Anniversary Festival. The protagonists were Abdias (Othello) and Cacilda Becker (Desdemona).

The Dreamy Kid

The program of TEN’s Second Anniversary Festival also included the play The Dreamy Kid, written by Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) and featuring Abdias in the leading role. Also in the cast were actresses Ruth de Souza, Marina Gonçalves, and Ilena Teixeira. Directed by Willy Keller.


All God’s Chillun Got Wings

Owing to the success of the first staging of a work by Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953), the TEN decided to bet on another play of this author. Then in July 1946 All God’s Chillun Got Wings premiered. Directed by Aguinaldo Camargo (1918-1952).


O Filho Pródigo [The Prodigal Son]

The first play written especially for the TEN, O Filho Pródigo [The Prodigal Son], signed by Lúcio Cardoso (1913-1968), was a free adaptation of the homonymic biblical parable. It was the first play written by a Brazilian playwright brought to the stage by the TEN and it was performed in December 1947 (set design by Santa Rosa and costume design by Nadir de Andrade), May 1953, and July 1955 (with set and costume designs by Anízio Medeiros).


Castro Alves Recital

Held on March 31, 1947 at Teatro Fênix, in Rio de Janeiro, the recital was directed by Abdias Nascimento, set design by Santa Rosa and musical collaboration of Gentil Puget and Abigail Moura. Among the artists who performed in varying numbers were Ruth de Souza, Marina Gonçalves, Aguinaldo Camargo, and Neusa Paladino.

Terras do Sem Fim [Endless Lands]

In August 1947, the TEN staged Terras do sem Fim [Endless Lands] in collaboration with Os Comediantes. Written by Jorge Amado (1912-2001), the play was adapted by actor Graça Mello (1914-1979), and was directed by Polish Zygmunt Turkov (1896-1970) and had set design by Santa Rosa.
Playing from December 23, 1948 to January 2, 1949, Aruanda, by Joaquim Ribeiro, put together dance, poetry and singing to talk about the coexistence of the Afro-Brazilian gods with mortals. The staging caused the appearance of Brasiliana, a group formed by dancers, singers, and percussionists which toured Europe for nearly ten years.


A Família e a Festa na Roça [The Family and the Party on the Farm]

In partnership with the Serviço Nacional de Teatro [National Theater Service], in December 1948 the TEN staged A Família e a Festa na Roça [The Family and the Party on the Farm], a play by Martins Pena. Directed by Dulcina de Moraes, who was also working in this project, plus set and costume designs by Santa Rosa, the play featured in the cast Abdias Nascimento, Ruth de Souza, Bibi Ferreira, and Jardel Filho, among others.


Filhos de Santo [Sons of the Saint]

Staged in March and April 1949 in two theaters – Ginástico and Regina, in Rio de Janeiro –, written by José Morais de Pinheiro and directed by Abdias, the play tells the story of workers from Recife, state of Pernambuco, between candomblé and a police chase. Set design by Santa Rosa.


Calígula [Caligula]

Based on the text by Algerian philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960), the show failed to raise the funds needed. Hence, only the 1st act was performed once to the author at Teatro Ginástico, in 1949, followed by a couple of songs played by the Orquestra Afro-Brasileira [Afro-Brazilian Orchestra] and dance performed by Mercedes Batista. Directed by Abdias; costume and set designs by Santa Rosa.


Rhapsody in Black

Written and directed by Abdias, this play staged in 1952 marked the “debut of two noteworthy artists,” according to the director: dancer Mercedes Batista and actress Léa Garcia. The show was put on in July, October and November of that year with different choreographers and composers to each edition.


O’Neill Festival

Held in 1954 at Teatro Dulcina, in Rio de Janeiro, it comprises the performance of scenes from plays by Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953). On stage, the audience could see All God’s Chillun Got WingsWhere the Cross is Made, and The Emperor Jones – the latter is the TEN’s debut play. Abdias directed and acted.


Orfeu da Conceição [Orpheus of the Conception]

Written by Vinicius de Moraes, with music composed by Tom Jobim (and this is the first collaboration between the two), set design by Oscar Niemeyer, and a cast composed of Abdias and other actors from the TEN, the play – which combines Greek mythology and the imaginary of the slums in Rio – was put on in 1956.


Perdoa-me por Me Traíres [Forgive Me for Cuckolding Me]

Written by playwright Nelson Rodrigues, the play was staged in 1957 featuring Abdias and Nelson Rodrigues himself.


Sortilege: Black Mystery

This text by Abdias discusses the search for an identity by following the story of a black man who sees himself distant from both the European and the African cultures. It was staged at the Theatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro in 1957.


Convite para o Grande Baile Caipira em homenagem ao concurso Boneca de Pixe de 1948, promovido pelo TEN. O evento aconteceu dia 26 de junho de 1948 na Casa do Estudante do Brasil
Invitation to the Grand Countrified Ball as a tribute to the 1948 Boneca de Pixe [Pitch Doll] contest, sponsored by the TEN. The event took place on June 26, 1948 at Casa do Estudante do Brasil | Ipeafro's Collection


Matrizes do jornal Quilombo, editado por Abdias Nascimento e que discutia vários temas relacionados às questões raciais no Brasil
Matrices of the Quilombo periodical, published by Abdias Nascimento and which discussed various subjects related to the racial issues in Brazil | Ipeafro's Collection


O Nosso Jornal de 5 de junho de 1943: primeiro exemplar de publicação dos sentenciados da Penitenciária de São Paulo
O Nosso Jornal dated June 5, 1943: the first copy of the periodical published by the convicts withheld at Penitenciária de São Paulo, the local prison | Ipeafro's Collection


Programa original do espetáculo Sortilégio: Mistério Negro, apresentado no Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro nos dias 21, 23, 24 e 25 de agosto de 1957
Original program of Sortilege: Black Mystery, staged at the Teatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro on August 21, 23, 24, and 25, 1957 | Ipeafro's Collection


Jornal do Brasil (31/05/1989) - Caderno Cidade – Tim Lopes:
Jornal do Brasil (05/31/1989) - Caderno Cidade – Tim Lopes: "Cidade revê musical com elenco negro" [City sees musical again with black cast]