Performing Brazilian Culture (Race and Gender on Stage)

Monday, Nov 23, 2020

By Michelle Tong

The concept and practice of performance spans a wide range from dance, music, and poetry to sports and film.

In POR 304: “Performing Brazilian Culture (Race and Gender on Stage)” taught by Professor Marília Librandi and graduate student Mauricio Acuña, students explored and engaged with Brazilian culture using the lens of performance while also analyzing underlying social and contemporary topics involving race and gender. These topics included systemic racism and gender injustice in relation to Afro-Brazilian, Indigenous people, immigrants, and other minority groups.

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“Performance is an activity that involves the body in action: voice, gestures and movement. Students earned a perceptive, cultural, and physical understanding simultaneously. They were encouraged to research and embody diverse aspects of Brazilian cultures, through a creative play of a virtual performance,” said Librandi and Acuña. “As part of the recent political outcomes of race and gender systemic violence in the U.S. and Brazil, we chose to teach performance in relation to Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous manifestations of poetry, fiction, films, dance, sports, music, theatre, plastic arts and religion. The intense participation of students evidences a strong commitment to innovative research, to criticize race and gender stereotypes, and to recreate cultural manifestations.”

Students were challenged to combine the creative aspects of developing group performances with the research component of addressing social topics in Brazilian culture through collaboration with their peers and participation in conversations with artists and scholars from Brazil and the U.S. Guest speakers during the semester have included award-winning illustrator Marcelo D’Salete, writer and indigenous leader Ailton Krenak, outstanding poet Jarid Arraes, anthropologist and activist Christine Zonzon, and University of São Paulo Professor and Visiting Professor at Princeton, Lilia Schwarcz.

The course was designed as a “Princeton Challenge”, an online course design template by the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning to emphasize service and undergraduate research. This course was also selected for the 250th Anniversary Innovation Fund which supports undergraduate courses for innovation in undergraduate studies.

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Coley Martin '23 presents during class.

“As someone who studies Civil and Environmental Engineering, I didn't initially expect for there to be a lot of cross-over between my research interests and POR304. However, I quickly realized that the idea of performativity relates to architecture and environmental justice, which are two fields I'm interested in,” said sophomore Coley Martin.

Martin added, “I think there is a misconception that the work of an engineer is algorithmic. However, as with other fields of engineering, the work of a civil and environmental engineer must incorporate aesthetics and creativity, and in this way, is also a performance.“

Throughout the semester, students were given the opportunity to showcase their performances and in turn, teach the class about the different facets of culture that might not be traditionally considered as performative.

“I think I was most surprised about just how many aspects of Brazilian culture (and culture in general) is and can be performative,” said Daniel Benitez, a senior concentrating in Spanish and Portuguese. “For example, one of the groups focused on sports and, until this class, I never really thought about how sports fans engage in performance; chants/cheers, face paint, gear, etc., all contribute to the performance of being a fan!”

Francisca Weirich-Freiberg, a senior, noted that, “One of the most interesting aspects of this course is that we are creating virtual performances. Through thinking out my group's performance and watching the works of other groups, I have been gaining new ideas for performances and being introduced to new performative possibilities.”

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In POR 304, students are tasked with creating virtual performances that embody diverse aspects of Brazilian cultures.

Despite the challenges of facilitating an engaging online course, the students of “Performing Brazilian Culture (Race and Gender on Stage)” found that the collaboration and creative aspects of the course have resulted in them making new connections with their classmates and guest speakers, all while gaining a deeper understanding of Brazilian culture.

“The students have had a triple challenge: to create the content, to develop its expression as performance, and to overcome the limitations of a virtual setting,” said Librandi and Acuña. “The fact that they have worked in small groups, and that they have collaborated and given feedback to each other, has created a sense of internal community, in addition to local contacts they had in Brazil through interviews and invited guests.”

Sophomore Diana Espindola said, “I believe the biggest takeaways from this course are the friendships with classmates, connections with different speakers and members of the Spanish and Portuguese department, and an understanding of how to view race and gender issues.”