Being outspoken about trans rights is dangerous in an increasingly conservative Brazil. Nick Awde speaks to trans actor Renata Carvalho about her work as a campaigner and actor
Brazil is a country beset by homophobia and transphobia, with the highest-reported murder rate for queer and trans people in the world, according to LGBT+ watchdog Grupo Gay da Bahia. In a country that’s strongly Catholic it’s not somewhere you’d imagine putting on a play that casts Jesus as a trans woman, let alone touring it for four years.
But then you may not have imagined Renata Carvalho, the trans artist and activist who stars in the Portuguese-language version of Jo Clifford’s The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven.
When Clifford first performed her solo play in Glasgow – as part of Glasgay! in 2009 – there were protests, threats made against her and attempts to shut it down. And when Carvalho launched O Evangelho Segundo Jesus, Rainha do Céu in 2016, it stirred up its own national storm – in a country with 167 reported murders of trans and gender-diverse people last year. Put simply, this is a play that is dangerous to perform, a show where attendance is a political act.
And yet Carvalho has continued undeterred to tour despite being thrown into the spotlight and into constant personal danger. Thanks to her tenacity, the play has now become a rallying cry for LGBT+ rights in Brazil.
To mark these parallel journeys, Glasgow’s Tron Theatre is holding a mini-season, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, 10th Anniversary Celebration, featuring the two productions.
O Segundo Jesus, Rainha do Céu, the Portuguese-language version of The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven joins performances of Jo Clifford’s original in a celebratory mini-season in Glasgow this October and November.
Written and performed by Clifford, The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven premiered in 2009 at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre. Despite protests from religious groups, accusations of blasphemy, and attempts to shut it down, 10 years on its impact and influence is being celebrated with a return to where it started in the form of the 10th Anniversary Celebration mini-season.
Through the Brazilian production, Carvalho has become a torch bearer for the LGTQ+ movement in Brazil, but she can no longer perform the play there due to anti-trans sentiment in the country.
Since Jesus, Rainha do Céu opened on August 16, 2016, the play has been regularly closed down and threats made against Carvalho and the team, but, says Carvalho, “the play has also opened up discussions on art, justice, politics and religion”.
The event also sees the first rehearsed reading of Untitled 2009, a project from Outspoken Arts Scotland, written by playwright Nelly Kelly, directed by David Wood, and featuring an ensemble of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming performers.
The event is a handy point for Carvalho to offer her perspective on how the play has turned out to be a life-changing experience for a trans artist who struggled to even get auditions.
“The biggest challenge has always been to support myself through my work as an artist,” she says. “It took me 20 years to get to the point where I could live from art and for art. Before that I worked as a sex worker for three years and for another seven I worked as a health worker and then as a hairdresser.”
Long before transitioning, she had already played female characters in the late 1990s. “But even though I was playing male characters elsewhere and was nominated as a male actor for awards, my femininity offstage had the effect of taking male roles away from me – the offers then became just homosexual roles and eventually those stopped too.”
Her response was to found her own company, Ohm de Teatro, in 2002 and became “not only a director but also make-up artist and producer. All this so I could keep on working in theatre.”
In 2007, she also found herself working as a volunteer for the prevention of STDs, HIV/Aids, hepatitis and tuberculosis, where she was able to apply her insights to great benefit. In Latin America travesti is a gender identity, covering a wider definition than transsexual, that describes people assigned male at birth who take on a feminine gender role and expression.
This was the period when Carvalho began her transition, and in 2012 she returned to the stage in her solo show Dentro de Mim Mora Outra (Inside Me Lives Another), where she talks about her life and being travesti.
“But as a ‘travesti’ actress, I didn’t get the auditions or, if I did, I never got the parts,” Carvalho says. “I didn’t get called for female roles or even travesti and trans characters. No one was even looking – it was always a cis actor interpreting the role.”
But then in 2015, she was tagged in a Facebook post that led her to Natalia Mallo, director and translator of Jesus, Rainha do Céu – and she promptly got the part.
The premiere in 2016 at Festival Internacional de Londrina instantly provoked protests and threats of violence, setting the script for the shows that have followed. To date the play has been banned 10 times, and suffered attempts to ban it dozens of times more. “We have had a bomb thrown on stage, suffered the foulest insults, have been threatened with death and rape on numerous occasions, and have had armed police invading the stage.”
Confronted with this hostility from the entire spectrum of Brazilian society – current president Jair Bolsonaro has attacked the show, and in the lead-up to and since his election, LGBT+ hate crime has risen – Carvalho has defiantly gone on to perform 200-plus shows and put trans rights indelibly on the map of Latin America.
“I’ve never known a play to have raised discussions in so many places at the same time, despite the numerous attempts to close us down. This piece has opened up what every trans person knows, that Brazil is a highly violent country for travesti/trans bodies, and that transphobia is institutionalised and deeply rooted in society.”
When asked whether she could have foreseen the additional barriers she has encountered from doing the play over the past four years, Carvalho is thoughtful.
“No one foresees exclusion, negation or marginality in their life. Ten years ago I still believed I’d be ‘accepted’ by my family, that I’d find someone nice to marry and be happy, that I’d live fully as someone belonging to the female universe, with a job market open to her, with full rights and without violence.
“Today as a ‘transpologist’ [trans(anthro)pologist] I have an understanding of what my body carries and what my body means. As a transpologist I raise the issue of trans representation and the narratives that permeate travesti and trans bodies in the arts. You can’t imagine the level of exclusion that a travesti body suffers; transphobia is so huge that it affects everyone around us. But being who I am today and being able to live from my art is something you can’t put a price on.”
She sees being expelled from her family in 2002 as her greatest hardship, a time when she lost her points of reference. “I stopped having dreams and had to live for the now, I had to work as a sex worker with all the dangers we were exposed to every night on the street. But the point of all this is that it made me into Renata Carvalho, actress, director, playwright and transpologist.”
That new-found confidence, however, isn’t guaranteed to help defuse the transphobic environment. “When the first attacks happened as we were doing the play, I turned to everyone in the dressing room and announced: ‘Welcome to transphobia.’ To spare my mental health I took myself off social networks and I don’t read comments on the articles or posts that discuss the play.”
The situation in Brazil has worsened with the growth of right-wing populism, and Carvalho has decided to take a break from the play. She has already developed two shows of her own – Domínio Público (Public Domain) and Manifesto Transpofágico (Transpophageal Manifesto) – and appeared in TV serials while also moving into film roles.
But theatre will always be central to her life: “Theatre is a transformative agent. Plinio Marcos, a playwright from my hometown of Santos, says: ‘The actor is the reporter of evil times’ – and we are in evil times. And as he also says: ‘Art cannot live in hearts filled with fear’.”
Natalia Mallo, the director behind the Brazilian version of Queen of Heaven, tells Nick Awde about finding Renata Carvalho and getting the work on stage
When she started putting together the Brazilian production of Jo Clifford’s solo play The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, director Natalia Mallo found herself facing two major challenges.
“The first was that I didn’t know any trans people who could play the part,” she says, “which says a lot about the society we live in. But then I met Renata Carvalho who, it’s clear today, was exactly the right person for the project. Thanks to her, the play gained the political content it has, because her body is on the stage, as a political body, an activist body.”
The second challenge was how to go about financing a play about Jesus spreading the gospel of peace as a trans woman in a country that would react with religious and political hostility to even the idea. No surprise then that Mallo was unable to attract any form of funding, public or private. Cue the final piece of the jigsaw: producer Gabi Gonçalves.
As Mallo recalls: “When no one else wanted to fund the project, Gabi came up and simply asked: ‘What do you need?’ So I told her and she produced the work with her own resources.”
Originally from Argentina, Mallo has spent the past 20 years in Brazil, based in São Paulo. Her search for new exchange projects led her to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014, invited by British Council Scotland as part of its international delegation Momentum, her aim being to programme UK work in Brazil.
A hot tip was Clifford’s Jesus, Queen of Heaven. “It had a huge impact on me. On the way out I spoke to Jo and said I wanted to take it to Brazil. She gave me the text, which I translated into Portuguese that same night – and that was the beginning of a great friendship.”
As O Evangelho Segundo Jesus, Rainha do Céu, the play premiered in Brazil in 2016 and its trajectory since has had as much impact on the team as on its audiences. Mallo points, for example, to the way the play’s themes have changed her view of privilege as a cisgender white person, adding: “It has made me understand that every artistic proposition is political, and that it is not limited to what happens on stage.”
Given Brazil’s ingrained conservatism, Jesus, Rainha do Céu has created a tangible before-and-after point in society. “The play is a fundamental key for Brazil’s cultural sector to understand the importance of trans representation in the arts,” says Mallo. “It’s an issue that has to do with the transformation of stigma, inclusion, historical reparation and employability.
“Renata became a symbol of this fight, and the visibility of the play is an extremely important factor in this. The dialogue with Christian iconography is also important, because the play’s appearance coincided with the growth of the conservative, fundamentalist movement of the far right that governs Brazil today. The play is a symbol of resistance to this.”
Things finally take a break as the team now embark on separate projects, and appearing at the 10th Anniversary Celebration in Glasgow is an appropriate seal for this particular chapter.
“Today it has become almost impossible to do the play in Brazil,” says Mallo. “The censorship movements have become so violent and consistent that they have in some ways made the work unfeasible. But I feel good knowing that we have done over 200 performances and that the work has been seen by so many and affected them.”
The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, 10th Anniversary Celebration runs from October 30 to November 2 at Tron Theatre, Glasgow. Go to queenjesusproductions.com/miniseason for more