Breaking the Silence in Brazil

The Playwrights Who Came Before the Protesters

Brazil protests Dilma free speech dictatorship truth commission bailei na curva
Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff announces a commission to investigate abuses by the country's former dictatorship, Nov. 2011. (Ueslei Marcelino / Courtesy Reuters)

In 1983, almost 30 years before Brazil inaugurated a truth commission to investigate the crimes of a brutal military dictatorship, seven college students put their lives on stage. The dictatorship was on the verge of collapse, but military rule was all this group had ever known.

Júlio Conte and his friends were studying theater in Porto Alegre, a city in southern Brazil. They had learned to be careful about what they said aloud. In their lifetime, nearly 500 Brazilians had been killed and 20,000 tortured by the government. Conte was tired of waiting for democracy. “Being censored makes you fight to speak,” his friend Flávio Bicca Rocha said in a recent interview.

The students captured the uncertainty and hope in Brazil at that moment by telling their own stories in a play, Bailei na Curva. The title, which means “I danced in the curve,” is slang for someone who has gotten hurt or lost his way. One of Bailei’s main characters, whose father is abducted by the military police, meets the same fate later in the play. Other characters try to make sense of their parents’ collaboration with the military, and all of them struggle with the gap between what they hear on the radio and the reality they see.

The inspiration was clear: Conte’s father, a political dissident, was always armed. Rocha’s father was in the military. The family of another student, Claudia Accurso, went into exile after the military coup.

Members of the original cast will again take the stage this October against a vastly different political backdrop. The massive protests of the past few weeks, spearheaded by those who remain vulnerable despite the country’s booming economy, have demonstrated how deeply Brazilians feel the right to speak out against their government.

President Dilma Rousseff’s gestures of conciliation show some recognition of the government’s obligation to listen to its people. “Brazil fought a lot to become a democratic country,” she said in a televised speech last Friday, “and it is fighting a lot to become a country that is more just.” Three days later, she met with leaders of the protests and then discussed their demands with governors and mayors across the country.

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