Translating Vinicíus de Moraes’s
Orfeu da Conceição to Page and Stage

Julia A. Walker
Associate Professor of English and Drama
Washington University in St. Louis

Together with Brazil-based translator Rane Souza and my colleagues Mary Jo Bang, Aaron Coleman, Ignacio Infante, and Ron Himes, I am currently working on an English translation of Orfeu da Conceição, the 1956 play by Brazilian poet Vinícius de Moraes.  Best known by its 1959 film adaptation, Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus) by French director Marcel Camus, the play is historically important within Brazil for featuring an all-Black cast (instead of white actors in blackface) on the stage of the Teatro Municipal, Rio de Janeiro’s grand old palace of the arts.  By doing so, it broke the color barrier that had prevented Black actors from appearing on its stage, creating new opportunities to feature more plays about Afro-Brazilian life. 

More important, however, is the anti-racist aesthetic strategy that Moraes embeds in the play’s formal design.  As I demonstrate in the fifth chapter of my forthcoming book Performance & Modernity: Enacting Change on the Globalizing Stage (Cambridge University Press), Moraes created a complicated aesthetic appeal that invited the play’s original white- and European-identified audience of Rio’s elite not only to empathize with the play’s Black characters but also to actively disidentify with whiteness by assuming a lusotropical (mixed-race) identity for themselves.  He does this in three ways:  first, by realizing the mythic narrative in the bodies of his play’s all-Black cast, Moraes defamiliarizes the well-known story, affirming the universality of its theme of longing, love, and loss, while asking audiences to understand it through the particular legacy of slavery in the Western Hemisphere; second, by exposing how such myths are often premised on a default “whiteness” that enacts a false universality, he invites his audience to recalibrate their conceptual registers to include the particularity of Black bodies within the category of the universal; and third, by working with musical collaborator Antonio Carlos Jobim to score the play with the hybridized sound of the syncopated urban samba, Moraes situates his audience within a lusotropical soundscape that invites them to disidentify with whiteness and fully embrace the African heritage of Brazil. 

Vinícius de Moraes (sitting at center) with cast of Orfeu da Conceição, including Léa Garcia (“Mira,” sitting at left), Abdias do Nascimento, founder of the Teatro Experimental do Negro (“Aristeu,” standing second from left), Daisy Paiva (“Eurídice,” sitting at right), and Haroldo Costa (“Orfeu,” standing at right).

As this suggests, Orfeu da Conceição is as an important early example of a modernist art form that advances an anti-racist aesthetic. My team and I thus believe it should be recuperated for the history of modern drama and the repertoire of contemporary English-language theatre companies by means of a translation that recreates its complicated aesthetic appeal for contemporary audiences.  Now, more than ever, when race-based fears threaten to divide us, Moraes’s play promises to teach us once more how to dismantle racialized habits of looking, hearing, thinking, and being, and to embrace a hybrid cultural identity that affirms our differences within our unity.

Architect Oscar Niemeyer’s set design for the 1956 production.  Niemeyer received his commission to design the capitol city of Brasília this same year, and many architectural elements seen here—including the spiral and the ramp ascending from darkness into light—are recapitulated in its buildings.

Twelve miles from Washington University in St. Louis, where my colleagues and I work, is Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed black teenager was shot by a white police officer in August 2014.  The protests that followed Michael Brown’s death helped to renew the call for racial justice throughout the United States.  That call is likewise sounded in Brazil and throughout the world, wherever systemic racial oppression persists.  This is why my colleagues and I here at Washington University, together with Afro-Brazilian translator Rane Souza, are committed to producing an English-language translation of Orfeu da Conceição that not only is faithful to the spirit of Moraes’s original, but also, in its realization on stage, affirms the idea that Black Lives Matter.


Translation Team

BANG, Mary Jo.  Professor of English, Washington University in St. Louis; critically-acclaimed poet and translator of poetry.  She will serve as verse translator of Act I
COLEMAN, Aaron.  MFA in poetry (2015), PhD (2021) in Comparative Literature, Washington University in St. Louis; poet and scholar of modern Afro-diasporic poetry in translation.  He will serve as prose poem translator of Act II

HIMES, Ron.  Henry Hampton, Jr. Artist-in-Residence and Professor of the Practice in the Performing Arts Department at Washington University in St. Louis, and Founder and Artistic Director of the Black Repertory Theatre in St. Louis.  He will serve as dramaturgical consultant
INFANTE, Ignacio.  Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Acting Director of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis; scholar of modern poetry in translation, theories of translation and modernism.  He will serve as verse translator of Act III 

SOUZA, Rane Morais.  Independent translator based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; member of ABRATES, the Brazilian Association of Translators and Interpreters; founder and current coordinator of ABRATES AFRO, an organization dedicated to the professional development of Black translators in Brazil.  She will serve as translator and annotator of first draft of play
WALKER, Julia A.  Project director and Associate Professor in the English and Performing Arts Departments at Washington University in St. Louis.  She will serve as the annotator of the first draft of our translation and scholarly editor of the published play-in-translation, who is responsible for the introduction and critical apparatus