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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A play that recently performed to sold out audiences in Rio de Janeiro provides a searing look at race and inequality. Brazil has Latin America's largest black population. On average, blacks earn half of what whites earn. They're also half as likely to receive a basic education. Blacks are also dramatically underrepresented in Brazil's congress, judiciary and business world.

From Rio, NPR's Julie McCarthy has more on a theatrical production that explores what it means to be black in Brazil.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The play is the third in a sprawling trilogy that director Marcio Marele(ph) says is about ancestral history, subterfuge and survival.

(Soundbite of music)

MCCARTHY: Produced in parts over the last five years, the third installment played to an enthusiastic audience in Rio's opera house, timed to Black Consciousness Day, a holiday inaugurated just three years ago. Director Marele says the work, titled "The Well Remembered," is about the negotiations intrinsic to day to day life for Brazil's black citizens.

Mr. MARCIO MARELE (Director, "The Well Remembered"): (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: Because to be black in Brazil means you have to negotiate your very life always, he says. And you have to give up some of yourself, your values, to survive.

Competing struggles for survival are offered up by an all black cast in a series of blunt monologues and raw encounters. It's an ambitious work depicting social exclusion, corrosive consumerism and politics in the black community. The action switches between favelas in the leafy streets of Rio's rich. The characters, ordinary people struggling for respect.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: In this scene, a car mechanic and a rapper who wants to link the favelas to community radio, quarrel about what each contributes. The rapper calls the mechanic a sucker who spends his time fixing imported cars for rich playboys. The mechanic slams community radio as ridiculous and says he doesn't want to hear any more about poverty.

But the gulf between the haves and have nots is central to the play, as expressed in this monologue.

Unidentified Woman: (Through Translator) Poverty represents our need and our need devours ideas. Misery ends up taking over the whole being of a person. Any ideas become totally defeated.

MCCARTHY: The subtext of "The Well Remembered," with its white flowing costumes and sets lit in primary colors, is that slavery continues to inform life in Brazil. Forty-five percent of Brazil's population descended from Africa, heirs of slaves.

But the white-haired narrator declares in disgust -

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: He's sick of images of blacks as slaves, and director Marcio Marele says blacks are taught their history began as freed slaves and nothing about their African ancestry.

Mr. MARELE: (Speaking foreign language)

MCCARTHY: And it's very important, he says, that blacks feel they are more than just slaves who one day were liberated. Governments from early on here boasted that Brazil, with its multicolored populace, lives in racial harmony. Professor and economist Marcello Pishall(ph), who writes extensively on race, says this myth of racial democracy allowed Brazil to sweep its racism under the rug.

Professor MARCELLO PISHALL: (Through Translator) The myth is that everyone is satisfied and that there's no racism, and it grew because it gave us a sense of moral superiority in the world. As long as everyone is in their designated slot, there's no problem. As long as no one is being challenged and everyone stays where they belong, everything is okay. It's when you start disrupting the order of things, like bringing racial quotas to the university, that conflict begins, and that's where we are today.

MCCARTHY: Pishall says in a nation with a history of whites holding the bulk of money and power, many blacks saw advantage marrying a lighter skinned partner, an idea that 34-year-old theatergoer William Barbosa(ph) says his own grandmother tried to pass down.

Mr. WILLIAM BARBOSA: (Through Translator) At 15, I started to date a black girl and brought her home. My grandmother said oh, she's nice, but she's so black. And my grandmother is black. She was 80 years old and in her day the belief was that everyone would marry someone lighter to lighten the family. That's what everyone was taught.

(Soundbite of applause)

MCCARTHY: Barbosa has seen the play "Well Remembered" eight times, but this was his last. The veteran acting ensemble is moving on to a new production that debuts next year titled "Silence." The group's founder says it's all about the things that have been bottled up and that no one dares scream.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

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