- From Colonial Performers to Actors of 'American Liberty':Black Artists in Bourbon and Revolutionary Río de la Plata
From the late eighteenth century through most of the nineteenth, Buenos Aires and Montevideo were hosts to a joint theatrical circuit characterized by the regular comings and goings of impresarios, artisans, musicians, and actors between the two cities. The military conflicts that shaped this period actually encouraged these connections, as they stimulated both exile and repatriation between one locale and the other. Africans, and particularly their Rioplatense descendants, were an integral part of popular entertainment circuits in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Some of the first Argentinean historians of theater and music, among them Vicente Gesualdo and Teodoro Klein, were aware of this connection and included in their initial scholarship links that connect the history of free and enslaved Afro-descendants to the early theater of Río de la Plata.1
People of African ancestry participated in the European-style performance arts in Buenos Aires and Montevideo during the viceregal period (1776–1810), and they continued to do so during the revolutionary nineteenth century. While this article centers on theater, it also provides glimpses into the dance academies and pulperías (combined bars and grocery stores) that were centers of community expression. Africans and Afro-descendants also played guitars and other instruments at bonfires (fogones) and street parties, owned pulperías and dance academies, and more broadly, engaged in popular culture other than [End Page 261] the much-studied African-based celebrations such as the candombes examined elsewhere.2 It is no wonder that the most famous payador (country folk singer) in the region at the turn of the nineteenth century was the Argentinean Gabino Ezeiza (1858–1912), a black Rioplatense.3
Although few theaters existed in late colonial and early independent Río de la Plata, those that did offered shows for all. Hundreds attended playhouses to watch professional and amateur shows, as well as during official functions such as the celebration of the birthdays of members of the Spanish royal family, and later, special events commemorating independence. Even though a playhouse operated intermittently in Buenos Aires from 1757 to 1761, the first continuous theatrical activity began only in 1783, after the foundation of La Ranchería, located at what today is the corner of Alsina and Peru streets, close to the Casa Rosada. Shows were organized in the Ranchería's courtyard to provide financial aid for the Orphan House. After a fire destroyed La Ranchería in 1792, a new theater, the Coliseo Provisional with 1600 seats, was built; it opened in 1804. In Montevideo, the Casa de Comedias was the only continuously operating theater from 1793 to 1856. Other minor playhouses opened there, but staged shows only irregularly. However, professional and amateur companies performed at least 34 shows in Montevideo between September 1836 and February 1837—two shows per weekend. Like churches, theaters in Buenos Aires and Montevideo were meant to attract all ranks of society, whose distribution in the space reflected their social status.4
Theater constituted an essential piece of late colonial and early republican social order in Río de la Plata, as it defined power relations through performance. A social sphere, a public space, and a place to see and be seen, the playhouse was as much a site for ostentation and displays of power as for leisure and entertainment. Spanish authorities were convinced that performance art and its representation consolidated loyalty among audiences of all social ranks. Bourbon reformers understood and promoted theater as a "school of morality," [End Page 262] while they tried to limit lower-class entertainment such as bullfighting.5 Rather than simply representing power relations, performing arts actually contributed to reaffirming the social order. Ceremony was a way of maintaining the status quo, as it expressed certain social relationships through predetermined "ritualized behavior."6 Issues of protocol that today may seem banal created heated confrontations at the playhouse among those upholding power and social cohesion, such as cabildo members and viceregal authorities. In a similar way, the Catholic processions and ceremonies linked to the birth of a prince or the death of the king were...