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Reviewed by:
  • Tropical Travels: Brazilian popular performance, transnational encounters, and the construction of race by Lisa Shaw
  • Jordan Brasher
Lisa Shaw
Tropical Travels: Brazilian popular performance, transnational encounters, and the construction of race.
Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Series in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2018. 151 pp. US$ 29.95 (ISBN 978-1-4773-1479-1).

Tropical travels covers a lot of ground historically and geographically by charting the transnational circulations of Brazilian popular performance from the time of abolition in 1888, up until the 1950s. In addition to fields such as cultural studies, history, theatre, performing arts, critical race studies, and Latin American and Africana studies, Latin American(ist) geographers can add this book to a repertoire of case studies that address race and racism, power, and popular performance in a critical transnational context. Exploring transnational networks of cultural production between Brazil, Portugal, France, Argentina, and the United States, among other countries, the book considers how perceptions of race were negotiated by popular Brazilian artists (especially in Rio de Janeiro) as they travelled across the Atlantic and back, adopting particular racialized strategies in search of acceptance and success. Indeed, this is perhaps the most compelling argument of the book: Brazilian performers selectively adopt certain types of dress, bodily movement, and forms of makeup and skin color manipulation to appeal to audiences’ (racist) sensibilities in different places around the world, to earn elites’ approval, and to gain sociocultural capital.

The book is divided into an introduction, four long chapters, and a short conclusion. The introduction distills the racialized dimensions of popular performance in Brazil from the time of abolition to the mid-twentieth [End Page 226] century, a difficult task that at times favored exploring minute details of individual persons and performers rather than a “big picture” framing of race and popular performance during abolition and its aftermath.

One of the defining ideas of race relations during the early 1900s, the myth of racial democracy for example, is underexplored. Scholars and readers of Brazilian literature may, too, be underwhelmed by the degree to which the introduction of the book frames its argument within the wider narrative arc of popular Brazilian media and cultural forms outside strictly the performance arts, such as the influential works of Machado de Assis, Gilberto Freyre, and others did not figure prominently in the book’s framing. That said, the introduction provides a nice roadmap to the organization of the book, highlighting the subsequent chapters’ examinations of the Rio-Paris performance axis; the transnational dimensions of what the author describes as cosmopolitan Blackness; and the figure of the baiana (Bahian woman) as it moves and takes shape across the stage and on screen around the world.

The Rio-Paris performance axis chapter provides nice background information for one of the book’s key contributions in the next chapter: the development of the idea of cosmopolitan Blackness – how Black Brazilian performers (especially those from Rio in the 1920s) strategically adopted certain sets of modernist aesthetics to appeal to the white Brazilian elite’s imagination – or trans-national mental maps (citing Micol Seigel) – of cosmopolitan taste and aesthetic style. However, did popular performance politics really constitute a fully “borderless transnational performance community”? Likely not, but the key thesis that local, regional, national, and transnational metonyms of modernity and cosmopolitanism coalesce to shape and appeal to existing racialized attitudes around the world proves true over and over again with richly detailed examples. Though a reader in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, the author’s sensitivity to scale in the description and contextualization of the flows of racialized ideas, images, and representations across borders shows a geographic attunement that Latin American(ist) geographers will welcome.

One area of the book that left me somewhat disappointed as a reader pertains to how the historical argument about racialized popular performance is (not) put into conversation with ongoing issues with racism and white supremacy in Brazil today. Although the book went to press in the same year as the election of Jair Bolsonaro and could not have foreshadowed his rise to power on a tide of racist, misogynist rhetoric, the overall contours and...