Léa Garcia – Actress and Black Social Activist

By Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

 Léa Garcia in her 88 years, dedicated seven decades to the stages, films, and television. From her first steps in theater, in the Black Experimental Theater, to her most recent works, her commitment to the anti-racist struggle became a central axis in her work as an actress, director, and political activist.

Léa Garcia in her first photography to the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater) by Léa Garcia Archive – GEHA/UEA – CNPqGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Léa Lucas Garcia de Aguiar, daughter of José dos Santos Garcia and Stella Lucas Garcia, was born on March 11th, 1933, in the city of Rio de Janeiro. She had a multifaceted professional trajectory throughout her life: actress, theater and film director, employee at the Ministry of Health, and union leader. In all these activities, she became known for her commitment to anti-racist activism, becoming a fundamental figure in the fight for equality on Brazilian stages

Léa Garcia and her neighbor Luzanira at the kid’s carnival ball at Praça Lido (1948) by Léa Garcia Archive – GEHA/UEA – CNPqGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

After her mother passed away, Léa Garcia was raised by her grandmother, Dona Constança. At the time, Léa was 11 years old and her grandmother worked at the residence of a wealthy family in the Copacabana area, Rio de Janeiro. She started to create her first bonds of friendship in this neighborhood. Over time, it became more difficult to get closer to the daughters of Rio de Janeiro’s elite. The companionship came from Dulce, another Black girl whose mother worked doing domestic services. At that time, Léa Garcia awoke to the relations of racism and sexism that she was inserted into, and to feed her desire to become a writer.

CULTNE - Léa Garcia - AtrizGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Léa Garcia, Abdias Nascimento and TEN’s casting reharsing the play Sortilégio (1957-08) by Arquivo Nacional. Fundo Correio da Manhã. BR_RJANRIO_PH_0_FOT_35917_004.Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Léa Garcia’s stage debut was in 1952, after the actress Ruth de Souza introduced her to the actor and playwright Abdias Nascimento, one of the founders of the Teatro Experimental do Negro-TEN (Black Experimental Theater). It took a long time before he convinced her to try acting. At TEN, she met a whole new world of Black actors, intellectuals, and artists who, since its foundation in 1944, had intensely debated about racism and ways to fight against it in Brazil.

Léa Garcia as the Old Native Woman in The Emperor Jones, by Eugene O'Neill, Teatro São Paulo, IPEAFRO Collection, 1953, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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Throughout the 1950s, Léa Garcia acted in seven TEN’s plays. Her debut was in Rapsódia Negra (1952), by Abdias Nascimento. This one was followed by two reenactments of O Filho Pródigo, by Lúcio Cardoso (1953 and 1955), a play that had its first staging in 1947.

Orlando Macedo, Abdias Nascimento, and Léa Garcia in the play Where the Cross is Made, by Eugene O'Neill. Teatro Dulcina, IPEAFRO Collection, 1954, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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At the O'Neill Festival (1954), Léa enacted different characters of three works of the North-American playwrighter Eugene O'Neill: The Emperor Jones, Where the Cross is Made, and All God’s Chillun Got Wings

Abdias Nascimento and Léa Garcia in the play Sortilégio-Mistério Negro, by Abdias Nascimento.Theatro Municipal. Theatro Municipal., IPEAFRO Collection, 1957, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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In Sortilégio – Mistério Negro (1957), by Abdias Nascimento, Léa played Ifigênia, a character that was a leading figure along with the protagonist, played by its author. After years of tensions with the national censorship system, the play premiered triumphantly in Rio de Janeiro’s Theatro Municipal.

Anjo Negro play’s brochure (1994) by Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA/UEA-CNPq.Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

White intellectuals and artists interested in getting closer to the anti-racist struggle in Brazil collaborated with Teatro Experimental do Negro over its whole existence.This was the case of the playwright Nelson Rodrigues, who gave an interview in 1948 to the newspaper Quilombo, published by the TEN, about his play Anjo Negro. The play was written that same year for the TEN. Due to lack of resources, it ended up being staged by Companhia Teatro Popular de Arte. Forty-seven years after its first enacting, Léa Garcia and Ruth de Souza, two former TEN stars, resumed the author's original intention and staged Anjo Negro in 1994.

Jacyra Silva, Léa Garcia and Ruth de Souza in Anjo Negro. (1994) by Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA/UEA-CNPqGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Orfeu da Conceição’s casting with audience (1956) by Léa Garcia Archive – GEHA/UEA – CNPq.Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

The commitment of Teatro Experimental do Negro to racial equality also led its actors and actresses to be invited to join the cast of the play Orfeu da Conceição, written by the poet and diplomat Vinícius de Moraes. Staged in 1956 at Rio de Janeiro 's Theatro Municipal, the play was directed by Léo Jusi, responsible for the first staging of Vestido de Noiva by Nelson Rodrigues and Sortilégio by Abdias do Nascimento. Its stage was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the music by Antônio Carlos Jobim, the costumes by Lila de Moraes, the choreography by Lina Luca and the poster design by Djanira da Motta e Souza.

Léa Garcia and an actor in an acting laboratory for Orfeu da Conceição (1956) by Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA / UEA-CNPqGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

The cast of Orfeu da Conceição was composed of forty Black actors and actresses. Among them were: Haroldo Costa (Orfeu), Daisy Paiva (Eurídice), Léa Garcia (Mira), Ciro Monteiro (Apolo), Abdias Nascimento (Aristeu), Zelia Pereira (Clio) and Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, also known for the Olympic victories in the triple jump. In the play, the author connects the Hellenic myth to the Afro-Brazilian pantheon and transposes it to the ambiance of Rio de Janeiro. In the making, acting laboratory activities were carried out in the city’s hills represented in the play.

Léa Garcia and Breno Mello in Orfeu do Carnaval, Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA/UEA-CNPq, 1956, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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Three years later, Vinicius de Moraes’ play was adapted to the cinema by the French filmmaker Marcel Camus, with the title Orfeu do Carnaval (1959). Launched as Black Orpheus outside Brazil, Léa Garcia's film debut won the Palme d'Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and the Oscar for best movie in foreign language in 1960.

Léa Garcia and Waldir de Souza in Orfeu do Carnaval (1956) by Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA/UEA-CNPq.Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Actor Jorge Coutinho comments on the Orfeu do Carnaval award at the Cannes Festival.
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In Cannes, Léa was nominated for the best actress award. Actor Jorge Coutinho is one of the many to say that Lea's absence at the festival, due to her lack of personal resources to go to France, was decisive for her to be in second place.

Part of Orfeu do Carnaval’s cast at its premiere at Cine Ópera (1956) by Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA / UEA-CNPqGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Orfeu do Carnaval premiere was at Cine Ópera, in Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro. While in the stages Léa Garcia played Mira, one of the dramatic characters, she was Serafina in the film version, a comic character, always light and smiling.

Orfeu do Carnaval premiere at Cine Ópera (1956) by Léa Garcia Archive-GEHA / UEA-CNPqGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

At the sound of laughs from the audience on her comic scenes with her lover, Léa wept in fear of the public's disapproval. The director of the film calmed her down before the end of the screening when they took the stage and were acclaimed by the audience.

Léa Garcia and Lourdes de Oliveira in Paris, Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA / UEA-CNPq, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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Despite not being able to attend the Cannes Festival, Léa Garcia traveled to Paris to participate in the movie’s official promotion. The City of Light enchanted her.

Léa Garcia, Sidney Poitier and Lourdes de Oliveira in Paris, Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA / UEA-CNPq, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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There she met other stars such as Micheline Presle, Jeanne Moreau, Vera and Georges Clouzot and Sidney Poitier.

Léa Garcia and Antônio Pitanga in the shooting of the movie Ganga Zumba (1964) by Léa Garcia Archive-GEHA / UEA-CNPqGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Antônio Pitanga remembers his first meeting with Léa Garcia
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The Bahian actor Antônio Pitanga followed throughout the 1950s Léa Garcia's career from the news that arrived in Salvador. They met in 1960 when Léa went to Bahia’s capital. Shortly after, they acted together for the first time in Ganga Zumba, a movie directed by the white Alagoan director Carlos Diegues, based on the novel by João Felício dos Santos about the Quilombo dos Palmares’s leader. In his memories, Antônio Pitanga appraises their parallel trajectories in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador as part of the same process of struggle against racism on the stages and cinema.

Facade of the Instituto Municipal Phillipe Pine by Marcus Vinicius de Oliveira. Private Collection of Marcus Vinicius de OliveiraGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Despite working in the theater, cinema, and television, Léa Garcia was also a public servant at the Ministry of Health. In the 1960s, she joined the National Department of Rural Endemics. After that, she went to work at the Psychiatric Hospital Philippe Pinel, in Rio de Janeiro, where she remained until the 1990s. Due to the financial inconstancy of working in dramatic arts, the public employment offered her a stable income and better conditions to raise her children. At Pinel, she developed theater therapy activities with the patients, possibly inspired by those carried out by TEN to alleviate the effects of racism.

Lucélia Santos and Léa Garcia in A escrava Isaura. (1976) by Léa Garcia Archive - GEHA / UEA-CNPqGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Carmen Luz shares her memories of Léa Garcia in A escrava Isaura
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At the beginning of the 1970s, Léa Garcia consolidated an intense career in teledramaturgy, which continues uninterrupted until today. One of her most celebrated characters was Rosa, in the soap opera A escrava Isaura (1976) on TV Globo. Rosa was an enslaved woman who, in the face of the bitterness of the violent world around her, becomes one of the villains in the show. The soap opera had great success in the television industry, being broadcasted in more than eighty countries. The choreographer and director Carmen Luz recalls the impact that Rosa played by Léa had on Black women of her generation.

Cast of the play Piaf - A vida de uma estrela da canção. (1983) by Léa Garcia Archive - GEHA / UEA-CNPqGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Along with projects on television and cinema, Léa Garcia maintained her trajectory in theater, in connection with professional and affective bounds she created since the beginning of her career. In the 1940s, the actress Bibi Ferreira rented the Teatro Regina. She eventually lended it to TEN's rehearsals. Decades later, Bibi invited Léa Garcia to the musical show Piaf - A vida de uma estrela da canção, in 1983. While Bibi Ferreira played French singer Edith Piaf, Léa Garcia was Josephine Baker, the American Black singer, and dancer who made fame and fortune in French theaters and who guided her career by the struglle in defense of racial equality.

Ruth de Souza and Léa Garcia by Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA / UEA-CNPqGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Actress Naira Fernandes remembers her approach to Léa Garcia
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Over time, Léa Garcia also became a reference to the new generations of the Black Theater in Rio de Janeiro. Actress Naira Fernandes recounts the moment when the company Black em Preto, shortly after its creation in 1993, invited Léa Garcia to a series of activities to honor the fifty years of TEN, that took place at the Museu da Imagem e do Som.

Pedro Ernesto Medal Ceremony, Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA/UEA-CNPq, 1994, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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The consecration in her maturity occurred with the Pedro Ernesto Medal in 1994, awarded by the City Council of Rio de Janeiro in honor of individuals for their civic action.

Pedro Ernesto Medal Ceremony, Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA/UEA-CNPq, 1994, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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At the time, the actress had four decades of work in the performing arts and social activism. The recognition of her contributions to society was an initiative of the then councilwoman Jurema Batista.

Pedro Ernesto Medal Ceremony, Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA/UEA-CNPq, 1994, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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The ceremony had a table composed by Lélia Gonzalez, Beatriz Nascimento, Ruth de Souza, Jacyra Silva, Vanda Ferreira and Carmem Luz, all Black women with a strong presence in the recent Brazilian history.

Pedro Ernesto Medal Ceremony, Léa Garcia Archive-GEHA/UEA-CNPq, 1994, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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Among the several distinguished guests, was Abdias Nascimento, with whom she began her career in the stages.

Léa Garcia in “As Filhas do Vento”. (2004) by Léa Garcia Archive – GEHA/UEA – CNPqGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Joel Zito Araújo recalls the experience of directing Léa Garcia in As Filhas do Vento (2004)
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In the same period, Léa Garcia became a fundamental reference for the production of directors from the first generation of new Brazilian Black cinema. In 2004, she starred the award-winning movie As Filhas do Vento, directed by Joel Zito Araújo. The movie focuses in the relationship between Black women of different generations from the same family. In it, Léa acted with Ruth de Souza, Milton Gonçalves, Zózimo Bulbul, Thalma de Freitas, Rocco Pitanga, Maria Ceiça, Danielle Ornelas and Taís Araújo. As Joel Zito recalls, the presence of Léa Garcia on the set was a learning experience for everyone.

Léa Garcia and Sérgio Brito in Pequenas Raposas, Léa Garcia Archive -GEHA / UEA-CNPq, 2004, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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Léa Garcia continued to perform in the prestigious stages of Rio de Janeiro classics of world dramaturgy. An example was The Little Foxes, a play by American writer Lillian Hellman, translated by actress Beatriz Segall and playwright Marco Antônio Guerra.

Léa Garcia and Sérgio Brito in Pequenas Raposas, Léa Garcia Archive-GEHA / UEA-CNPq, 2004, From the collection of: Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne
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In the play, staged in 2004, Léa Garcia played the character Addie, in a cast also composed of Beatriz Segall and Sérgio Brito.

Poster of Um dia com Jerusa (2020) by Odun Filmes Archive.Geledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

In 2020 Léa Garcia were the leading actress of the movie Um dia com Jerusa by Viviane Ferreira. The movie was based on a short film directed by the same director in 2014, which deals with questions about memory, aging, and loneliness. As a feature of the new Brazilian Black cinema productions, the film has a strong presence of Black female professionals in its technical team. Also in 2020, Léa premiered the music video Mãe África by musician Altay Veloso. The video opened the extensive program of the Orí Festival, carried out by CULTNE to commemorate the National Day of Black Consciousness that year. The event was held on digital platforms due to Covid-19 pandemic.

CULTNE - Festival Ori - Mãe África - Altay VelosoGeledés Instituto da Mulher Negra | Rede de Historiadores Negros | Acervo Cultne

Credits: Story

This panel is part of the project of virtual exhibition Our Histories: lives, struggles and knowledges of Black People, made in a paternship between Rede de Historiadoras Negras e Historiadores Negros, Geledés – Instituto da Mulher Negra and Acervo Cultne.

Collective curatorship: Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto, Bethania Pereira, Bruno Pinheiro, Carlos Silva Júnior, Elson Rabelo, Fernanda Oliveira da Silva, Francisco Phelipe Cunha Paz, Idalina Maria Almeida de Freitas, Iracélli da Cruz Alves, Jonatas Roque Ribeiro, Leonardo Angelo da Silva, Lucimar Felisberto dos Santos, Marcus Vinicius de Oliveira and Maria Cláudia Cardoso Ferreira.


Research and interviews: Júlio Cláudio da Silva
Text: Bruno Pinheiro and Júlio Cláudio da Silva
Audio editing: Leonardo Angelo da Silva
Music: Allan Abaddia (Album “Malungos”, 2019)
Production: Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto, Bruno Pinheiro, Julio Cláudio da Silva and Marcus Vinicius de Oliveira.
Translation: Bethânia Pereira and Bruno Pinheiro
Technical review: Ana Flávia Magalhães Pinto and Bruno Pinheiro.
Management: Natália Sena Carneiro
Special thanks: Antônio Pitanga, Arquivo Nacional, Carmen Luz, Elisa Larkin Nascimento, Ipeafro, Grupo de Estudos Históricos do Amazonas da Universidade do Estado do Amazonas (GEHA/UEA-CNPq), Joel Zito Araujo, Jorge Coutinho, Léa Garcia, Naira Fernandes, Odun Filmes and Viviane Ferreira.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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