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Last month, Dr Lisa Shaw, Reader in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, gave a research seminar at the Brazil Institute, King’s College London, on Afro-Brazilian performance on Rio de Janeiro’s popular stages from the 1880s to the long 1920s, which drew on a chapter of her book Tropical Travels: Brazilian Popular Culture, Transnational Encounters and the Performance of Race (University of Texas Press, forthcoming in 2017). In it she explored the historical evolution of the representation of black subjectivity in the popular entertainment venues of Rio during that period, illustrating the various tensions and contradictions that came to light as Brazilian journalists, authors, politicians, theatre-goers, impresarios, and especially performers contributed to the creation of a national identity more receptive to Afro-Brazilian cultural traditions and that drew on transnational circuits of performance. The analysis was underpinned by an understanding of ‘blackness’ as both an identity based on family lineage and perceived phenotype, and a performative identity that can be adopted, exaggerated, played down or discarded at will.

Gordon Stretton, as a boy and young man

Dr Shaw examined a number of case studies of popular performers identified as having varying degrees of African heritage that were active on the popular stages and cabaret venues in the city during the period in question, including Liverpool-born musician Gordon Stretton, pictured as a child and an adult musician below, who was a successful jazz percussionist in Paris in the 1910s and early 1920s and travelled to Rio in 1922 with the French theatrical company, the Ba-ta-clan. Stretton went on to settle in Argentina, and hosted a popular radio programme in Buenos Aires.