Grupo Tapa’s Papa Highirte: A Brazilian Masterpiece About Bolsonaro’s Fall

Excited about the possibility of reaching working-class audiences, Vianinha and a few actors left Arena shortly after that and moved to Rio de Janeiro, where they decided to produce a theatrical revue about the Marxist concept of surplus value. A Mais-Valia Vai Acabar, Seu Edgar (The Surplus Value Will End, Mr. Edgar) drew hundreds of university students during rehearsals. That collective would become the nucleus of the Centers of Popular Culture (known as CPCs), a massive cultural and political movement that gathered young artists and activists all over Brazil between 1961 and 1964. In those years, Vianinha wrote a number of theatrical pieces about the most urgent social issues in Brazil, including the concentration of land ownership, the lack of access to higher education, and the problems concerning the communists’ strategy of political alliances with industrialists. Most of such plays were staged on the street and other unconventional venues, like labor union halls and schools.

A military coup in 1964 put an end to the reformist administration of President João Goulart and to all that political effervescence—including the CPCs, whose headquarters were machine-gunned and set on fire on the same day of the coup. Backed by President Lyndon Johnson, the dictatorship implanted by the military had a rather anti-working-class nature and imposed wage cuts, extinguished social welfare programs, and attacked labor rights. Repression progressively grew, affecting labor leaders, peasant organizers, political activists, students, and artists. Until 1985 when it ended, the regime detained, tortured, killed, and exiled thousands of people.

With the downfall of the CPCs, Vianinha joined a few of his former colleagues and created Grupo Opinião, which made an effort to artistically address the several violations perpetrated by the military junta. At the same time, he continued to work on his plays, reflecting on the historic processes that led Brazilians to dictatorship and blocked all attempts of transforming the nation’s socioeconomic structures. Papa Highirte is a central part of such endeavor. The piece takes place in a fictional Latin American country named Montalva, where Juan Maria Guzamón Highirte, the former dictator of (also fictional) Alhambra is now exiled. Throughout the play, he machinates to resume power while, in parallel movement, a left-wing militant, Pablo Mariz, proceeds to avenge the death of one of his comrades—Manito—in the hands of Highirte’s officers.

The piece not only deals with the international and domestic political forces at play in the Brazilian coup d’état, but it also portrays the greater reality of imperialism in Latin America. The populist Highirte, whose nickname is Papa—a clear reference to Haiti’s François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc—had been backed by the armed forces and by an unnamed foreign power. He was equally ousted by both of them and now desperately seeks to attract to his conspiracy a loyal general, Menandro, and a foreign power delegate. That is how things have worked in Latin America since 1954, when the CIA and the United Fruit Company deposed reformist Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz.

Maria Sílvia Betti, an expert in Vianinha’s theatre, affirms in the preface of the new edition of Papa Highirte—released in 2019 by Editora Temporal—that the United States’ diplomatic interference was the unifying element that connected the Latin American dictatorships in the 1960s. The ideological justification for such an intrusion was the fight against communism and the defense of the so-called free world. Betti, who is also a professor of Brazilian and United States theatre at the University of São Paulo, argues, “Based on such perspective, the United States’ policies for Latin America disseminated the idea that it was an attribution of the armies, under technical guidance of the United States, to secure the social and economic order.”