Ode to Augusto Omolú

Ode to Augusto Omolú


June 4, 2013.  I read the news today …

A sketchy notification – on Facebook.  Could it be a hoax?

High off a joyful and inspiring writing retreat, happy to have been unplugged from the net for a few days.  I finally came down.

In transit – from one mountain retreat to another.  I landed in a little mom & pop taco shop in Show Low, Arizona.  It would be a good place to eat lunch and check emails.  55 emails waiting in my inbox.  It was $1 taco Tuesday after all.

Start at the bottom.  First in, first out.  I was very methodical.  Facebook.  Someone mentioned me on Facebook.  It was Tiago.  Boy, I haven’t heard from him in a while.  “…Augusto has been found dead this morning…”  No.  It had to be a hoax.  I wasn’t even sure Augusto was famous enough to have a hoax made about him.  The news sank quickly and deeply.

My dear friend, my mentor, my teacher, my collaborator … minha guia … was dead.  Murdered.

Just like that.

Waitress.  Food.  Can’t talk.  Can’t eat.  Choking.  I forced myself to figure out how to eat this food.  I’m sure in another world it tasted delicious.  Tears in my enchilada sauce – not bitter.  Not salty.  Not … anything.  Nothing.  I tasted nothing.  I kept wiping my tears away.  I didn’t want to make a scene.  But my tears had other plans.

I texted my lover.  I didn’t know what to do.  How could I drive through my tears?  I still had about an hour left to drive.  Somehow I thought if I could just make it to the New Mexico border I’d be ok.

Mike suggested I put my emotions in the corner for a while – just to get safely to my sister’s place.  I tried to imagine my emotions in the corner, sitting on a stool wearing a dunce cap.  No use.

I finished my food.

I paid.

I went to the restroom.

Washed my face.

I was determined to drive.

Just focus on the road.  Drink your red bull.  Make sure you don’t speed.

Focus on the road.  Drink your red bull.  Make sure you don’t speed.

It wasn’t the tears that were difficult to see through.  It was the pain in the solar plexus from the effort my psyche went through to keep the tears at bay.  I was determined to push on through.

Just focus on the road.  Drink your red bull.  Make sure you don’t speed.

45 minutes.


I was determined to push on through.

Just focus on the road.

Drink your red bull… but I finished my red bull 20 minutes ago.

I look up at the sky to the east, toward New Mexico.  Escudilla Bonita looks … bonita.  The clouds gather.

I reach my turnoff.  It’s a dirt road and the weather is so dry today.  Another car pulls off before me.  I hang back so as not to eat his dirt sandwich.

I focus on the destination. Drink in the scenery.  Make sure I don’t slide.

The clouds to the east are hovering.  They look like they are trying to cry.  But the tears just don’t quite reach the ground.  Just like my tears.  I wonder if my tear ducts are damaged.

I focus on the destination.  Drink in the scenery.  Make sure I don’t slide.

The road is bumpy, dry, dusty.  I make it to the New Mexico border.  Fire danger is high in Coyote Creek today.  The locals pronounce it KAI-oat.  We all hope the rains come soon.  I can’t wait for my tears to flow.

I focus on the destination.  Drink in the scenery.  Try not to slide.

Cheryl is not there but Paco is.  He asks me how I am and I can’t respond.  I manage to eke a hug out of him but Paco has never really been good at dealing with emotions.  I tell him I got some really sad news.  “I just heard a friend of mine in Brazil was murdered.”  Poor guy.  I don’t think he knows what to do with me, blubbering away about someone he doesn’t know.

“Oh, that’s too bad.”  He says in his quintessential Paco deadpan delivery.  He asks if I know the details.  Suddenly the details seem important.

They live off the grid, you see.  Internet is sketchy.  Cheryl comes home.  We hug.  I cry.  We spend a long time trying to get me online access.

I read about how he was found in his underwear Sunday morning by his empregada domestica.  I read about the facadas and the blood all over the house.

Cheryl asks “Are you sure you want to read this right now?”

I focus on the facts.  I drink in the details.  I try not to fill my heart with anger and hatred.

I remember the time when I was in Salvador with Augusto for a 3 week intensive dance seminar.  My debit card was cloned and they stole hundreds of dollars of mine before I could stop them.  I was fuming!  I told him there was no way I could do the work today.  Augusto told me to use that energy to harness Ogum.  He said today especially was the day I should be dancing the dances of the Orixás.  These are the times when the body and mind most need it.

And he was right.  I remember tearing across the dance floor with the moves of Ogum, Augusto yelling to me from across the room “Isso aí, Laurinha!  Pega aquela ladrão!”

We head to my niece’s house for dinner and to spend the night.  I need a drink.  I need a few.

On the drive there I cry silently while Cheryl tells me “Don’t let them take your joy away.  If you do, then the ones who did this to him will have won.”  She reminds me that life is about the living – that Augusto wouldn’t want to see me uncontrollably sobbing.

I reluctantly agree.  I hear Augusto in my head yelling “There is no cansaço!  There is only axé!” whenever I thought I couldn’t go on.  I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.  Who knew Sam Beckett and Augusto Omolú would connect in this odd way?  I imagine Augusto and Eugenio Barba traipsing around the near-dead tree, waiting for a Godot that will never come, bickering about how best to transform the world through theatre.

We get to my niece’s house and the wine begins to flow.  I am so grateful to be with them right now.  Their unconditional love is strong.  They try their best to cheer me up but they understand if I need to cry.

I focus on my family.  I drink my wine.  I try not to cave.

I try to get comfortably numb, but every once in a while I can’t control it.

In my mind Augusto was an invincible warrior.  I always felt safe when I was in his presence.  His family always made me feel safe, welcome, loved … as if I was a long lost cousin or something.  His name was Augusto Omolú.  Omolú: the Orixá of sickness and disease.  But in my eyes he was really Ogum – the warrior.  And I suppose he died a warrior’s death – riddled with knife wounds.  How could someone so strong, so invincible, so much at peace – with himself, with his community, with the universe – be taken down like this?

I focus on my family.  I drink my wine.  I try not to cave.

We eat.  We drink.  We enjoy each other’s loving presence.  We listen to music and dance with wild abandon.  Augusto would be smiling at our drunken revelries.

I focus on my family.  I drink my wine.  I try not to cave.

He was my dance teacher, my mentor, my friend, the one who introduced me to Afro-Brazilian culture, dance and religion.  His work on this earth was not complete.  My work with him was not complete.  I know I can still work with him in the spiritual realm but it hurts anyway.

In my logical mind I know he needs me to move on.  I know the grief I feel is for me and not for him.  But it doesn’t make the pain go away.

I spend time on the phone with my lover.  He lets me cry through my words.  He lets me moan about how wrong and unfair it all is.

I focus on his love for me.  I drink in his voice.  I try not to … I try to … I just try.

Day 2 was easier.  The pain was still there but the emotions were stable.  I owe it to Augusto to move through the grief and honor his memory by continuing the work I began with him.  I didn’t realize it at the time but there were several moments when he was with me at the retreat.  I am grateful that I unplugged for the retreat.  The news of his death would have prevented me from accomplishing the work that we did.  The work was inspiring and I believe Augusto was presiding.

I focus on the work.  I drink in life.  Make sure not to shirk the details.

These are the lessons I learned from the retreat.  And I believe these are the lessons Augusto is trying to teach me as I move through the grief of his untimely death.

Focus on the work.

Drink in life.

Don’t shirk the details.



The Work

I first met Augusto in 2005.  I went to a workshop he was teaching in Bristol, England.  Apparently I misjudged the distance between the London airport and Bristol.  I thought I could arrive in the early morning and catch a quick train to Bristol to catch day 1 of the workshop.  I thought “England is an island!  It can’t take THAT long to ride across it!”  So I arrived late and waited outside the dance studio at the Tobacco Factory.  The sounds coming from the studio were intense: the sounds of drums beating, bodies moving frenetically, and an occasional voice yelling out brief instructions.

When they finally opened the door, the workshop participants looked winded, sweaty, exhausted.  I was a little intimidated.  I entered and waited for an appropriate moment to approach him and introduce myself.

I told him I was there for the workshop and I apologized for missing the first day.  He smiled.  He seemed pleased I spoke Portuguese.  He told me it was his ritual to have a cold beer after a 4 hour workshop and asked if I’d like to join him.  I beamed.  In those brief moments I went from feeling intimidated by his imposing physical presence to feeling welcomed – as if I had found a long lost friend.  He, his wife, his translator and I shared a beer and laughed.  Actually we did this every day after the workshop.  Others often joined, but the four of us were the constants.

The next day my body was introduced to his version of the dances of the Orixás.  And I’ve never been the same.

I had the advantage of not being sore from the previous day’s work so I was able to keep up with all the others (mostly).  The work was intense physical work.  Through this work I was able to push myself further than I ever had before.  Every day was exhausting and painful.  There was even a moment where I had a strong sensation – in the middle of dancing across the floor – my body stopped responding to my brain’s signals.  My brain kept telling my legs to rise, to jump, to move.  But I couldn’t move.  AT ALL.  For a moment I thought I was dying.  The translator asked if I was ok.  I don’t even remember if I responded.  But after a few moments sitting and a few sips of water, my synapses began firing again.  I went back for more.

Every day after the workshop we would chat about the nature of the work over a beer.  Yes, these were moves from ritual dances, but they could be used in a secular setting as long as the proper respect was paid to their origins.  This was the first time I had encountered the Candomblé religion or anything from it.  I was fascinated by its guiding logic and how that logic could be applied to both theatre artists and to our social world.

In Augusto’s work, he explains that any human being can display attributes of any of the Orixás, the divine entities of the Candomblé religion.  As source work for performers it offers an entire language of embodied symbols which can be called upon to influence one’s characterization depending on the role being played.  Augusto calls this the “Dramaturgy of the Orixás.”  From a religious perspective, my memories of the conversation led me to believe that any human being could be influenced by any spirit entity at any time.  But the key to a healthy, fulfilling life was to understand which Orixá is the “dono da sua cabeça” and find ways to make sure your life is in balance in order to satisfy the Orixás and to avoid leaning too far in any one direction.  At the heart of this was the understanding that any human being is capable of both good and evil deeds.  This is where I developed my firm belief that this can be applied socially.  By understanding that all humans have the capacity for BOTH good and evil, we can begin to reach a deeper level of understanding for our fellow man.  It is very easy to demonize someone.  It is much more difficult to try to really understand someone with a completely different viewpoint.

If we understand a person’s destructive behavior as the result of an imbalance, we can begin to help others find the kind of balance which will reduce or eliminate the destructive behavior.

My personal goal in my work is to find the ways these ideas can be applied in my own particular flavor of socially embedded artistic praxis.

Augusto and I agreed wholeheartedly that his work needs to be brought to the US, and to Phoenix in particular.  But alas!  His physical presence will not be able to be part of the work.

After 5 intense days of grueling physical work and rich conversations over beers, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the time I spent getting to know Augusto Omolú.


Continuing the work.

The second time I took his workshop I took the three week version in Salvador, Bahia.  One of the most intense three weeks of my life.  When I arrived at h is beach house in January of 2008 (the same beach house where he was so brutally murdered) I met the workshop organizers and the other participants, mostly Italians.  I was a day late because I missed my connecting flight in São Paulo.  I was able call him to let him know I would be delayed (this was the one and only time my cell phone ever worked in Brazil).  And it was such a joy to hear his voice “LAURINHA!” with such joy.  Was he this generous, warm and kind with all his students?  Perhaps.  But as the group was trying to determine where everyone would sleep, he made it clear “No, Laurinha vai dormir no meu quarto.”  And he gave me the key to his master suite.  He was staying in his family home in the city – closer to the workshop location.  I shared the suite with another one of his repeat-workshop students.  Maybe he understood how much we must appreciate the work to come back for more “punishment.”  Did I mention the work was physically intense?

If I haven’t mentioned it before, the work was intense.  Four hours a day again.  But the commute to and from the beach house was nearly 2 hours by bus – an hour by car on the days we rented the van as a group.  But the van was R$10 per person and the city bus was only 1 or 2 Reais.  Many of us were on tight budgets so we opted not to do everything on the basis of the “coletivo” and do some things on our own.

We were warned repeatedly by numerous people how dangerous Salvador was, especially at night, especially in Buraquinho where the beach house was.  But in reality, there was no one PLACE that was safe.  The safest “place” was during the day with a local as a tour guide.  Even so, at least 2 members of our group were mugged in broad daylight.  And one of our guides, a chocolate brown Baiano with green eyes – SWOON – said “Nem eu andaria sozinho a noite aqui em Buraquinho.”  And indeed, the news report I read of Augusto’s death indicated that the night Augusto was murdered he was out having a few drinks at his favorite local barzinho in Portão.  Then presumably he walked home alone and probably was followed.

He took me to that little bar a few times.  It was one of those humble, simple barzinhos like they have all over Brazil: a simple concrete storefront with a few metal or plastic tables and chairs on a sort of makeshift patio.  Nothing special but Augusto said it was his favorite bar in Salvador: his favorite place to hang out with friends; drink umas cervejas ou talvez ums “uisques” (whiskey).  I’ve walked from his beach house to this particular corner.  It takes about 30-40 minutes walking.  And by day no one ever bothered me.  But I was always warned never to do it at night.  If anyone could walk that path at night safely it would have been Augusto.  But even he was not safe.

When I visited him again in 2011 with a friend, Augusto and I talked about Buraquinho and Salvador and the increase of violent crimes in the area.  He said once upon a time Buraquinho was a humble little area – no urbanization, home to local fishermen.  And when you stroll the beaches of Buraquinho you can still feel its humble beginnings.  But too many people, too many real estate agents started building closed condominiums – making Buraquinho a target for crime.  When money comes in, thieves follow.  He lamented this shift.  He seemed conflicted.  On the one hand, there were improvements he wanted to make so that his Italian wife would be willing to move there and live with him.  But on the other hand, he had suffered several break-ins in the last few years and was unsure whether the money invested in improvements would be worth it.  And indeed from 2008 to 2011 the house was so different.  Windows were broken.  The back guest house was no longer habitable.  (The roof was caving in; doors were broken; and moss had taken over).  The front house was in mild disrepair.  Mosquitoes everywhere.  In fact, that’s where I picked up dengue fever in 2011.  I stayed there for about 10 days, sometimes alone, sometimes with him and his wife, sometimes with a party of dozens enjoying the company of Augusto and his generosity.  At the end of my stay there I felt like I had come down with some kind of cold or flu.  It wasn’t until I got to Rio that the urgent care center doctor told me I had dengue.

My friend Cary who was with me on this trip sensed right away there was something not quite right about Augusto’s house and felt uncomfortable staying there.  He was uncomfortable surrounded by barbed wire.  It felt like a prison to him rather than a means to keep the criminals out.  But it was more than that.  I think Cary sensed something about the place that wasn’t quite right.  He always has had a strong sense of intuition like that.  The chaotic party that lasted three days was really fun … for a while.  But after the first 24 hours he felt like he just didn’t have a space to feel safe and secure.  I totally understood his decision to leave and go to a hotel.  Ironically, of all the places I have been to in Brazil, Salvador is the only place where I felt like I needed to be on my guard.  For a while I thought it was because I was so obviously a “gringa” but I think there is more.

During the three week workshop in 2008, I came to understand a little more about Augusto’s life in Bahia.  He had a family home in Cidade Nova that he helped build.  He took me there to visit on the first day of Carnaval at the end of our three week intensive.  Once again, everyone said it was “so dangerous” there.  But I felt like it was a warm, loving community.  Augusto took me up to the rooftop to see the view and told me how he had brought Eugenio Barba up there years ago.  Apparently Eugenio looked out over the chaotic rooftops in this makeshift, unzoned residential area and said “This is what the work is all about.  THIS is beautiful.”  It wasn’t a slum or a favela.  But you could tell that there was very little municipal zoning responsible for residential construction. It was controlled chaos.  Very active in its visual aesthetic.

Eugenio Barba was born in Italy and spent the bulk of his adult years working out of his base in the tiny secluded town of Holstebro, Denmark.  This community in Salvador, Bahia was the antithesis of his life and background.  It was very urban, very dense, very exposed, and very much Afro-Brazilian – all qualities that I imagine had little to do with Eugenio Barba’s life and background.  This may help to explain why Barba has remained so dedicated to the idea of intercultural theatre and to his concept of “pre-expressive” gestures and universal truths.  I understood, at that moment, Eugenio’s desire to forge new understandings between Europeans and historically marginalized others.  When I was asked to write a response about intercultural theatre and Augusto’s work as part of my take-home question for my doctoral comprehensive examination, this was the moment I kept in my mind as I navigated the heated discourse and politics surrounding intercultural theatre.

For those so inclined – here is a link to my take-home comps question essay.  It will help contextualize my desire as an academic to continue the work I began with Augusto.  http://www.academia.edu/3784838/Intercultural_theatre_-_Comprehensive_Exams_take-home_question_essay

To this day I have never seen Augusto perform live in a full production, not his Orô de Otelo nor any of his other work with the Odin.  I’ve seen him in workshops.  I’ve seen his work demonstrations. And I’ve seen him dance joyfully at one of the Muzenza events he took us to that glorious year in 2008.  He told me how much he loved Muzenza (one of the blocos Afros of Salvador’s Carnaval).  And I could see his devotion in his dance.  So when I read of their solemn performance at his funeral I could not hold back the tears.

I still have my Muzenza costume from that year when we danced with them during Carnaval.  I almost threw it out the other day because I never wear it.  Now I don’t think I’ll ever be able to.  Mine was a modified costume.  I had the woman’s skirt but the man’s tunic and hat because I was too busty for the female costume.  That was the Saturday of Carnaval and I was so bummed I was going to have to leave early.  My flight left at 2:00am and I had to take a taxi at midnight so as not to miss my flight.  At midnight things were just getting started!  But Augusto had arranged for his friend, a taxi driver, to meet me at a particular location just off the path of the parade.  He already had my luggage.  To this day I can’t remember how that all worked out or how I found my way there.  But I was so sad to leave that place – that magical, mysterious, and yes, even a little frightening – place.

I want to go back but I don’t think I can do it alone.  This is a good motivator to continue the work in a spirit of collaboration with some of the wonderful people I met in Bahia as a result of knowing my Mestre, Augusto Omolú.Image