On stage or behind the curtain, Manuela Soeiro has dedicated 50 years to the performing arts, of the 79 she completed this year, but she still has the strength for new challenges: launching the first independent theater school in the country.
“This space is going to be a cultural center that encompasses various activities linked to theater, performing arts and training,” the Mozambican actress, playwright and producer explained to Lusa on a guided tour of the building that will host the initiative, in the center of the Mozambican capital.
More than a school, Manuela Soeiro has been setting up a cultural space based on “elements of nature” for more than three years, combining theater with handcrafted art, with a collection of personal works collected over the years, giving the space a unique identity.
“We’re going to open a museum here, which is practically ready and will be inaugurated on International Museum Day [May 17],” the playwright explains, stressing that the idea is to promote a “truly cultural space in the center of the Mozambican capital”.
In opposition to the trend towards the “elitization” of the performing arts in Mozambique, Manuela also wants to take theater to the periphery, inside and outside the capital, valuing the “forgotten wealth” in the diverse tradition that makes up the communities in the alleys and backstreets of the city’s suburbs.
“We want to remind people, especially on the outskirts, of the value they have there,” adds the actress, who wants this initiative to be replicated in other Mozambican provinces.
The cultural center “Sabura” is yet another contribution from a playwright who is considered by many to be the “last pillar” of the “classical school” of theater in Mozambique, having been one of the founders of the first professional theater group in the country: Mutumbela Gogo, created in 1986.
In her career spanning more than 50 years, Manuela highlights the influences of Portuguese actress Maria do Céu Guerra, with whom she worked for the first time in 1977 and from whom she drew inspiration for the creation of her first professional theater group.
From Physical Education teacher to one of the most respected Mozambican playwrights, the actress recalls that it wasn’t only Maria do Céu Guerra’s influences that “pushed” her to become fascinated by the professional performing arts: the historical context in which she grew up, after Mozambique’s independence (1975), was fundamental.
“At the time, when the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) arrived, we went with all our energy. We gave ourselves completely, with everything. We believed in that conviction, in the struggle and in the idea of true independence. (The ideals) of Eduardo Mondlane and Samora Machel were something amazing: Ideals that were, above all, for the defense of the people,” says Manuela Soeiro, recalling that this was one of the reasons that made her embrace an art whose center is people.
“The people came first and we went all in. That’s what made me preserve these spirits,” he says.
Throughout her decades-long career, dozens of actors and actresses have passed through Manuela’s hands, both in amateur groups during the 1970s and later at the iconic Teatro Avenida, where her group began giving theatrical performances.
“I collect art, not people,” says the playwright, with a slight smile on her face, when asked about the number of renowned actors in Mozambique today who have passed through her hands.
Mozambican writer Mia Couto describes her as the “great mother of Mozambican theater”, a figure who made this art possible when the country was still in its infancy.
“She was in a place that wasn’t just for producers. She drove everything. She summoned all the forces that could be there. And it took a woman, a person who was a great fighter, because at that time there wasn’t a nail, there wasn’t a board, there was nothing. She set up that bakery to feed the theater. It’s almost symbolic,” said Mia Couto about the playwright’s journey.
Manuela Soeiro was born on January 24, 1945, on the island of Ibo, in the province of Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique.
Today, with the theater school, Manuela’s intention is to once again contribute to the emergence of new faces in the performing arts in Mozambique, in a period she describes as “rich” and full of alternatives for the performing arts, alluding to new technologies.
“What I want to convey is what has made me who I am,” she concludes.