arts entertainmentPerforming Arts

Dallas theater group tells story of enslaved Africans who created capoeira fighting style

Prism Movement Theater’s ‘Circe: The Song of Benedito’ explores the culture of capoeira.

Africans enslaved in Brazil developed capoeira, a fighting style disguised to look like a dance. It was a way to defend themselves on the plantation or even to plan and carry out an escape.

For its latest show, Prism Movement Theater, a Dallas troupe specializing in physical drama that doesn’t depend on words, explores the culture of capoeira from its earliest days by telling the story of Benedito, who’s considered the godfather of the 500-year-old form.

“With most other martial arts, you are just studying how to overcome an opponent, how to get better angles, be more powerful, use better technique. But in capoeira, you learn everything about the culture,” says producer and Prism co-founder Jeff Colangelo, whose group has used its distinctive approach to adapt Greek myths and Shakespeare as well as to create pieces built around boxing and professional wrestling.

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“You learn Portuguese, you learn their musical instruments, you learn their songs, you learn their community,” Colangelo says. “I don’t know if ritual is the right name, but you’re learning the dance and play of capoeira in addition to the combat aspects. It’s this all-encompassing cultural art form that’s really beautiful.”

Circe: The Song of Benedito runs outdoors at Kidd Springs Park. The area will be roped off, but there won’t be a stage. The audience sits in chairs or on blankets on the ground. No tickets will be sold at the park, but passersby can watch from the perimeter, Colangelo says.


A fight choreographer, he was aware of capoeira when Iv Amenti approached him with the idea of doing a piece about it after she played one of the king’s daughters in Prism’s 2017 production of Lear. Circe went into pre-production in 2020 but had to be postponed because of the pandemic.

Colangelo says he had no idea how deep they would go. “The process has been eye-opening.”


Amenti, who has done almost every job you can do in a theatrical production, got interested in capoeira more than 20 years ago when she found out a couple of her friends were studying it. She became the first woman to take classes at the local chapter of Os Malandros de Mestre Touro, a San Diego-based organization helping keep capoeira alive.

“Imagine me with these men, and they’re teaching me a martial art,” says Amenti, whose day job is as director of fine arts at St. Philip’s School and Community Center in South Dallas. “I don’t know how many times I got hit in the head. They weren’t gentle with me because I was a girl. ... It was about getting in contact with my indigenous culture as an African American. At the time, I was taking African dance and learning a lot of folkloric songs. As a dancer, capoeira felt natural. I fell in love.”

She describes capoeira as a “trick-nology.” Accompanying songs were also deceptive, containing coded messages. “It’s wildly scientific,” Amenti says. “You know how to hurt somebody in particular places on the body. If someone is throwing a punch, you know how to escape.”

After slavery ended in Brazil in the late 1800s, capoeira was outlawed for a time until it transformed into the competitive sport it remains today.

Benedito is both a historical and mythical figure. It’s believed he learned a fighting style called engolo in his native Angola before he and his family were captured and transported to Brazil.

But because capoeira is an oral tradition dating back to the 1500s, it’s not possible to know everything about it or him.

“He could’ve been multiple people or one amazing person,” Colangelo says. “There’s a legend that when he would ginga” — a back-and-forth rocking of the feet central to capoeira — “the ground would shake or he would summon the spirits of other capoeiristas.”

Daniel Saunders, left, as Benedito, and Shanthany Wilkerson as his daughter Circe in Prism Movement Theater's production of "Circe: The Song of Benedito."(Jay Stork / JC Photography)

Written and directed by Amenti with Prism company member Jonah Gutierrez, Circe takes the audience back to the beginning, when Benedito (Daniel Saunders) marries Melye (Brittanee Bailey) in Angola. In Brazil, their daughter Circe (Shanthany Wilkerson) winds up befriending Viola (Nitzia Martinez), the daughter of plantation owner Arsenio (Armando Monsivais).

The family’s journey on a slave ship through the Middle Passage is depicted, Amenti says, because she wanted to reference the wider African diaspora and not just Afro-Brazilian culture. “Most people know about the slaves in America, but not what happened to the Africans who wound up in Brazil, right? It’s a history lesson on another part of the African diaspora.”

In Brazil, Benedito helps lead an uprising on the plantation. The other main characters are the house slave Claudio (Rico Kartea), who acts as the plantation’s muscle; Pastor (Alejandro Perez, one of Amenti’s capoeira instructors), a slave who trains Benedito; and an Elder (Muntazz Palmer). The actors, some with a fighting background, studied capoeira for months.


Original music was composed by S-Ankh Rasa, who performs on African drums. Monsivais plays Spanish guitar. Perez is on the berimbau, a traditional bowed instrument made of wood and wire. Perez also served as dramaturg.

Portuguese and Angolan are spoken in Circe, but not in a way that is meant to be followed by the audience, Colangelo says. “We want them to focus on the movement. The tone of voice is what they’ll get, the context. We don’t want them to sit there and listen to it like a play. We want them to watch.”

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8 p.m. on April 27-28, May 5-6 and May 12-13 at Kidd Springs Park, 1003 Cedar Hill Ave. $15-$20.