Tomorrow morning a Brazilian theatre group with enough drums for a carnival will touch down at Heathrow, hustle through customs, and speed across London for a schools matinee at the Young Vic. Waiting for them in the wings will be singers from the London-based Black Theatre Co-operative. The Brazilians speak no English, the Londoners no Portuguese, but they will launch immediately into the play which they have jointly been devising - connected only by fax - at opposite ends of the earth.
The play is about the lives of street children, and its opening image reflects an event which recently shocked the world; eight young vagrants shot dead by police while they slept on the steps of a church in Rio. The theatre company hails from the Bahian city of Salvador, but street children also exist there in comparable numbers. And in Salvador, where the slave trade was in operation until 120 years ago, this young army of the damned endure additional persecution for the colour of their skin.
The show at the Young Vic will have a Yoruba title, Ere, reflecting the roots of both the actors and their subject matter. Ere is the name of a playful spirit which appears during the transition between possession and the return to normality in a Yoruba religious ceremony. And there will be two more Yoruba spirits presiding over this play: the Ibeji twins, traditional protectors of lost children. "Our show," says the Brazilian director Marcio Meirelles, "will be a candomble prayer for the children's salvation."
Candomble is the Yoruba cult to which most Salvadoreans adhere: it now thrives more vigorously in Brazil than it does in its native Nigeria. There may be hundreds of Catholic churches in Salvador, but there are thousands of terreiros, sacred precincts where the worship of Yoruba saints - orishas - is led by resident priestesses. The Portuguese colonialists initially encouraged this tribal sub-culture, which is both more humane and more sophisticated than voodoo. Realising its strength, however, they then tried to stamp it out. Their present-day successors find it an embarrassment, particularly since it makes converts from among their ranks.
But the biggest embarrassment for Salvador's ultra-conservative Catholics lies in the way candomble has commandeered their saints, and fused them with its own. Thus the Yoruba saint, Omolu, traditionally enveloped in straw and covered in sores, has been ceremonially fused with St Lazarus, while Oshala, the Yoruba god of creation, has been fused with Christ Crucified. St George equates with Oshossi the hunter-god.
Yemanja is the name of a flirtatious sea-goddess traditionally worshipped with gifts of flowers, soap, and perfume. Sometimes Latinised as a mermaid, she is identified in Salvador with Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. The Brazilian production's Ibeji twins are neatly conflated with Cosmas and Damian, twin Christian saints whose graven images, flanking a vulnerable- looking child, are to be found all over the city. "Cosmas and Damian," says Meirelles, "are the key figures in our play."
His actors are ambivalent about this secret religion. Some are fully fledged candomble elders, others regard it as part of the cultural baggage of slavery; some of the younger ones are trying out different terreiros, before making a lifetime's allegiance. In this religion you choose your own orisha, and forge your own rituals. The play works on the same principle: each actor incarnates a deity, complete with his or her mythical quirks and foibles.
Known as the Bando de Teatro Olodum, the company is an offshoot of the carnival band whom Paul Simon first spotted and used as the backing on his album Rhythms of the Saints. Wisely opting for a gig in New York's Central Park as payment for their services, the band won instant fame. This year they figure prominently - with the cobbled streets of their home district of Pelourinho as a backdrop - on the "street-kids" video which Michael Jackson has just released.
The Brazilian government has not been overjoyed to have its social problems thrust under the international spotlight but, to the Brazilian people, Olodum are heroes. You find groups of boys hammering away on homemade drums in backyards all over Salvador, dreaming of following Olodum into the big-time. The young Salvadoreans' other obsession, which is catching on in London, is the capoeira martial-arts dance: spinning kicks delivered faster than the eye can see - and another African ritual which alarmed the Portuguese rulers. Olodum's play is permeated by the rhythms of both candomble and capoeira, as well as those of the carnival itself.
If these actors are new to London, their director is not. Last summer Meirelles caused a critical furore with his Black Theatre Co-op production of Zumbi, a historical play about the slave trade which ended on a stridently political note. The critics who dismissed this as an extremist rant chose to overlook the fact that he had originally devised this with his actors in Salvador, and that their portrait of police corruption was grounded in sober reality.
These actors are well placed to register reality. They may have acquired a formidable professional reputation, but most earn their living as clerks, teachers, and hospital orderlies, while some work in juvenile penitentiaries. Meirelles himself trained as an architect, worked briefly as an avant- garde theatre director in New York, but gravitated to political theatre during the days of Brazil's fascist dictatorship. "I wanted to find a Brazilian way to do theatre," says this laconic but forceful man. "A way that only Bahia could provide."
Five years ago he held open auditions in the criminalised colonial quarter of Salvador: the 20 actors and musicians in his present company are the ones who have stayed the course. Each year they devise a new theatrical essay from the stuff of their own lives, but this is the first time candomble has emerged centre-stage.
You can tell a lot from the way a company warms up for rehearsal: when Olodum do an exercise designed to let each actor get into character, it's a performance in itself. The group stand like statues in ceremonial attitudes, with just one moving - in a manner appropriate to their personal deity - at any given time. As the gift of life is passed from each figure to the next, as each wakes out of its trance, one has the sense of something powerfully numinous, a divine contagion. When the orishas stalk across the Young Vic stage tomorrow - jet-lag permitting - that contagion will be unleashed again.
n Bando de Teatro Olodum and the Black Theatre Co-operative perform `Ere' at the Young Vic, 20-23 June, matinee tomorrow 2.30pm. Booking: 0171-928 6363. This is part of the Out of Lift Festival (0171-490 3964)Reuse content