As a teenager growing up in Rio de Janeiro, Léa Garcia pored over books by the French existentialists Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, dreaming of becoming a writer. Her father was a plumber, and her late mother had been a seamstress. Ms. Garcia wanted something more from life and seemed to find it one day in 1950 at a tram station near the beach.
“I was on my way to pick up my grandmother to take her to the movies,” she recalled decades later, “when someone came up to me and asked, ‘Would you like to work in theater?’”
The man introduced himself as Abdias do Nascimento, a Brazilian writer, artist and political activist, who had recognized Ms. Garcia from a mutual friend’s description. He explained that he wanted her to work with his theater troupe, the Black Experimental Theater — known by its Portuguese acronym, TEN — which promoted Afro-Brazilian culture at a time when Black Brazilian actors were limited to stereotypical roles, or were dispensed with altogether in lieu of White actors in blackface.
Ms. Garcia had never performed onstage. But within two years, at age 19, she was dancing and reciting poetry in a TEN production called “Rapsódia Negra,” or “Black Rhapsody.” By the end of the decade, she would gain wider recognition through her first screen role, in the Oscar-winning 1959 film “Black Orpheus,” which set the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro during Carnival.
The film propelled her on an acting career that spanned more than six decades and 100 film, television and theater credits, including in popular telenovelas that aired around the world. “She placed Brazil on an artistic level never seen before, at a time when black Brazilian women were known in a pejorative way,” Afonso Borges, a Brazilian author and journalist, wrote in a tribute on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Ms. Garcia, who was credited with helping to expand the opportunities available to Black Brazilian actors on the stage and screen, died Aug. 15 at 90 in the resort city of Gramado, Brazil. Her family said she had a heart attack there shortly before she was scheduled to accept a lifetime achievement honor at the city’s annual film festival.
Along with Black actors including Ruth de Souza and Zezé Motta, Ms. Garcia leveraged her success in Brazil to highlight the discrimination faced by dark-skinned people in a country that had relied on the labor of millions of enslaved Africans before abolishing slavery in 1888. “It’s not shameful to be a slave, but to be a colonizer,” she told the newspaper O Globo last year.
Ms. Garcia was cast in “Black Orpheus” after appearing in a different role in Vinicius de Moraes’s 1956 play “Orfeu da Conceição,” which served as the film’s source material. Directed by French filmmaker Marcel Camus, the movie helped introduce the world to the sounds of bossa nova, through its percussive soundtrack by Luiz Bonfá and Antônio Carlos Jobim. And while it was dismissed by many Brazilians who saw the film as exoticizing Afro-Brazilian culture, the movie won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, received the Academy Award for best foreign language film and “stood for decades as one of the most popular films ever imported to the U.S.,” film critic Michael Atkinson wrote in a 2010 essay for the Criterion Collection.
The movie starred Marpessa Dawn as the doomed Eurydice, who falls in love with a trolley driver and guitarist (Breno Mello) on the streets of Rio. Ms. Garcia played Eurydice’s bewitching cousin, Serafina, and drew praise from critics including Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who wrote that she was “especially provoking” in the role.
She went on to appear in Camus’s follow-up film, “Os Bandeirantes” (1960), also known as “Gold of the Amazon,” and became well known in Brazil for portraying a villainous enslaved woman in the 1976 telenovela “Escrava Isaura” (“Isaura: Slave Girl”), which reportedly reached an audience of hundreds of millions worldwide and became a hit in China.
Back home, Ms. Garcia said she was sometimes slapped and pinched by Brazilians who had trouble separating her from the nefarious character she played in the show — a woman, Ms. Garcia noted, who was simply trying to survive the brutality of enslavement, even if it meant turning against the title character, a light-skinned enslaved woman played by Lucélia Santos.
“I often say that the gods embraced me, things always arrived for me without me running after them,” Ms. Garcia told Ela magazine, an O Globo publication, in 2022. Still, she added, she and other Black actors were routinely held to higher standards than their White colleagues. “We had to arrive with the text on the tip of our tongue, always smelling good and elegant. Others could be wrong. We could not. We could play subservient characters, but we needed to show that we ourselves were not.”
Léa Lucas Garcia de Aguiar was born in Rio de Janeiro on March 11, 1933. Her mother, who made clothes for wealthy women in the city’s tree-lined Laranjeiras neighborhood, died when Ms. Garcia was 11. She was later raised by her grandmother, who worked as a maid.
Ms. Garcia said that when she was young, her mother would dress her like the Hollywood child star Shirley Temple and insist on straightening her curly black hair. She became aware of racial issues in Brazilian society only after meeting Nascimento, with whom she soon had two sons, Henrique and Abdias. A marriage to Armando Aguiar, with whom she had another son, Marcelo, ended in divorce.
In addition to her three sons, survivors include a half sister; three grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and a great-great-granddaughter.
For years, Ms. Garcia was cast in screen roles as maids, housekeepers and enslaved women, characters that required her to wear “the poorest fabric or the simplest shoes,” as she put it. Gradually she began playing more sophisticated characters, such as a history teacher on the 1980 TV show “Marina,” for which she said she rewrote a monologue about the Quilombo dos Palmares, a 17th-century community of escaped enslaved people, to offer a less Eurocentric view on the subject.
She was still working in recent years, partnering with a team of Black filmmakers for the 2020 movie “A Day With Jerusa” and returning to the stage last year, at 89, to play three separate roles in the play “Life Is Not Fair,” based on a book by Andréa Pachá. By then she was known for her outspoken views on social issues, including abortion rights and the legalization of marijuana, although she acknowledged that one of her characters in the play — an adulterous older woman known online as Molhadinha25 — made her uneasy.
“At first, I thought I shouldn’t play her because of my age. Then I realized that it was my prejudice,” she told Ela with a laugh. “People love Molhadinha.”