Kim McMillon is working to put together a stage production of
Kim McMillon is working to put together a stage production of 'Quilombo,' the story of a community of runaway slaves in 17th century Brazil. (D. Ross Cameron - Staff)
She's not exactly sure why. But four months ago, Kim McMillon, a Bay Area playwright and publicist, started reading everything she could find about the 1984 movie "Quilombo" by internationally known Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Diegues.

The film is based on the true story of a community of people who had escaped slavery and established a utopian society in 17th-century Brazil.

"I had been thinking about the topic of slavery, then and now. Something just awakened in me," McMillon said. She e-mailed Diegues a fan letter, telling him that the movie had so touched her when she saw it more than 20 years ago that she cried so much her friends had to take her out of the theater. To her surprise, he e-mailed her back.

McMillon said, "You think, here's someone from a different culture, but we were sharing our thoughts about art. I asked him what would hethink about making the movie into a play. He said, 'Kim that's a good idea. Why don't you do it?' I thought if he believes in me, I can believe in me too."

That started a remarkable journey that has already pulled in artists, musicians and historians from across the United States and Brazil. The world famous musician Gilberto Gil, a friend of Diegues', composed the score for the movie and has agreed to do the music for the play.

But first McMillon called her old friend Benny Sato Ambush, the former artistic director of the Oakland Ensemble Theater in the 1980s, asking him to direct the project.

"Benny said, 'Kim, do you know how many people would be involved, how big this will be? OK, I'll do it.'"

Ambush said he was impressed by McMillon's enthusiasm and clear vision for the project. Although he hadn't seen the film, he discovered that his collection of Brazilian music included music from the movie.

"I'd been listening to the theme song for years," he said.

It's just one of a number of coincidences that make the project seem like it was meant to be.

"Any time you transform media, from film to the live stage, a lot is involved," Ambush said. "It's a big film, fast and complex. The challenge is how do you translate all that vastness and complexity into the language of the stage?"

McMillon recruited Renata M.T. Andrade-Downs, ethnographer and translator, to translate the movie script from Portuguese to English. McMillon will use the translation to write the play. She also pulled in Michael Turner, a professor of African and Brazilian history at Hunter College in New York City, to provide the historical context. In another of those coincidences, it turns out Turner is a good friend of Diegues' from the days he lived in Brazil.

"I had seen both films," Turner said, explaining Diegues had done an earlier version, "Ganga Zumba" in the late 1960s. "It was part of Brazil's Cinema Novo movement. It was in black and white. In a way it was rudimentary. Because of the authenticity, part of me likes the first version more."

The later version was less historically accurate, Turner said. Influenced by the Afro-Brazilian social movement of the 1980s, Diegues changed the African origins of the escaped slaves from the Bantu of Northern and Central Angola to the Yoruba of West Africa. Most of the people brought to Brazil were from Angola.

"I've had some e-mail conversations with Kim. I think the play should demonstrate the Bantu influence through words or music," Turner said.

"It's a beautiful project," he said. "It deals with the subject of liberation, the essence of what it means to want to be free."

The quilombos — there were an estimated 8,000 throughout Brazil — not only attracted people who had escaped slavery, but indigenous people and some poor whites. "The inclusiveness of the liberty and democracy in those societies, it's beautiful."

He pointed out there were similar communities in Haiti, Jamaica and other parts of South America.

McMillon plans to produce a staged reading of the play in December, followed by what she termed "full-fledged crazy getting the money" for a full production in May. She hopes to tour the play in New York, Washington, D.C., London and of course, Brazil.

"It's moving fast," she allowed. "Everything is being done by heart. I love this work. It's such a strong acknowledgment of slavery. Maybe when people see what the slaves were able to do, the power they claimed, maybe communities that have nothing can see their own power."