Patience and Resilience, a post by Dana El-Khatib

9 Jun

Dana hugging a child at a workshop for Teatro em Comunidades. Eddie Williams appears on the left.

My name is Dana El-khatib. I’m currently a rising junior at the university of Michigan, studying Economics. Though born in Ann Arbor to a Palestinian family, I lived most of my life in Jordan. For that reason, I constantly find myself comparing how different cultures approach different practices.

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan aims to provide arts programming among other things to incarcerated individuals in Michigan prisons, and returning citizens. This is done through drama workshops, a literary art review and an annual art exhibition. This past winter semester, I was one of six alternating facilitators for drama workshops in the Federal Correctional Institute at Milan. When people ask me why I decided to join PCAP, I think of many reasons that I could blab on and on about. I think about how I cannot make a moral judgment about the people inside because I didn’t grow up in the conditions that many of them did. I think about our dysfunctional educational system, I think about systemic racism, etc. However, if I’m being honest, one of the biggest reasons I chose to do PCAP is for my own selfish desire to grow as a person. There is a word in Arabic that has a special value in Islam;الصبر; pronounced as“alsabir.” Though I do not believe there is a direct translation in English that could embody all of its meaning, if I had to explain it, I would say it’s a combination of resilience and patience. This concept has become more and more important for all Arabs due to the economic and social conditions the region faces. Even more than that, its value has become rooted in Palestinian culture with resistance and struggle. Although everyone faces adversity in their lives in many forms, I, having lived a very fortunate life, knew that I could learn a thing or two about alsabir from the incarcerated, and that’s why I initially joined PCAP. Imagine growing up in horrible economic conditions and then being stripped of your freedom because of the life that society has pushed you towards. Yet, I have never seen more forgiving and positive people than the individuals I have worked with on the inside. When setting guidelines for the workshop in Milan, two of the men immediately said that one guideline should be: peace and love at all times. If I had been in their shoes, I think I would have so much hate and anger in me that I would want to get revenge on this world, but most of the people I have met seemed to have a wonderful soul that just wanted to better their life; that is what I see as the embodiment of الصبر.

In Brazil, I wondered how the different social and cultural scene would affect how people reacted to their living situation. When we visited a facility specifically for mothers who give birth in prison and their children, I was amazed by the strength of the women. In Arab culture, when a woman gives birth, everyone is there to help her. The grandmother or mother-in-law also usually stay with the mother for a couple of months to help manage the burden of a newly born baby. As I watched the mothers in the prison holding their crying babies, I compared the life they live with the life that I had always expected a new mother to be living. There was no outside support or comfort. No one to hold you when you don’t know what to do, no one to take care of your crying baby at night so you could rest. You only had yourself and the other women in the prison. I tried holding as many crying babies as I could so that the women could have the closest possible experience to a normal workshop, but I knew that there is only so much of your reality that you can escape for a few minutes. I saw the women care for each other’s babies; I thought about their solidarity together. This doesn’t even compare to the burden of knowing that in a matter of six months, your baby will be stripped from your hands, and often put into foster care if the mother’s family does not take them in. Yet, I saw the women smile and laugh. One said she named her son Moses after the prophet, because she feels that he is a warrior in this prison; this gave her strength. Again, I thought about how resilient and patient these women were. I admired the amount of صبر they had and only hoped that I could be nearly as strong in my life.

The favelas offered a whole new look into what this strength could mean to a community. We facilitated workshops for adults and children in what is known as a favela. A favela is a unique low income area in Brazil. Looking at the favelas and walking through them, I felt as though I had already been there. They were almost a carbon copy of the older and more established Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. The children had the biggest and brightest smiles. The elderly had the strongest spirits even after living so long in such harsh conditions. On the bus ride back, a friend of mine was very sad. When I talked to him, he said he kept thinking about all the shit these kids have been through in their lives. I simply smiled and said, they have the strength to handle it. I really do believe that the universe does not throw something on you that you cannot handle. These children are raised in circumstances that enable them to develop a level of صبر that we can’t even understand or compare to. They find ways to carry on and strength that radiates through their smiles. I wish no one in the world was put in such conditions, but the truth is many are living these conditions and worse everyday. If we want to wallow in sadness of how depressing that is, we surely all can; but that won’t do anyone any good. I admire their strength and I do not fear that they will not survive because I know they will. I refuse to think of them with pity, but I insist on admiring all those who have lived through much worse than what I have experienced because the truth is, they can teach us a lot.

Creative Outlets, a post by Shannon Harper

9 Jun
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Michigan and UniRio students with teens at a workshop for Teatro em Comunidades. Shannon Harper is in pink on the right. All of the photos in this post are from this workshop.

Hello, my name is Shannon Harper, and I am currently a rising sophomore studying Theatre at the University of Michigan. When I was admitted into the university, I was also selected to take part in the Summer Bridge Scholars Program that is provided to incoming first year students through the Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP). That means the summer before my freshman year I was on campus early and took classes such as math and my first year English. This allowed me to become well acquainted with things at the university such as the location of class buildings and helpful resources, as well as being academically ahead of other freshmen entering in the fall. This program came with many benefits, one of them being the LSA Passport Scholarship, which was a scholarship for a passport that was given to incoming CSP freshmen that fall semester. This program was provided by the LSA Scholarship office in partnership with the Center for Global and Intercultural Study (CGIS). When going to the CGIS office to turn in forms for my passport, there was a man talking about study abroad programs, and I asked were there any programs that included theatre. He told me he knew about one program and gave me a book that included all the information. After looking into the program and doing more research, I found myself in the class, Theatre and Incarceration, and fell right into the lap of an organization called the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). I decided to come on this trip to Brazil because the whole summer in my CGIS meetings I told my friends I would never study abroad because I was too scared to go out of my comfort zone. Months later I re-evaluated my thinking and decided that if I always stayed in my comfort zone then I would never grow as an individual. I signed up for this study abroad program before I knew about PCAP, but I’m proud that I pushed myself to try new things because if I didn’t I wouldn’t have found a lot of the great people that I now know today.

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This winter semester was my very first workshop, and I had the honor of facilitating a group at Miller Manor alongside Cozine Welch and Patrick Bates. Miller Manor is a community workshop that is open to everyone but was created for returning citizens coming home from prison. This workshop connected me with people I will never forget and memories I will always have. This workshop gives previously incarcerated people a space to talk about topics such as the prison system, institutionalized racism, and a lot of other important issues. A recurring topic this semester was adjusting to life when coming home. All of these conversations then make their way into an amazing final performance. The Miller Manor workshop meant a lot to me because it reminded me of the people from home. When your a black person or person of color and go to a predominantly white university, it can be hard to find people that relate to your experiences.

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My favorite workshop in Brazil has been the favela workshop. The favela is a poor neighborhood that is systematically disadvantaged. The university (UniRio) facilitates three workshops in the favela, and I was assigned to the group that worked with middle school aged children. This was my favorite because like the Miller Manor workshop, the kids reminded me of home. The games they taught us reminded me of the improv based games I played in high school, and although my Portuguese is terrible, I was able to communicate effectively  and have great laughs. One girl named Mariah made me laugh a lot when we were partners in a game where we had to change something about our appearance and guess what our partner had changed. She was really bad at the game, not even realizing when I took my glasses off. I personally think it’s very important to bring creative outlets to teens because theatre is a form of therapy. Teenage years can be very rough, and just getting a group together and playing theatre games can be a great outlet for many. A lot of poor neighborhoods don’t have any theatre programs and lack art programs as a whole, which means many people go through life without ever even trying theatre because it’s not an option. The first step is just having a consistent person show up every week. The teens in the favela probably can’t attend every workshop, But they know every time they do, someone from the university will be there, and they will have a great time. Eventually word spreads, and people bring their friends. Before you know it, a small community of its own can form, but it can’t happen if no one is there to show up. These past few weeks in Brazil I have experienced the raw theatre I originally fell in love with when I was younger. The type of theatre when it’s just a small group of people wanting to create something great without access to a budget, training, or even a stage. I truly believe that is the best theatre because it teaches a person to be innovative and persevere.IMG_5904.jpg

Accessibility Abroad, a post by Syd Lio Riley

8 Jun

Oi! My name is Lio Riley. I’m a rising sophomore at the University of Michigan studying theatre arts and (potentially) American Culture. Before classes even started Fall semester, I met the lovely Ashley Lucas, who said she took a group of students to Brazil each summer to study theatre and incarceration. I looked her in the eye and said, “I’m going with you.” Almost a year of facilitating workshops in Michigan prisons and communities has passed, and here I am in the Mango Tree Hostel writing about my experiences doing the same in Brazil. With only a week left, it still doesn’t feel real.

In the time between meeting Ashley and traveling to Brazil, I learned a lot about how prisons work. I took her class The Atonement Project in the fall and Theatre and Incarceration in the winter (both of which are co-taught by the lovely Cozine Welch. Hi, Cozine!). In addition to gaining an unexpected interest and passion for carceral studies and activism, I began to study the intersections of transgender identity and disability in the American Culture department (Hi, Prof L!). I’m a transgender student at the university, and I’ve been living with a chronic pain condition in my knees for just over six years. Both of these identities, along with academic study and my newfound passion for prison activism and justice work, have lead me to ask a lot of questions on this trip concerning accessibility and representation, in theatre and theatre work abroad.

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An example of tactile paving on a sidewalk

One of the first things I noticed after exiting my plane in São Paulo was the tactile paving found on every walking surface of the airport. Tactile paving is a system of ground tiles with raised bumps and ridges, used to help blind and visually impaired people navigate public spaces. In the US, they’re commonly placed at the ends of sidewalks, but I’d never seen entire networks of them inside buildings. When we left the airport, I found them lining every sidewalk and many hallways inside buildings, too. I thought this was pretty cool — the more I learn about accessibility, the more I recognize it (or the lack of it) in public spaces. It made me wonder why we didn’t use tactile paving this generously in the US. Still, as I began to navigate the landscapes of Florianopolis and Rio, I found the cities to still be largely inaccessible.

 

With pavement more frequently broken than not and a lack of curb cuts (small ramps built into the ends of sidewalks for wheelchair or stroller users) everywhere, the physical accessibility of the cities has been frustrating. For me, a broken escalator or elevator that requires a key to use can be the difference between a fun night out with friends or missing the next day’s activities (I’m writing this from the hostel while my classmates sing and dance at the hospital). This was reflected in the prisons, as well. The conditions of the prisons we’ve seen have been heartbreaking. As a non-incarcerated person navigating the prison, there were often only stairs or incredibly steep ramps. We saw very limited space for the folks incarcerated to get sunlight or fresh air and in one prison, large trash-can sized bins filled with rice left out in the open for bugs to land on and crawl in. It made me wonder what accessibility looked like for the people living inside. With how everything else looked, I wasn’t optimistic.

In addition to just the physical accessibility of space for people with physical disabilities, accessibility also is about accessibility of education and other government-provided services. We learned right away that many of our friends in Brazil take the bus for several hours each day to get to school. Some take multiple busses, and even boats. We also learned when traveling to the favelas that in some places, streets are so narrow that cars can’t fit through. Many are built into hillsides which makes them difficult to navigate, and because there are no street names or house numbers, people living in the favelas can’t receive mail, and also have a hard time finding employment without a permanent address. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty. In prisons, the religion you practice can determine your living situation, making religious freedom complicated. Evangelicals are provided with “nicer” living accommodations and more colorful surroundings due to the prevalence of Evangelicalism in Brazil, while Catholics are more crowded and don’t have access to as many things. For the trans women living in the men’s prison, this can mean choosing between denouncing their identities and losing access to their community in order to claim a religion for access to slightly better conditions, or claiming no religion to maintain the ability to live as women and attend the theatre workshop exclusive to trans women. Most incarcerated people are denied access to any programming at all, as we’ve learned after visiting several facilities here.

Many of these problems are too large for any one of us to solve in the three weeks we spend here, and I’ve been struggling with finding ways I can help improve accessibility while also honoring my own body and accessibility needs. Throughout the trip, the most surprising thing I’ve learned is how central accessibility is to PCAP. By literally bringing theatre into spaces like the prisons, hospitals, and favelas, we are making theatre and the arts accessible. One of the most striking examples of this was in a women’s facility called Unidade Materno Infantil, a facility where incarcerated mothers can keep their newborn children for about six months before either their families care for them or the babies are turned over to the state. The workshop participants included both mothers and their babies, meaning that many women (and some of us!) were occupied feeding, changing, soothing, and holding babies. Because there was such an obvious need for theatre games that accommodated this situation, we played each game sitting down, and adapted the game or our own movements to the needs of ourselves and the group. While the obvious reason for the accommodations was the babies, playing the games sitting down alleviated my pain personally and made it easier for me to facilitate and participate.

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Materno Infantil workshop facilitators standing in front of their bus after workshop

The fact that these games were so easy to adapt for mothers and their new children, but we still struggle to adapt theatre for folks with other less-obvious access needs frustrates me at times.  PCAP is built on uncertain schedules and arbitrary rules of the prison, as well as creativity and improvisation, so accessibility is often an easier goal in our small workshops. Not to say that PCAP has mastered accessibility — there is always work to do — but we can use these principles and mindsets when addressing accessibility and disability representation in theatre as a whole. This starts with how we include disabled people in our conversations. Do we use language like “deformed” to describe babies who are born disabled because of the Flint Water Crisis? Do we put an elderly actress in a wheelchair for the entirety of a show, but prompt her to get up and dance when comedic timing calls for it? Do we expect less from the elderly folks in our workshops than we do of the young ones, and express surprise when they actually can act (or twerk!) better than most of us? Changing our own attitudes of what disability looks like, what counts as “comedy,” and what kinds of people are disabled can lead to a larger attitude change that hopefully builds a more accessible world for everyone — whether that means physically, financially, religiously, based on gender or sexuality, or any other reason.

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Teatro Renascer participants and facilitators in a tableau from a short scene. They are all posing with different expressions of fear.

Navigating my own access needs abroad has been a challenge, and I’ve learned many of my classmates are struggling similarly. It is incredibly frustrating at times, especially when I have to miss class, workshops, and other fun outings, but it’s made me keenly aware of where accessibility falls short in other areas, both here and in the US. Learning about the work our friends in Brazil are doing with trans women in prison makes me wish PCAP offered resources like that, and has encouraged me to pursue the study and advocacy for transgender people in prisons at home upon our return. Facilitating a theatre workshop with a baby in my arms reminded me that theatre is secondary to access and inclusion. There’s a lot of work to be done in regards to accessibility in and out of prison, as well as in theatre, but addressing the problems that exist and recognizing solutions we have found can help us continue to push for an even more inclusive environment in our workshops and our world.

Rio de Janeiro, a post by Julia Barron

6 Jun

Hello readers,

My name is Julia! I recently graduated this May with a Bachelor of Arts with a double major in Psychology and English. I’m excited to write that this coming fall I will be returning to the University of Michigan to begin my graduate studies in Developmental Psychology. I was first introduced to PCAP and Ashley Lucas through the lovely Justin Gordan, who has been deeply connected to PCAP since his arrival at the University of Michigan. I will forever be grateful to Justin for introducing me to PCAP and Ashley. This past winter semester I have had the pleasure of joining PCAP and facilitating a workshop with a group of youth at Lincoln Center located in Highland Park, MI. Lincoln Center is an all-male juvenile justice detention center that focuses on giving the youth tools and resources to move towards a life of rehabilitation. 

As good as the intentions of the administrators of Lincoln Center might be in “rehabilitating” the youth that are placed in their care, I can attest that rehabilitating a child should never be at the cost of locking 12- 19 year olds up behind bars and treating them as if they have no purpose or humanity. Through my limited time in working with the faculty at Lincoln Center has been problematic in the sense that they have vocalized statements such as, “This place is no different than prison, and the boys know it,” or “You have to remember that most of these boys are dangerous and are heading to prison no matter what we do for them here.” We hold this concept that children are resilient, but Frederick Douglass said it best, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Two points to ponder here: 1. Just because a child can be resilient does not mean they should have to be resilient in the face of poverty, urban violence, a failing education system, and a cycle of trauma, and 2. Are children really resilient with all the broken adults we have existing in this world? 

I wanted to continue the work I do with the youth back in Michigan to Brazil because I’ve learned the importance of a PCAP workshop and how much hope, joy, and love they bring to the people on the inside. Often at the end of a PCAP workshop one or a couple of the youth in my workshop would echo during Rose, Thorn, Bud (a PCAP exercise that allows everyone to express an enjoyment, trouble, and future hope) that PCAP made them feel human again and that us being there was the only reminder that someone believed in them. I wanted to continue this work in Brazil because everyone deserves to be treated as a human, to experience joy, hope, laughter, kindness, and having another human believing in them. 

This week we’ve entwined our PCAP workshops with our Rio de Janeiro friends at UniRio and have been fortunate enough to participate in their workshops they have here in Rio. Every Saturday morning our UniRio facilitators do various theatre workshops in the Maré favela, including an intergenerational population workshop that focuses on movement, dance, and laughter! On Saturday morning, my group had the pleasure of participating in the intergenerational theatre workshop where we danced, laughed, and experienced a series of movement through exercises and theatre games that required using our entire body from head to toe.  My group will be returning to the Maré favela this Saturday where we will be facilitating the theatre workshop! I am excited for our group to merge our PCAP games and exercises with this beautiful group of people! 

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PCAP and UniRio students, Prof. Clarisse Lopes, and members of the intergenerational workshop in the Ramos section of the Maré favela.

The favelas here in Brazil are complicated places because they represent more than the poverty and crime attached to them. The favelas hold a history that is often overlooked and romanticized by tourist here in Rio de Janeiro. Here in Brazil the favelas are birthed out of slavery. Many of the people who live in the favelas work in the city but have little to no money which means they can not afford to live in the city. Often, to get to the city they have to take a boat and two buses, but keep in mind that public transportation does not reach the favelas. 

Also, many parts of the city are gated where an individual has to be buzzed in to have access to a building – this is to keep the people who are homeless out. When walking the city of Rio it is common to see a person sleeping on the street, using a plastic bag as a blanket and their shoes for a pillow. I have no words to describe the heartache of seeing another human sleeping on the streets of Rio or along an underpass of a bridge. No human should know this suffering. 

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Tourists here in Rio are bombarded with tourist attractions such as (to name a few) Cristo Redentor, Pão de Açúcar, and Escadara Selarón, which offer us tourists a beautiful experience while here in Rio. Along with the attractions listed above, tourists are welcomed to partake in a “Rocinha Favela Walking tour,” which absolutely mortifies me. Rio using their favelas to generate money and tourism is problematic, horrifying, and deeply disturbing. The people and government of Rio ostracize the individuals and communities who live in the favelas and yet they think nothing of exploiting them for profit. Today on our day off, most of us got to experience the Féria Hippie (the hippie fair) in a town square called Praça General Osório where vendors sell anything and everything your heart could ever want to buy! Along with food, belts, dresses, and bracelets,came paintings of the city that were colorful and held rich meanings of Rio. One particular vendors paintings stopped me in my tracks where he was selling hand paintings of a favela. The painting of the favela led me to a series of questions: Is someone else’s pain and misfortunes meant for my gazing pleasure? How can you paint something that isn’t yours to voice? How can you be okay with profiting on behalf of others? These questions generated from a place that extended beyond a painting but from a bigger meaning – it’s about the faces and voices unseen and unheard within these paintings that will be placed on someone’s wall for viewing pleasure. Romanticizing the pain and misfortunes of another human is never okay. 

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We have one more week in Rio in which I am looking forward to experiencing more theatre exchange workshops between our UniRio friends, the singing hospital, and the upcoming theatre workshops in the prisons and with our friends in the favela. Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts. 

Sexta-Feira A Noite Em Flint (Friday Night in Flint), a post by Kendall Young

4 Jun

Heyo!

My name is Kendall Young! I just completed my first year at the University of Michigan! Yay! I am currently an Acting major in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. I was first introduced to PCAP during my audition for the BFA Acting program. After completing my two monologues and answering a few questions, the theatre faculty was curious to know if I had any questions about their program or the university in general. After nervously standing for what felt like an excruciatingly long time, I finally formulated a genuine question of interest. I wanted to know if there was any social justice related theatre on campus. Prior to attending college, I was always interested in bringing the arts into underprivileged and underrepresented communities. I believe the arts is a medium for educational and emotional understanding, thus making it one of the most important forms of expression. To my surprise, the theatre faculty mentioned the Prison Creative Arts Project. They mentioned how PCAP  was a campus organization that facilitated arts workshops within local incarcerated facilities. Upon hearing this explanation, I was immediately interested in this organization and U of M!

Following my admittance into the university, I immediately became involved with PCAP second semester of my first year. After enrolling into Ashley Lucas’ Theatre and Incarceration course, I had a formal meeting with her concerning both the course and the study abroad program to Brazil. After hearing that there was a possibility I could do this work in another country, I immediately fell in love with the idea of traveling to Brazil! However, I thought there was a slim chance that I would actually get in since I was only a little ole freshman. So, you can only imagine how shocked I was when I received my acceptance into the program! This shock soon turned into excitement as I began to facilitate my first workshop at a Michigan federal prison called Milan. The talented men at Milan truly made my second semester of college unforgettably special. Although our time together was very short, the joy and laughter that came out of this workshop only inspired me to want to do more of this work! Milan was my first testament to how important and life-changing this work can be for both the facilitators and workshop participants.

Along with the importance of the PCAP workshops, I also learned the importance of social justice and political theatre. I was given the honor to be in José Casas’ new monologue based play, Flint. The monologues within Flint were all collected from conversations and interactions that Casas had with individuals who had a connection to the city. In the production, I was cast as the Ensemble 3 track which included U of M Student, The Commissioner, and A MotherThe Commissioner and A Mother both being stand alone monologues. This was my first time being in a politically relevant production that expressed social activism artistically. After being accepted into the Brazil study abroad program, I was then provided with the opportunity to perform the two stand alone monologues alongside a student from UniRio who would perform the monologues in a Portuguese translation. For an entire semester, I only imagined what the performance was going to entail: one monologue done in English followed by another done in Portuguese, the two of us standing on opposite ends of the stage speaking back and forth between the two languages, or maybe it would be a combination of the two. I truly had no idea what to expect, but my imagination could not have prepared me for the beautiful and powerful connections that would be made between our American society and the current political climate in Brazil.

Through the process of preparing for UniRio’s adaption of the two monologues from Flint, I spent a few rehearsals following the outstanding direction of Professor Miguel Vellinho. Having done this production a set way for a two week run in Ann Arbor and one performance in Flint, I was very excited and a bit nervous to see what Miguel had in store! When I walked into the rehearsal space, I was immediately greeted by the gleeful UniRio students along with piles of cardboard signs with phrases and names in Portuguese. I attempted to read the signs, but couldn’t understand the meaning (I really should’ve done more than 1800 points on Duolingo). Fortunately, one of the students took the time to explain a few of the signs that were lying across the floor. The signs were out of order, but the student proceeded to explain the meaning. “Sexta-Feira À Noite Em Flint.” This translates to “A Friday Night in Flint” which was the name of the production.

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Following the explanation of the signs, I saw another sign with the name “Marielle.” This name was very unfamiliar to me. One of the UniRio students asked me if I knew the story of Marielle. I nervously chuckled and said no. The student looked at me as if I was from a different planet! Not accepting my answer, she then repeated her previous question. Still unsure, I nervously let out another chuckle. The student explained that Marielle was a black city council member who was outspoken about many issues concerning police brutality along with the political climate of Brazil. The student then concluded by delivering the devastating news about Marielle’s brutal assassination. Hearing this revelation made me feel ignorant. I felt embarrassed that the simple mention of this woman’s name didn’t stimulant any memory, remorse, or pride of her legacy. It saddened me that I could not put her name to her face. Only moments before, she had just been an unknown name painted on a piece of cardboard. Seconds ago, she ceased to exist and now my mind was racing with fabricated images of what I imagined to be this woman’s legacy. All my fabrications that should have been real memories and true images.

Marielle’s name was just one of many that appeared on the painted cardboard signs for the performance. I unfortunately was not able to learn the stories of all the names of the Brazilian individuals who were painted on the posters, but I only hope that their names are remembered and said with love, pride, and respect.

The UniRio adaption of the Flint monologues proved to be a night of passion, power, and promise. Through redefining the importance of social justice theatre, the performance gave a clear message about the connection of the injustices faced in both countries. The performance became less about Flint specifically and more about the true issues of injustices towards people of color and individuals with lower income. This performance truly reminded me of the importance of the arts. Theatre is not only an outlet to escape your own reality, but can be a lens to capture a glimpse of someone else’s reality.

Experiences of Misogyny and Machismo in Latin America, a post by Lisa Garcia

3 Jun
Olá gente!
My name is Lisa, and last month I graduated with a B.A. in international studies. I came to PCAP after watching Ashley’s performance of her play, Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass. It was such a touching topic and an incredible performance that I decided I needed to meet this woman and be her friend ASAP. I visited her office, she told me all about her work with PCAP, and a few weeks later I was enrolled in her Winter class. I spent second semester co-facilitating a theatre workshop at the federal men’s prison in Milan. Throughout this time I learned a lot about the complexities of prison bureaucracy, disorganization, overcrowding, and understaffing. As a volunteer, I saw that we were the last priority because of these and lots more forces working together. I also experienced firsthand what theatre can do in spaces that don’t allow space for vulnerability and creative expression.
I wanted to come do this work here in Brazil because I genuinely believe in PCAP’s values and mission, and because my heart is in Latin America. I was born in Guatemala, so I’ve had the privilege of traveling in and experiencing several Latin American and Caribbean countries. The University has also allowed me these opportunities through study abroad programs.
In every community I enter I am always very aware of how patriarchy affects women. Coming to Brazil, I felt no different. In my experience of my own, as well as other Latin American cultures, machismo and misogyny are pervasive in social life. Women and LGBTQ folks are, in a lot of similar and different ways to the U.S., treated unjustly and violently. However, I’ve had a few refreshing experiences here in Rio, as well as in Florianópolis, that I wanted to share. I believe other patriarchal societies, not just in Latin America and the Caribbean, can learn from these practices.
 
When we visited the women’s prison in Floripa I learned that, by law, women’s prisons can only have female staff for the safety of the incarcerated women. Men’s facilities don’t have any similar rules, so anyone can work there. Although it would be better if none of the men or women were locked away and forgotten in the first place, I was at least relieved to know that male staff don’t pose a threat to the incarcerated women of Brazil. 
 
In Rio, while riding the metro, I noticed that there’s a pink line behind the yellow safety line on the platform, but only for the length of two metro cars. Upon asking, I learned that there are metro cars reserved exclusively for women during morning and evening rush hours. I thought about how much safer I would feel if I rode a New York subway car with no men on it. I was impressed with how this city is trying to provide protection for women in public spaces. However, this is not the case largely throughout Brazil. The metro only runs through the wealthier parts of Rio, so relatively few people have access to it at all. This is not to invalidate that the system is inspiringly progressive in the first place.
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The experience that stayed with me the most, though, was facilitating a theatre workshop on Friday for trans women in a men’s prison. In spite of their identity, these women are still locked up at the men’s facility. Julia, Kym, and I accompanied five UniRio students to their relatively new workshop: it’s only been happening since December 2018 (less than six months). It took a very long time for the staff to let us in because Friday is also the day when families of the incarcerated persons can come drop off food and hygiene supplies for their loved ones. This is not allowed in U.S. prisons, but because food and resources in Brazilian prisons are so poor in quantity and quality, some families must trek long distances to make sure their incarcerated loved one has access to decent necessities. There was a long line of mainly women; some held Bibles, all held giant, heavy bags of supplies. After an hour and a half of waiting outside, we finally made it into our workshop space. As the women slowly arrived, I noticed that we had a trans staff member participating in the workshop, and the rest of the women seemed to have a friendly relationship with her. This would never happen in U.S. prisons, so it was refreshing and also comforting – in a twisted way – knowing that these women had a sort of ally among their jailers.
Once we were all seated in a circle we did introductions and talked about PCAP and how our work connects to the work we are doing in Brazil. The women had a lot of great questions about PCAP, our motives for coming to Brazilian prisons, and about the U.S. prison system. This was humbling and encouraging to me because they didn’t merely accept that these Americans were here to teach them some theatre, but made everyone in the space think critically about each of our positionality and the greater impact our work has on incarcerated people, women, and the LGBTQ community. This start made our workshop feel a lot more vulnerable and safe. Though we only had time to play one game, I was able to teach them a PCAP favorite, “Funky Chicken,” in the Portuguese that I’ve been working on, which was a personally proud moment. We each had a turn at dancing our funky chicken, laughing, and encouraging each other. By the end we were all hot, tired, and sweaty, but also filled with joy. We ended with a circle, holding hands, rotating, singing and dancing a beautiful song about community and solidarity. I continue to be amazed by how the arts can transcend physical walls and iron bars, but also cultural and language barriers. Our hugs and kisses goodbye were so heartfelt and genuine; I’ll never forget them. I was sad that we only had forty minutes with these marvelous women, but so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet them and tell you all about them. Maybe you’ll feel like telling these stories, too, about the beautiful humans we so inhumanely imprison and forget about, and about how it should be different and more compassionate.
With love and hope,
Lisa

Teatro Renascer: Humanity and Individuality, a post by Eddie Williams

2 Jun

My name is Eddie Williams, and I recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A) in Acting Performance, a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Psychology and minor in Community Action and Social Change (CASC). I have been apart of the Prison Creative Project (PCAP) community since January 2018. The decision to be a part of such a meaningful organization has changed my life and opened my eyes to what the arts can do in various environments.

Coming to Brazil with PCAP has been such an amazing experience so far. I have had the great opportunity to relive this trip because I am one of the few people that did this program last year. This year is different though in terms it of allowing me to see things from a different perspective as a returner and do workshops that I couldn’t do last year. I am specifically referring to the theatre workshop we recently did with Teatro Renascer, an intergenerational project in which students and women try to address the stereotypes that people have about older folks. We had a really great time playing theatre games with women whose age ranged all the way up to 90 years old. You wouldn’t have known though because they were just as vibrant, mobile, and active as the younger people in the group. Their energy gave us the extra push of energy from the time we arrived and when it was time to leave.

One activity in particular I had a lot of interest in. We basically were divided into four groups and were assigned a song; each group had their own song. We listened to our music and was given the objective to create four different tableaux (frozen images) that told a short story. We were then given a few minutes to converse with our group and prepare to present. I took a lot of interest in this activity because it was so cool to see how each group interpreted the music that they were assigned. It is so interesting to me how us as humans process information and the way we react or interpret it is based on our own previous knowledge or experience with that information. As an audience, we were given the task to figure out what the images were and what story each group was trying to tell. I believe our ability to do such tasks, both presenting images based on the music and then recognizing what those images were, speaks to our connectedness as humans in general and our individuality. Both are beautiful and should be equally acknowledged and celebrated.

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In the Teatro Renascer workshop, from left to right, Teresa (the oldest member of the workshop at 90, Shannon, Naguissa, Eddie, and Lio.

This notion was reaffirmed for me at this workshop, but the thought was introduced earlier on our second day in Rio. We went to UniRio and had a theatre game exchange with one of the classes. We were basically separated into three groups but as a collective group we all listened to the same music. One group was given the task to draw what the music made them feel, another group had to do a movement based on the music, and the last group had to write their own phrases. When it came time to present, I saw the beauty in how we all listened to the same music but interpreted it differently.

When I think of people inside of prison, I think it is important that we see them as human, and not criminals or animals locked up cages. We are connected as humans and these arts-based workshops create opportunities for them to feel human again. It is also just as important to see them as individuals with their own set of experiences, identities, and previous knowledge that is different from person to person. Acknowledging these things will help in alleviating the stereotypes and boxes that we tend to put people in prison. These people are bigger than their current circumstances. Their humanity and individuality helps us to see that.

 

Our Work IS Important, a post by Kymberley Leggett

31 May

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Hi, I’m Kym! I graduated this May with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and double-minored in Music and Community Action & Social Change with a certificate in Poverty Solutions, Action, & Engagement. I have the pleasure of enjoying this experience in Brazil with PCAP for a second year. Coming back to Brazil, I knew some things would be different. The sand on the beaches would be in different places, the friends I made last year may have graduated, and the political context under which we do our work here would have a whole new stride. This would become apparent, first, when we had our arrival orientation. The black students were warned that the state of Santa Catarina may be more challenging for us because of the way things have happened politically. It is things like this that make me realize the importance of all the work we do here in Brazil.

At the University, we were able to attend a class where we shared games with the Brazilians, and they shared some with us. Not only was it fun, but having the game-share allows us to build upon the collection of games we have so we have more fun, meaningful games to play with the communities we go into. Also, building relationships with the students at the University allows us to get a feel for Brazil in a safe, supportive environment. We learn more Portuguese by having people to practice with. Even when we don’t retain the words, we learn ways to get past the language barrier and convey what we are trying to communicate through hand movements or speaking other languages (like Spanish or French)… whatever works! We learn how to navigate areas that are unfamiliar to us and sense the general mood of a room. We also get a feel for how the politics of the country impact our own lives and the lives of those we work with. With some of this knowledge, we headed into two prisons this week.

Finally, we were able to hold our workshop with a group of incarcerated men working in the wood workshop. It was very clear how much the institution had taken over their lives. Even when we began the workshop, the men had their hands behind them, the way they’re expected to walk throughout the corridors of the prison. They were hesitant, at first, to let loose with us. Being surrounded by big men with guns and random people who don’t speak your language isn’t a situation most people would choose to be in. After we played a few games, though, the security left the room, and the tension lessened. We were able to smile a bit bigger and laugh a little harder. Laughing is special! It has no language, so people of all types can bond over it. It makes a positive impact on those who do it. Unfortunately, not all people can do it all the time, though, so it is important to do it while you can.  We didn’t get to spend much time together, but knowing we had the opportunity to bring a workshop to them and to hear them speak without the formality they’re used to brought the day to a nice ending. We’ll continue to do great work on this trip with women, children, and more men and I’m excited to see what comes of it this time around!

Solidarity and Storytelling: The Women of Joinville, a post by Hannah Agnew

30 May

My name is Hannah Agnew, and I will soon be starting my senior year at the University of Michigan with a major in Sociology and a minor in Crime and Justice. I have been involved in PCAP since my freshman year of college and it has completely changed my life, to the point that I have decided to enter a career field in which I can work with incarcerated women. For over a year now, I have been facilitating the Sisters Within at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the longest running theatre troupe in a women’s correctional facility in the U.S. As I have been doing the work here in Brazil, I have constantly had the Sisters on my mind and in my heart––I truly wish they could be here with us.  

Throughout my week of facilitating theatre workshops in correctional facilities located in Florianópolis, Brazil, the pain and frustration of seeing what we do to incarcerated folks all over the world has really hit me. A few days ago our group was given a guided tour of a men’s correctional facility which felt like a bad joke–– we walked along the top of the wall that forms the periphery of the grounds hearing the administration relish in how “progressive” they believed their facility to be as we observed fragments of the men’s everyday lives from a literal line between freedom and captivity. While this tour was necessary in helping to establish a relationship with this facility and beginning new theatre workshops there, I felt a wave of frustration wash over me as I realized that this work really never gets any easier. But after thinking about it, I realized that seeing the injustices that happen in prisons shouldn’t ever become easier and that we must always keep fighting for those inside. While this week I have seen humanity at some of its worst in the way we confine and attempt to strip incarcerated folks of their sense of self, I have also seen at every facility I have gone to that despite the restrictive conditions they are kept in, people inside continue to maintain their identities and a sense community in the most creative and inspiring ways. I was particularly struck by the group of women I worked with at a prison in Joinville, a town located three hours outside of Florianópolis.

Due to the fact that the workshop is facilitated in a very small space, only four of us were able to join in––me, Ashley, Vicente (a theatre professor from UDESC), and one of his students. We were accompanied by the two women who regularly facilitate the workshop and a journalist who was able to take pictures of our time together. When we arrived at the facility, I was taken aback by a long line of primarily women waiting outside, all dressed in the same uniform-like outfits consisting of a white t-shirt and grey sweat pants. I soon learned that they were visitors of the women inside, required to dress this way so that guards could distinguish them from the incarcerated women, and I was painfully reminded of the fact that when someone is prison, their loved ones are held captive by the prison as well. Not only did these visitors have to go through the frustrating and often humiliating ritual of being searched by guards in order to simply see their loved ones, but the prison took a sort of ownership over them as part of their individuality was diminished by the outfits (similar to the incarcerated women).

The women’s prison is located right next door to a men’s prison, and in the middle of the two lies the programs building, which is shared by both the men and the women (but never at the same time). We later learned that the room we had our workshop in was also used by the men for literacy classes, but the women did not have access to them and were not able to learn how to read or write. As we made our way to the room we were overtaken by a toxic smell in the air, a mix of paint fumes and other unknown substances, and not long after we all began uncontrollably sneezing, coughing, and trying to exude the foreign stench from our bodies. I wanted to run outside and take in the nearby fresh air, and my heart broke for the women who are constantly surrounded by these conditions, being seemingly poisoned by the cruel and unforgiving institution.

After adjusting to the air, we finally made it to the room where we would facilitate the workshop, and I was completely taken aback. I had never been in a space like this for a workshop. It consisted of two adjoining cage-like rooms separated by large metal bars with gaps in them big enough for us to reach through and touch the women but still effective in segregating and emphasizing the difference in status between the facilitators and the incarcerated women. We were to have two workshops in this room, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and during the entirety of them we would have to adjust all of our games and exercises to working through these bars. I had a feeling similar to the day before at the men’s prison, struck by how the facilities used very physical ways to remind the folks inside where they were. But despite all of this, the women were an absolute joy to work with,and I will never forget how inspired I felt by their creativity and determination to create art with us despite the literal and symbolic barrier that separated us.PHOTO-2019-05-27-20-48-23.jpg

In the first workshop we began with an activity in which we got together in pairs and helped each other stretch and gave our partners massages. While I was paired with Vicente, I watched as several women worked with each other through the bars, and at some moments I even forgot that we were separated. For the rest of the workshop we primarily led group games in which all of us held hands and formed a circle that permeated through the bars. The women we worked with did not let the barrier stop them from connecting with us and each other, and the joy I felt in that room was palpable. Despite the prison telling us we were different and separate, we still found a way to create community which I think is a very common theme in all of the PCAP workshops that we do. After the first session, we facilitators left for lunch as we waited to begin the second workshop. It has always been difficult leaving prison and knowing that everybody else has to stay behind, but I particularly felt it in this moment as we all had the privilege of being able to decompress, relax, and take in the fresh air while the beautiful women we had just worked with were forced back into their monotonous and dehumanizing every-day routine at the facility.

During the second workshop, we facilitated mostly all of the same games from the morning and of course these women were just as excited, creative, and joyful as the first group. At the end of our time together, I told them all how touched I was by their ability to be so open in this space and that when I returned home I would carry this experience with me and tell the Sisters all about them. The women then proceeded to ask all about the Sisters and even expressed their wishes to exchange letters with them, despite the fact that have never met and probably never will. It was beautiful to see a sense of solidarity that transcended cultural and geographical barriers between these women and the Sisters.

Soon after, they began a political discussion about their wishes to protest the current President and climate of their country, but someone expressed their frustration in the fact that they could not do anything from behind bars. But Vicente was quick to point out that this was not true. He went on to explain how theatre can be used as a form of protest and that several folks he has worked with have been given permission to perform on the outside and create something that represents what they want others to know about them. The women seemed particularly excited about this, and I felt a new wave of passion and intensity take over the room. On this note we headed out of the prison, and it left me with a lot to think about.

With this experience I have a newfound passion for the work that PCAP does, and I have a deeper understanding of the power of theatre and the creative arts in creating solidarity and enabling folks in total institutions to preserve their humanity. Each workshop was only two hours long, but even in this short amount of time, I felt like I had gotten to know the women on a deep and personal level (despite not speaking the same language). I saw a deep sense of community and solidarity between the women, facilitators and even the Sisters, and I saw everybody in the room use theatre to permeate the wall between us. I often take theatre for granted in my everyday life, but in this context I realized just how powerful it can be in uniting folks and maintaining agency.  I also have immense respect for the women that regularly facilitate the workshop, one of whom drives three hours there and three hours back home every week. I learned so much about movement, language, and vocals from them, and I am excited to shared everything with the Sisters when I get back home. In working with these women I realized how much I still have to learn as a facilitator and how valuable it is to exchange different pedagogies in order to bring new perspectives into our workshops. Throughout the entirety of this trip, I have gained so much insight not just from the participants but from the other facilitators, scholars, and students from UDESC who are conducting work similar to ours. I don’t think it will be possible for me to ever forget this experience, and I hope to keep the women, both participants and facilitators alike, in my mind and heart even when I leave Brazil. I find myself wishing I could tell you all even more about these women and that they could be on the outside to tell you all their stories themselves, but I hope that this post gives you all a sense of the beauty, creativity, and resilience that they all possess.

 

(Re)Imagining Masculinity and Feminisms as Child’s Play, a post by Sergio Barrera

28 May

Hello readers! My name is Sergio G. Barrera, and I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan. I specifically study Latino fraternities at historically and predominantly white institutions as sites in which masculinity is reimagined via the notions of familia and brotherhood. Weird, isn’t it? Can we find decentralizations of masculinity in homosocial spaces?

I began being involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project when I took the Theatre and Incarceration class in winter of 2018. In the summer of 2018 I was Ashley’s Program Assistant for the Brazil study abroad program and have since worked alongside PCAP in various capacities. PCAP was established in 1990 with the hopes of bringing programming to incarcerated peoples in the state of Michigan and has since expanded to including a literary review, in which the men and women can publish; PCAP also hosts its yearly art show. PCAP has grown so much that for the last six years students from the U of M travel to Brazil for three weeks to study theatre for marginalized communities (Theatre of the Oppressed) and to facilitate workshops in spaces that the creative arts would not go to. I have volunteered for two semesters at the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan, where I have had the pleasure of getting to meet some of the most charming, charismatic, and talented individuals who are waiting to be given a green light to flourish. I must say that I went into this program wanting to reconnect with my creative arts side. I grew up being a dancer and singing but found myself losing my creative edge due to all the reading and writing in graduate school. Thus, I could never find balance between expressing myself through my body and expressing myself through my words. My professional persona was overtaking my high energetic and fun persona that I am when I perform and this was not sitting well. However, through PCAP I have found marvelous things, many of which have to do with my research on masculinity among men of color and constructing a sense of home. So much has been the influence that I am writing about 7 fraternity men, six of my fraternity brothers and me, in a PCAP class as we volunteered.

Although this experience has been unique, I must admit that also weighs heavily in my heart. I have seen how colleagues disapprove that I take time to lead theatre workshops or that I have stopped what I am doing in order to take time off and travel to Brazil for a second year in a row, but this year it has been different. Last year I unfortunately missed four days due to flight delays because of weather complications in my home state of Texas, and this year I have been in everything. One thing that I missed was going to Naguissa’s family’s toy store. Naguissa is one of the lovely UDESC Theatre Students who is always generous enough to help translate for the students.

Imagine this: you are an adult, writing a dissertation, moving out of your apartment in Michigan and back home to Texas; you have a summer class for which you need to complete a syllabus  in the next couple of weeks but as you enter a building it says, “Come in! Let’s play!” This invitation did not mean much at the beginning so I went in with open eyes to ask, “what is the philosophy of this store?” (How graduate student of me!) Naguissa stated that the store was created for parents to bring to children to come and play because they want to see families reconnect via laughter and playfulness in an era in which technology has taken over our lives. The purpose is not for people to go in and buy things, but to go and enjoy time off. Thus, I went to a table and was playing some games that made me sweat. I could not decipher how to puzzle 4-Ts into a box, or how to make a square with triangles and other shapes. My creative sight was lost.

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Naguissa (back center in gray shirt) and her father (green shirt) talking to PCAP students.

Naguissa’s father later gave us a tour of his workshop and we all walked to the back of the shop. In a series of conversations he stated that children have the ability to reimagine things and to redefine objects because the way in which they view the world is different than adults. Adults see an object, and if they cannot find the objective or the end result, they put things down. Children can pick a broom and make it a sword, a horse, or even a dancing partner whereas adults see the utility in the object and know that it is for sweeping. After we introduced ourselves, he said that Lisa, one of my classmates, was more than an International Relations major, and this got me thinking about my research.

I could not waste a second and think through the following:

If we are not one thing, we are infinite meanings; then the meanings we ascribe to bodies are based on the concepts of our said social utility. Therefore, these meanings, by default, strip us of our autonomy (as many theorists have explored). Thus, the act of (re)imagining is a function of child’s play, which is elaborated in feminist and queer theory to reestablish our autonomy to ascribe meanings to the relationships we have with our social practices and communities. Furthermore, if my research is about (re)imagining masculinity inspired by feminist and queer praxis, then ascribing to a child’s play via laughter and creativity throughout this dissertation journey will lead me to the answers I yearn to find.

This experience at a toy store, which was supposed to be about fun, laughter, and games, gave me a different spin as to how children relate to common objects but most importantly how I, as an adult, relate to my research subjects and participants. The philosophical encounter I had, in the back of a toy store, full of wood, noisy machines, and molds for toys, ended up being something I would never have thought about when I first read, “Come in! Let’s play!”

How I Got to a Women’s Prison in Brazil, a post by Christian Ureña

27 May

Oi! My name is Christian Ureña. I just completed my junior year at the University of Michigan. I am majoring in Movement Science in the School of Kinesiology.  I was first introduced to PCAP over a year ago when one of my fraternity brothers, Sergio Barrera, was in Ashley Lucas’s Theatre & Incarceration class. He talked so fondly of his experience in PCAP and about the fun he would have with the men in prison when playing theatre games. I wanted to be able to make an impact as well by bringing joy to people who have not experienced positive emotions like that in quite some time. The following semester I enrolled in Ashley’s Atonement Project class. Through this class, I was able to do a workshop. I was a co-facilitator with Sergio and another one of our Fraternity Brothers, Carlos. We facilitated at the only Federal Prison in the State of Michigan in a city called Milan. Throughout the course of the semester I was able to see firsthand the benefits of programming for the men in prison. I enjoyed that experience so much that I felt that I needed to continue doing this work because one semester was not enough. From there, I went on to facilitate the community workshop at Miller Manor that included people from that living community and reentered citizens. Through these workshops, I was able to learn a lot and bring people a lot of joy in several prisons in Michigan. When Ashley told me about the trip to Brazil where I get to do these same theatre games and continue to impact people and bring them joy, I knew this was something I wanted to partake in.

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Christian Ureña and his fraternity brother Sergio Barrera on the beach in Florianópolis.

Now that I am in Brazil, I know I made the right decision coming here to continue doing this work. Today, I had the privilege of going into one of the women’s prisons here in the state of Santa Catarina. Going in, I knew it was going to be much smaller than the men’s prison we were able to see earlier this week but besides that I did not know what to expect. First off, I was surprised with the lack of security that there was going into the prison. There was no metal detector or pat down or anything. I do not know if this is because we are “The US citizens,” so they just trust us, or if this is the normal protocol. That surprised me, but besides that, I had a great time.

The women are absolutely hilarious and super nice. Before our workshop started, the ladies prepared a mini performance for us. I honestly did not understand a lot of it. I know something was going on with a hitch hiker of some kind that had a lot of belongings. I also know that they played the pancake game at the end, and it was honestly the best version of the pancake game I have ever seen. I laughed so much. Later, they showed us this amazing game that I got to play in which there is a cat and a mouse. The mouse and the cat are both blindfolded. The objective of the game is for the cat to “catch” the mouse. It is a game that would never be allowed in a US prison [because it involves blindfolds and physical contact] which makes me think back to my friends at Milan because I know they would love to play this game.

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Back to the ladies, after the workshop, we were allowed to celebrate with them and eat cake that they made for us. It was the most delicious thing I have had so far while being in Brazil. I am a huge fan of sweets, and it truly hit the spot. However, throughout this celebration, I couldn’t help but notice something. Their bathroom door is bigger than the door frame; therefore, the door does not close. There is also no soap in the bathroom. Also, the toilet is missing its toilet seat. These are things that I feel are basic in the maintenance of the prison that unfortunately these ladies have to live without. The warden of the prison explained to us that there are still a lot of renovations happening so I truly hope adjustments will be made to their restroom. One thing that the warden shared with us that made me happy was that she used to be a prison guard who did not understand the use of programming such as the one we provide. However, once being promoted to warden she was able to see and appreciate first hand the impact programming can have on the women. She spoke very fondly of the impacts of the theatre workshop which is something that gave me a lot of hope for the women in the prison.  

Understanding Home by Leaving It, a post by Liv Naimi

26 May

I have been doing PCAP workshops for a long time now. Going into prison every week to do some art has become a relatively normal thing. I go every Monday night, me and my partners plan in the car usually, and I can’t schedule things on Mondays most of the time. This isn’t to say the work gets less complicated or difficult. However, going to workshop makes me think of my friends inside the walls and theater games more than the prison industrial complex at this point. I have a real relationship with them rather than only an educational and transformative opportunity. It never stops being those things, but also I really value being able to think about people inside with an overwhelmingly positive connotation rather than in pity or with scary statistics flashing in my brain. The scary sad stuff is there, and it’s been there for a long time. I have learned a lot about it, but I have come to learn that it is so powerful to have more than that.

Coming to Brazil and doing similar work in a new context has offered me a medium to reflect on the work I do every week in a way I wasn’t prepared for and which I am still working through. This week we visited two prisons. We got to do a workshop in each, and we had to take a tour of some kind. Back home, curiosity and the wish to understand the women in my workshop more had led me to wish I could see more than the auditorium that I normally go to. My facilitators and I get excited when workshop or another event brings us to a new part of the facility— it’s like unlocking a new level. Touring a prison is not the way to do this though. People are literally caged. Living breathing uncles, brothers, friends, daughters, sisters, significant others, and people who got left behind; they are in cages. It’s important to note that we were not looking to get a tour, and actually the problematic zoo-like experiences were like acts of diplomacy and a way to encourage programming and get the opportunity to give programming ourselves.

Interestingly enough, the prisons here want us to see them as USA representatives. Especially in this political climate where [Brazil’s president] Bolsonaro is looking to follow Trump’s lead in mass incarceration, this is complicated and devastating. I have never felt this type of privilege before.The people in prison are wearing the same thing. We were observing the places they live, but they weren’t giving me the tour— the people who control them were. It’s hard not to notice in these moments how I travelled so far to be there at all, while they could not leave the building or even a room. It’s hard not to notice the way I could pick my outfit for the most part. We are all people in a space, but I got to be treated like a person. I have never been so openly catered to while others were being observed and literally locked up supposedly for my benefit. It was uncomfortable for us in that respect. We were asked to look at people and talk about people we were never introduced to in front of them in a language they may or may not understand. We were asked to look and be impressed. We were asked to pose for pictures so they could show that these US students were there. And it’s horrible, but it was worth it to do a theatre workshop in this prison. Some of the men said they felt human in the space. It is even more worth it if the privilege we bring will convince authorities that people need art and community.

I’m sure the people who saw us getting a tour of everything from their workspace to the small yard where they pace back and forth for exercise to just outside their living quarters were uncomfortable, too—particularly when we are being “protected” by large guards decked out with huge guns and they go where we do. One of the hardest parts of the experience was that the men’s prison decided they would cart us there in their own vans. This is the picture I have attached. It didn’t take long during the ride to realize that this is how other people had been transported to imprisonment. I was sitting in the seat where so many before me and so many after me would be having one of the worst imaginable things happen. How many people had stared at the curves in these roads wondering how they got there and what would be waiting for them when the long twisting hills and greenery stopped? Despite having been in quite a few prisons, going in frequently, and studying them and the work people who have been incarcerated have made, this felt shockingly close. I had empathized with the people in my workshop. But I’d never felt them and put myself in this position in this way until I was carsick in a Brazilian prison van driven by two armed men. Going in reminded me that things like PCAP are precious. Not everywhere has this incredible connection and work happening. Not everywhere do people get to interact with the complex beautiful worlds within the walls of a prison. I am reminded that the workshop I do is huge and I am honored that I am able to do it.

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I know that PCAP will inform the rest of my life in a huge way and seeing people start new programming or participate with their whole heart in theater games when they’ve never done it before is inspiring and life changing. These are lessons you can’t learn in a classroom. This doesn’t change that my workshop back home is still a source of fun and friendship. It just reminds me that what we do shouldn’t be downplayed.

Day One of PCAP Brazil Exchange 2019, a post by Elaina Veasey

24 May

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Olá!

My name is Elaina, and I am a rising senior at the University of Michigan. I am majoring in Theater Arts with a concentration in stage management, and dual minoring in art history and art and design. Through my past three years as a student at Michigan, I’ve gotten to see and experience a multitude of exciting things. I’ve seen the impact that the arts can have on people. Working this past year with Professor Ashley Lucas and the folks at PCAP has been one of the more impactful experiences I’ve had. PCAP, or the Prison Creative Arts Project, is an organization within the university dedicated to bringing arts programming to incarcerated women, children, and men in the state of Michigan. Although there are multiple programs including and art show and literary review, I was involved in a theater workshop at the men’s federal facility in Milan, Michigan. Along with five other facilitators, we were each able to go into the prison a total of four times spread out through the months of March, April, and May. Our job was to bring fun and a sense of freedom to a place with very little of both of those things. To do this we played theater games. Most of the time, we brought in games for the men to play, but often they would request games that we had played before or games that they had seen in past workshops. The men themselves were so talented and enthusiastic, even the ones who signed up for workshop because they wanted to get out of their comfort zones.

Even before spending time with the men in my workshop, I had heard about Professor Lucas’s Brazil Exchange program. The idea behind the trip being that we would do the same things we do at the prisons at home, but in Brazil instead. I was immediately determined to go with Ashley to Brazil and help yo do this work with others. Not only was this exchange a way to further my education and to see the world, but also it was a way to share my love of theater as an art form and learn about theater from people in another culture.

After three plane rides, hours of layover, and plenty of airport naps, our little group of two professors and thirteen students arrived in our first city; Florianópolis. The first night was spent mostly sleeping and getting settled, especially as the majority of the group (myself included) didn’t arrive at the hotel until 6 pm (about 24 hours after I had started traveling!). The next day we woke up, and the exchange really began. We met up with theater professor Vicente Concilio, and his students Alé, Naguissa, and Bruna. They took us to UDESC, the public university in Florianópolis and showed us around. It was almost like being at home, just in an alternate dimension. Students were walking around campus, eating and laughing. A group of music students were practicing outside. I saw a girl comforting a friend who was upset. It was one of the things that struck me; college students will be college students, no matter the country. The refreshing familiarity continued into our first class that evening.

We met with theater students from several classes in a big black box theater. The large doors in the back were open to the outside, so we could smell the rain and see the trees. Even though the language barrier is large, we proceeded to have a conversation about PCAP, and the work that we do there. Again it reminded me of being at home. With translation we were able to talk about the prison systems in the United States and Brazil, and how similar in some ways they seem to be. We talked quite a bit about race and how different prisons were populated. When Ashley told the Brazilian students that the youngest incarcerated person that one of our groups had worked with was twelve, there was an audible reaction of shock and outrage, just like how we feel thinking about it at home.

Tomorrow we go to our first day inside of a prison here, and I know that won’t feel as familiar as the campus did. But after our conversation, I know I will be looking for what does feel the same between there and here.

Theatre Workshops with Children in Rio and Salvador, Brazil, a post by Violet Kelly-Andrews

23 Jun

Oi gente! My name is Violet Kelly-Andrews and I am a recently graduated student of the University of Michigan (woo!). I majored in Theatre Arts with a concentration in Performing Arts Management and minors in Community Action and Social Change and History. I have worked with PCAP doing workshops in a detention center and forensic psychiatric center and this past year recently worked in in the PCAP office doing an arts administration independent study. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with this organization and was thrilled I was able to go to Brazil yet again.Violet 3

Two years ago when I first came to Brazil I went to a workshop in a community center in Rio that completed changed my thoughts on theatre and my privilege as an American theatre student (see my last blog from 2016). That was two years ago when I never thought I would find myself back in Brazil continuing to this work. As it would happen, I returned to Brazil and was able to attend the same workshop I had been to two years prior. Every time I go I am shown more compassion and love than I knew existed. It sounds cheesy, but it is true. All we do in the workshop is play games, but we get to a deeper truth of the impact of love, care, and affection. An example of this was the gift exchange we did. After the first workshop, we picked names out a hat so that we would give a gift to them the following week. I was lucky enough to pick an old friend. I had met this boy the first time I came, and we had gotten to know each other well and, even despite the language barrier, shared many laughs. This year, I walked into the workshop, and the first person I saw was the same boy. Although I do not know if I should call him a boy. I think he would prefer “young man” because now he is a big shot 17 year-old. Still, he was exactly as I remembered yet entirely different. I racked my brain what to give him and decided that I would give him my PCAP t-shirt and a letter. The gift exchange was so important for them not because of the physical gift but the thought behind it. The gift I was given was the best gift of them all: love. I was swarmed with hugs and kisses from all the kids so by the end of this workshop. I felt so full of love and gratitude. It made it sad to leave knowing that this would be my last workshop with such amazing kids in Brazil – or so I thought. Little did I know I found myself in a workshop a week later with more kids in Salvador, Bahia.Violet 2

The group trip had ended but I wanted to fly to Salvador to see the town and spend more time in a different part of Brazil. I was only there for three nights, but on my first night in Brazil I made friends with two women who told me of a social project happening at a community center in Salvador. The two had been before and knew the woman who ran the center. Feeling like this was fate, I asked if they could arrange a workshop in which I would come and lead theatre games. They agreed, and two days later, on my last full day in Brazil I found myself with my two new friends in a blue room full of kids ages 10-19 doing theatre. The kids showed so much appreciation and care to people they had never met. I spoke in broken Portuguese, but really we didn’t need words to have fun and get to know each other. At the end of the workshop I told them this was my last workshop of my trip in Brazil and how grateful I was to meet them. The kids responded in only a way kids would; they all ran to me and hugged me to thank me for spending my time with them. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to have been shown such love in two cities in Brazil.Violet 1

I leave Brazil with the two lessons both which these kids taught me. One. It is easy to love. All people in Brazil show a kindness that the rest of the world could use. This is particularly important in theatre and in the work I do. As Brazilian theatre artist, Augosto Boal says, “Empathy is the most powerful weapon.” Without empathy, there is much room for change or growth. Professor Lucas said something very similar about the work we do in prisons, “Joy is the biggest contraband.” Knowing that, the second lesson is knowing you are not a savior. This was something we touched upon while in a class at UniRio about understanding power dynamics. Coming to Brazil to partake in theatre workshops with kids does not mean you are saving them. As a person of this work, one has to go in not seeking anything other than to make human connection. I share my experiences of working in theatre workshops with kids with a sense of fulfillment and pride, but I was not there to change their lives. This work is all about sincerely giving the most of yourself to others.

As I move on in my arts career, I will take these lessons; the empathy, the joy, the love, the awareness and use it as I hopefully continue to work with kids. I am always grateful to the country and people of Brazil for continuing to nurture my growth and remind me of why I do this work. And this time, I won’t be so foolish to think that I won’t return soon.

Until next time Brazil!

Beijos,

Violet

The Silent and Silly Heroes of Enfermaria do Riso, a post by Alyssa Gonzales

22 Jun
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Eddie Williams and Aly Gonzales with two of the very talented clowns from Enfermaria do Riso.

Hello, my name is Aly Gonzales, I have participated in PCAP for three years and on a sunny Wednesday morning in Brazil, I woke up at 6:50 am to go to the Hospital Universitário Gaffrée e Guinle to see two clowns. It was twenty minutes later than I planned. It only took two snoozes on my phone’s alarm, low for me, but I was eager to shadow two UniRio students in the Enfermaria do Riso program (the program at the university that sends student clowns into a local hospital to bring the medicine of laughter into a difficult environment). So I made it happen. I managed to patch myself together like a real human, despite the early rise, and made it out the door of our hostel at around 7:15. As my partner for the Enfermaria, Eddie, and I power-walked through the streets of Rio de Janeiro, I saw something of which I was previously unaware. The street-sweepers of Rio were out clearing the sidewalks and driveways of leaves, trash, and remnants of the night before. They paused as we jogged past. As we made our way to the Praça General Osório to catch the Metrô, I stopped to think on them. They were a group of silent heroes. It would be a hard walk without them. You might not realize the difference they are making, or even notice their presence, if you don’t stop to think about it.

Eddie and I made it to Afonso Pena Station on time, luckily. Julia, a clown we would be shadowing that day, met us at the steps. She carried a bright pink bag that squeaked whenever she turned. Julia greeted us with a smile and directed us to the Hospital where the clowns from the program go, where we met the second clown, Katiuscia. The hospital is in a beautiful building, with a grand gate. In many ways, it seems more like a museum or palace than a hospital. Yet, the more I think about it, the more fitting it is. I am used to the hospitals of the United States, with their corporate-like atmospheres. If I was sick, I think I might prefer a beautiful building to comfort me.

We wandered into the depths of the youth ward into a tiny, multipurpose locker room. It was filled with miscellaneous shoes and bags, stuffed in lockers and shoved haphazardly into corners. This tiny understated basement was where the clowns would become clowns. We sat with them as they took off themselves and transformed into their personas. We watched eagerly as the two UniRio students donned tights, slipped into bright skirts, fluffed their hair, and patted white makeup on their faces. Eventually, they pulled out some slightly worn red noses and put them on. From that moment forward, they were Almofadinha and Sabuga. You wouldn’t expect this, but a clown warm up is like a mixture of acting and football. There was a lot of facial movement and noise making, but also running, jumping, and stretching. It is like you might see players doing before a game, but with more flailing and funny faces.

Then, we were off. We began by watching them goof around with the staff. Thinking back on it, interactions with staff was a good portion of the clowning session. Having fun with doctors, nurses, and various other staff members at the hospital seemed to be high on the priority list. I assumed that the bulk of our interactions that day would be with patients. Yet, to the clowns, they were equal. Maybe I took them for granted, too. Working as a doctor or nurse is probably not the easiest thing to do. They are around sick and dying people every day. In order to help people get better, you may also see them at their worst. The people doing this work interact with the sick, the dying, and the loved ones of the dying. That must try a person’s mental health. Theatre, and the joy that accompanies it, is for them just as much as it is for anyone else. The red nose does not discriminate in the joy it brings. As artists and creators, they are a example of the universal nature of theatre.

However, the patients were just as in need of joy as well, and perhaps the main audience for whom the program was intended. It was also what we were most excited about. Almofadinha and Sabuga did not disappoint. The waiting area for pediatrics is more of a patio than a room. It is located between buildings, so the bright sunlight warms the space while a cool breeze blows through it. Mothers and fathers waited with their sick children until their name was called to be seen. In this space, our clowns saw a stage. There was a young girl wearing a light blue dress, with her hair up in pink bows. The outfit resembled that of Almofadinha, and the clowns joked that she might be her long lost daughter. To prove their relation, they performed tricks together, like jumping in a circle and dancing. The mother was amused by the performance, as were most of the other people in the waiting area. After, the clowns did a skit where one clown “stole” the other’s sunglasses and the other clown tried to find them. Aided by Almofadinha’s pseudo-daughter, they played out the bit until one clown eventually caught the other wearing the glasses. The kids waiting were enchanted and thought it was hilarious. Before leaving, the two clowns led the audience in a song. I thought it was amazing, to just pop out a show like that, completely unprepared.

Skits like this continued as we climbed stairs, entered different areas, and joked with more people. A significant moment for me came when we entered the neonatal unit. We had to wash our hands before entering, and in a very specific way. The clowns instructed us on how to properly do this, on how to get the soap into every crevice of our lower arm. This was important not just for the health of those inside the unit, but ours as well. The unit was the size of the average living room and looked like the rest of the hospital, save for one detail. It was filled with tiny incubators. Thankfully, there were not many tiny humans inside these tiny incubators. We visited the parents sat by the three that were occupied. One incubator had a newborn wrapped in a pink blanket. Her mother and father were in the chairs beside her. Sabuga pulled out a tiny music box and wound it up so that it played a lullaby. I couldn’t tell if the baby inside enjoyed the music, or even heard it, but the parents seemed calmed by it. The man even joked around with us in English after we were introduced as the clowns’ American friends. The next incubator was occupied by a tiny baby boy. He was too small to comprehend, definitely too small to be a person. He moved on his own, and I was amazed. I didn’t think something that tiny could do that. I wasn’t sure if he could make it another night. Sabuga played her music box for him, too.

Along the journey through the hospital, we met and clowned around with security, parents, more staff, and of course kids living in the hospital. I didn’t know all their names, or all their diagnoses, but I was happy to see smiles on their faces as the clowns came by. I hope that it made them feel less like they were in a hospital. That is the power of theatre, isn’t it? It is why we labor weeks and months developing characters, doing research, and rehearsing movements. If we, as actors, can transport someone away from the here and now and off into imagination, then we have done our job. The clowns of Enfermaria do Riso don’t have proscenium stage on which to act. They don’t follow a script or a pattern of movement. They see a situation and manipulate it for the amusement of everyone. They transport people to a place of joy, a place of childlike wonder. I was only a shadow to the magic that was happening, but I felt transported as well.

Katiuscia and Julia arrive early at the hospital every Wednesday morning to perform as Sabuga and Almofadinha. Yet, as they told us, many of the staff don’t recognize them as they slip in and out in their daytime wear. They are almost never recognized without the makeup. Most likely, they are never praised or celebrated for this task. At the Hospital Universitário Gaffrée e Guinle, the two women are silent heroes. Just as the anonymous sweepers I saw, life at the hospital might be a hard journey without them. It was not until I saw the face of a young woman light up, despite the fact that she was connected to an IV machine, that I realized the difference a few clowns made in an environment. There may be people in the world that feel that theatre belongs behind a red curtain, belongs to cozy chairs or a box office. To them I say, enter a hospital. Imagine the walls of the building not painted with cries or worry, but with laughs. Theatre is needed there. Theatre belongs there. The children I saw that day will grow up, and maybe they will remember that clowns or maybe they won’t. But, I hope that what I saw made an impact on them. I hope they look back on their stay in the hospital and remember that there was joy there, too. I hope we all take the time once in a while to recognize the smaller heroes, silly and red-nosed as they may be.

Note: Click here to read Aly’s post from her previous trip to Brazil in 2016.

Ideas About Prison Reform: Comparisons Between the U.S. and Brazil, a post by Nikole Miller

21 Jun

Hello beautiful readers! I’m Nikole Miller—a recent University of Michigan graduate and an upcoming first-year law student at the University of Florida. I’ve always been a firm believer of “Everything happens for a reason.” Now, I don’t just say this loosely. So many small factors came together to bring me to the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP), and it was all via God’s plan for me.

PCAP—which originated at the University of Michigan—is the largest art-based prison programs in the world. Together, college students and community members, facilitate workshops in adult prisons, juvenile facilities, psychiatric facilities and with formerly incarcerated adults around the world. These workshops include creative writing, music, dance, visual arts, theatre and the combination of them all.

In October of 2017 I began my first workshop at Milan Federal Correction Institution. The eight men I worked with changed my life. My outlook on the criminal justice system had its most drastic change. The life-changing work I was doing inspired me to keep pushing, so I arranged for my schedule to allow another PCAP class. In January of 2018 I began a theatre workshop that blew my mind. We got even deeper in unpacking the justice system through the means of theatre. Adult men grew in front of my very eyes. I knew I had to go to Brasil to expand on this work.

One of my favorite days in the first week of the trip was getting to visit the women’s prison in Florianópolis. Even though we didn’t get to directly interact with the women, they still managed to instill so much in me. See, I want to change the criminal justice system; so when I heard about the inner workings of this particular prison, my brain lit up. Without making the claim that the prison was functioning efficiently, I do want to note that the inmates were extended basic human rights that aren’t considered “rights” in the United States. Each month, family is able to bring in toiletries for their loved ones, in addition to the toiletry kits the government allots each woman. This package might include deodorant, toothpaste, feminine products, and shampoo and conditioner. Whereas here in the United States, hygiene products can’t be so easily given to women. Tampons can be so scarce that they become a form of currency in our prisons—a feminine essential as a bargaining chip. We need to fix this! Allow these men and women proper hygiene; they are humans.

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Women in the prison in Florianópolis receiving instruction from a teacher. This is the same space we later used for theatre workshops.

In addition to the monthly hygiene drop offs, women were required to receive at least minimum wage for their work—another basic right. We have men and women in Michigan making cents on the hour instead of what they deserve. This is modern day slavery happening right before our eyes! In this women’s prison, women were allowed to have jobs outside of the prison walls. Instead of our concept of “parole,” one woman was able to be transferred into a different section of the prison towards the end of her sentence. Here women could continue their job while finishing their sentence, with their bosses’ consent of course. This way women can get oriented with society and a job again before they are thrown off into the streets to fend for themselves. I am a proponent of prison reform, and this visit definitely showed me what type of better options to push when I am in the position to do so. Even the men’s prison I visited showed me some aspects I know I want to stray away from. Both are useful information!

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Our group talking to the warden (in black) at the women’s prison in Florianópolis.

As a future criminal attorney, I want to bring a different kind of outlook on the justice system. I want concern for the inmates well-being to priority number one as opposed to punishment. I want rehabilitation to being a priority over punishment. Education. Basic rights. We need to do better. Visiting Brasil gave me some fresh ideas on what ‘better’ does and doesn’t look like—in terms of health and hygiene, education, rehabilitation and more—and I will forever be appreciative. I always tell my PCAP family: PCAP put a love on my heart that I didn’t know I needed; well now, Brasil has as well. Thank you so much for an amazing PCAP! See you later.

The Fabulous Food in Brazil, a post by Kymberley Leggett

20 Jun
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Kym about to eat a fabulous meal by the water in Florianópolis.

Coming to Brazil has been particularly special for me! This is the first time I’ve left the United States, and I’m so glad I got to do it with such amazing people! I’m an extreme foodie and really appreciate good conversation and good people with my good food. This trip has been perfect for that! I fell in love with the parade of shrimp with Nikole, Ashley, Alè, Vicente, and friends in Floripa. Warm hugs, happy tears, and yummy caipirinhas were shared on our last night there with other loved ones from UDESC (Thank you so much to Naguissa’s family for hosting such a great going-away party!). In Rio, I’ve shared lots of good laughs with Eddie, Sisi, and Nikole over freshly squeezed fruit juice and fried fish. I danced the night away with beautiful people and a stomach full of brigadeiros at Natália’s house. I got to samba and eat cake with the kids in my favela workshop. And last, but definitely not least, I shared one of the best meals of my life with my classmates and friends at a churrasco restaurant, where I won two contests. And these are just a few of the food memories! If I had to describe three of my favorite moments in food, they would be:

Rice and Beans with farofa- Something familiar from home, but still different. We saw a performance in Floripa by NEGA that was about race politics in Brazil. Being a black woman, I felt for much of the performance (despite being able to understand very few of the words). It was nice to see fellow black women standing for justice across the world.
Trufa de Morango- A sweet treat that keeps me wanting more. During our first theatre class in Floripa, we played a game that required us to dance while staying aware of our surroundings. Everyone got to be a little goofy while still keeping it together and organized for the greater group, which is the same thing we must do in the Michigan prisons.
Coxinha- They’re fried and tasty, and since I don’t read Portuguese very well, they’re filled with a surprise! (Editorial commentary from Ashley: That surprise inside the coxinha is chicken.) I was surprised to enjoy our work singing and dancing in the Rio hospital as much as I did. Seeing folks smile in such a scary place gave me so much warmth. It brought me to tears.
Brazil will always hold a special place in my heart. Thank you to everyone who touched my life and made this trip happen!!
Best,
Kymberley Leggett

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Crab dish served in the crab’s shell with a caipirinha to drink.

Teatro em Comunidades: Theatre in Communities in Rio, a post by Yijia Zheng

19 Jun
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Our group in Florianópolis with Vicente Concilio and Alé Melo.

I’m Yijia Zheng, an upcoming junior majoring in psychology. I took Ashley’s class Theatre and Incarceration last semester, and joined the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) since then. I wanted to learn about the connection between criminal justice system and theatre, as well as how theatre can make a social change in different settings, especially in prison. Therefore I started facilitating two-hour theatre workshops at Woodland Center Correctional Facility, where my partner and I led 9 to 15 incarcerated participants in doing theatre games and improvisational performance together. I signed up for this trip to Brazil because I was curious about the theatre practice under different culture, including the differences in how people express themselves, where people use theatre and how they deliver information through theatre.

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Our group in Florianópolis with administrators from UDESC.

 

In Rio de Janeiro, we engaged in a local program called Teatro em Comunidades (Theatre in Communities). In this program people lead theatre workshops every Saturday morning in favelas, which is translated into shantytown or slum. However, it is difficult to imagine what these communities are really like. When I stepped in the favela, I didn’t really feel much difference from looking at the appearance of the streets, stores and people. I was asking, “Are we already in a favela?” and the answer was yes. Walking past the stalls and stores, I felt a sense of familiarity. However, knowing that they have no address, no mail delivered, no trash picked up, and no clean water and electricity guaranteed, I realized how people struggle behind the normal appearance of such a community. The sense of privilege and respect are not only easily forgotten by people, but also hard to be embraced at the same time. When we talk about problems, hard life, or even discrimination, we should also see their self-esteem and pride in living their life-style.

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Our group at the women’s prison in Florianóopolis with prison administrators.

 

This theatre workshop at favela Maré was in a room in the clinic. It was regularly led by a theatre professor and two students at UniRio, and there were about 20 participants from the favela, having a wide range of age groups from little kids to elderly people. Each workshop had a similar structure to those we had in prison – we did warm-up games, then several theatre games, a cool-down game, and finally a closing. During this workshop, I was most impressed by a scenario when we were playing the game “Funky Chicken,” in which random participants were selected one by one to go to the center of the circle to lead the game. There was a shy girl picked to be in the middle of the circle, but she insisted not doing so even after we encouraged her again and again. Then the student Nicolle left her place, went to that girl and gently grabbed her hand, coming to the middle of the circle together. The girl was still too shy to speak or do any movement, so Nicolle spoke for her, “Let me see your funky chicken!” The audience followed the game routine, “What’s that you said?” “She said, let me see your funky chicken!” At last, they started the dance together facing the circle with everyone joyfully participating. That scene was so sweet and unforgettable, and I believe that such a warm, encouraging heart like Nicolle’s would always be appreciated in all workshops. One of the goals of the workshops, no matter in favelas or in other settings, is to build up a friendly community that embraces everyone, loves everyone and cares everyone.

Sharing Our Truths, Love, and Laughter in Brazil, a post by Uche Nna

11 Jun

Hi, my name is Uche Nna, and I am an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan. I anticipate graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry and a minor in Gender and Health in December. I thought about joining PCAP after a few friends gave me brief summaries about the work PCAP is involved in and how it has impacted them. I made my true strides to join PCAP after learning about the study abroad program in Brazil. I feel very fortunate to be writing a blog on the final days of our trip. I hope to share with you the moments that impacted me the most. We started this journey on May 20th in Florianópolis, Brazil, and it will come to an official close on June 11th in Rio de Janeiro. In our time here, we have shared our truths, love and laughter within prisons, communities, classrooms, Brazilian homes, and the each other as classmates.

Our time in Rio has been very interesting. We became as mixed up and thrown off by a gas strike as the locals. As the gas strike continued, we watched businesses become empty, signs about being “closed until further notice” went up, the university was closed as students were unable to ride the buses to get to class. As the gas strike moved into its 7th day the roads were barren, we panicked about being able to get to the airport and flying to Rio. We tried to remain cognizant about what our friends in Brazil struggle with when there is conflict, and protest that addresses government policy.

My favorite day in Rio was one of the most exhausting days I had in a while. This day started with my roommate’s alarm at 5:15 am followed by my alarm at 5:30 am. After making our way out of the hostel towards the university, the sun began to rise. We were on our way to prison to do a workshop. When I arrived outside the prison doors of the men’s facility, we joined an assembly of visitors who were shuffled in 4 at a time. By the time we arrived, they were taking in 16-20. I am unsure how long they have been there that day or how early a visitor would have to show up to get a good number. Over the course of 45 minutes, the guards looked out of the 2.5” x 6” rectangular peephole a few times, took our passports, asked us why we had come today and finally let us inside.

Walking through the hallways of the prison, I was really thrown off by how happy some of the staff were to see us. They seemed elated, almost too elated. I was facilitating with about 9 other students (3 from UniRio and 6 from University of Michigan) as we entered the space of our workshop, we began playing catch with each other. One by one men began to pop through the door and joined in with us. There were about 20 men who were in the circle playing this hacky-sack catch game about 10 minutes after the first one came in. We had a fabulous workshop and played about 7 games. Having the space to be playful with the incarcerated men has been amazing over the past few months with PCAP. It always amazes me how quickly they can let their guards down and be fully engaged, excited, and energized through playing games. Theatre in prison enables incarcerated people the opportunity to feel unapologetic joy. Being overzealous and playful in many prison spaces can be dangerous as this is how many people become targets for manipulation and abuse. Theatre gives incarcerated people a break from this and tells them that it is ok to try something new, laugh at oneself, or tell a silly joke. When we were ending the workshop, the men were very excited to tell their future goals. After this, one of the men, who I perceived as a staff member earlier in the day, presented a pile of artwork to us. This is when I realized that some of the staff members were also incarcerated, and I understood why they were so happy to see us.

Later in the day we attended Professor Marina’s graduate class. In this class her graduate student Julia shared some of the work and research she has been doing in women’s prison. She shared information about the disproportionate number of marginalized women, and she read a very impactful letter by one of the women. In this letter the woman says that she wishes she could have been a better mother and daughter. Having wishes like this from the inside can be incredibly painful. Many of us can try to repair and rebuild relationships. The extreme limitations that come with being incarcerated seem to make repairing and rebuilding relationships incredibly difficult. Being able to look back and forward in life and think about the changes we want to make to feel that we have lived a fulfilling life is an extreme privilege. I hope you all reading can act on your wishes and guide the wishes of others when you have the chance. After this long night in Marina’s graduate class we returned to the hostel around 10 pm. The next day was my 22nd birthday, and the fabulous friends at Teatro Renascer sang happy birthday to me and put on an amazing show.

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Michigan and UniRio students and faculty with the members of the Teatro Renascer workshop.

Because I am a science student, many people have wondered why I am doing theatre and if it has been uncomfortable or difficult for me. One day I hope to go on to medical school. This work is important to me because I understand that I will not be able to change everyone’s situation, but I hope that I can always pass on joy into the world and provide spaces for people to discover themselves and feel at ease. PCAP continuously rehumanizes me by allowing me to work with the population of incarcerated people, and I am lucky that I am beginning to understand how important it is and how grounding it is to feel human. PCAP helps to humanize the people on the inside, and I am very happy to know this.

Learning to Do Theatre Workshops in a New Context, a post by Hannah Agnew

7 Jun

My name is Hannah Agnew, and I have been working with the Prison Creative Arts Project for a year and a half now. My first workshop was doing theatre with a group of incredible men at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility for a semester. Afterwards, I moved to the Sisters Within at Women’s Huron Valley and have since been continuing to do theatre with the talented women incarcerated there. I decided to come on this trip to Brazil because of the incredible impact theatre has had both on me, my fellow classmates and community members, and the participants of our workshop. Throughout my life, I have never thought of theatre as a tool for social change, but after seeing the influence it had in the U.S. carceral system, I decided that I wanted to see this work in a different context.

Here in Brazil, we have not only been extending our theatre workshops into prisons, but many other social environments. One of the experiences that has particularly stood out to me was our work in the favelas of Rio. The favelas are areas of extremely low economic income where many houses and families lack vital resources such as water, electricity, education, and many other basic human rights. Similar to the ghettos of the U.S, the people of these areas are irrationally stigmatized and ignored by society. When one thinks of the favelas, they tend to jump to the conclusion of danger and violence––forgetting about the humanity of the people that live there.Hannah

My classmates and I were split into three separate workshops within the favelas. I, along with Ashley and several other PCAPers were sent to a site in Maré where we would work with a group of teenagers ranging from around ten to nineteen years old. Going into it, I was not quite sure what to expect. The only theatre for social change I had previously done was in the context of prisons, never in any other social or cultural settings. But it was so beautiful. The workshop was led by Diego Marques, one of the Brazilian theatre students from UniRio that had come to Michigan in March. Instead of leading the workshop, as I have typically done with PCAP, I followed along with all of the participants. Together, we interacted in different dance, improv, rhythmic and theatre games for several hours.

What never fails to amaze me when it comes to using theatre as a tool in various social environments is when you become so immersed that for a minute, you can forget about what separates you all. In my experience, the workshop and those I have facilitated in prisons have been so focused on working as a collective to create something that the dividing walls of culture and class were forgotten about––all I could think about how hilarious the kid on stage was, pretending to be a dinosaur that accidentally killed his friend with poisonous pancakes. It was shocking how similar the effect of theatre was in an entirely different cultural and social environment.

In both U.S. prisons and Brazilian favelas, these theatre workshops went to show that anybody has the capacity to create art. In most societies, as a collective we tend to turn a blind eye to those who are different or deemed “unfit” to function normally simply because of a social situation that they are in. In the U.S., we label those who have gone through the carceral system as villains and unable to provide anything useful towards the world––we lack the empathy to understand how their circumstances and our racially/socially charged legal system led them to be incarcerated in the first place. In Brazil, it seems the favelas are so stigmatized with violence and danger that those living in them, which is 25% of Rio’s population, are forgotten about or even romanticized––people lack the motivation to support them or understand how the severe lack of resources affects their lives. While theatre does not solve these problems, it gives some insight into how much things change when we treat each other as equals and work collectively––regardless of each other’s backgrounds. It is so important that we provide resources to people in all walks of life, not just in the areas to which we choose to pay attention.

 

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