Archive | July, 2013

Play in Tehran Draws Attention to Juvenile Executions in Iran

24 Jul

My dear friend Jules Odendahl-James–an excellent dramaturg and scholar who shares my interest in prison theatre work–forwarded me a link to this article about an interview-based play in Tehran about juveniles on death row in Iran.  Another really interesting and beautiful play on a similar topic was written by my good friend and former colleague Mark Perry.  A New Dress for Mona describes the life and death of Mona Mahmudnizhad, who is considered a martyr of the Baha’i faith because the Iranian government executed her for her beliefs in 1983.  Mona was seventeen at the time of her death.  Amnesty International and many other human rights groups have taken stands against the execution of juveniles, but the practice continues in Iran. The United States outlawed the execution of juveniles in 2005 (not very long ago by international human rights standards), but we still sentence juveniles to life without parole.  Amnesty International reports:

There are at least 2,500 people in the US serving life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old. The United States is believed to stand alone in sentencing children to life without parole. Although several countries technically permit the practice, Amnesty International knows of no cases outside the US where such a sentence has been imposed in recent years.

We need far more theatre and other types of art to draw attention to what happens to young people all over the world.  Congratulations and many thanks to the Iranian theatre practitioners do this work and to Mark Perry who writes from the United States about Iran and the Baha’i faith.  May your work have many audiences, and may our governments evolve to end juvenile executions and life without parole.

Gorky Never Looked Like This Before: Teatro na Prisão in a Men’s Prison

20 Jul

We, of course, could not take our cameras with us into the prison when we visited Teatro na Prisão’s workshop, so in view of the fact that I don’t have many photos to post in regards to our trip to the men’s prison this past Tuesday, I decided to begin this post with a picture of my student Hector Flores Komatsu, who has yet to appear in any of the other photos on the blog despite the fact that he’s been doing fantastic things as part of this exchange program.  In fact he’s the one of us who will stay here for the longest, spending a full month in Rio and returning to the U.S. in early August.  Hector (now known in Rio as Heitor–the Portuguese translation of his name) is a directing student at Michigan and has been attending many directing and acting classes at UniRio during his time here.  He’s working with UniRio students to make plans for future collaborations in which actors, directors,


and designers visiting from one campus to the other could work on short student productions for a few weeks at a time.

In this photo Heitor is eating Brazil’s national dish, feijoada–a black bean stew with several kinds of sausage and many different cuts of beef and pork. It’s served with rice, black beans, shredded collard greens, chunks of yucca, yucca flour (which is kind of like cornmeal), and pork rinds, all of which can be mixed into your feijoada in whatever amount you like.  Slices of oranges are also served on the side.  The students and I sampled this Brazilian staple at a restaurant in Ipanema called Casa de Feijoada, and we loved it.

On Tuesday, July 16, 2013, we accompanied the students and faculty of Teatro na Prisão to the men’s prison where they conduct a theatre workshop.  Here’s a picture of us at UniRio before we got on the bus to the prisons.


Pictured here from left to right are Renee Gross, Jodie Lawston, Sarah Thompson, Natália Fiche, me, and Viviane Narvaes (the UniRio professor who leads the workshop in the men’s prison).  The men’s prison where Teatro na Prisão facilitates a workshop is just down the road from the women’s prison we visited last week.  By all appearances, the women’s prison we visited stood on its own away from any other prison complex, while the men’s prison is inside a walled and gated compound with multiple prisons for men inside.  The UniRio students told me that the various prisons in the compound house prisoners grouped by various kinds of categories.  Some of the prisons house men who have committed a particular offense.  In Brazil as in many other countries, sex offenders are a high risk for being attacked or abused during their incarceration, and one of the UniRio students with whom I spoke on the bus ride said that one of the prisons in this complex houses only sex offenders so that they will not be in general population with other prisoners.

The prison we visited is just for men who used to be state employees.  One of the UniRio students said this prison houses former government and court officials as well as former professors from public universities.  The men in the theatre workshop (one of the workshop’s incarcerated participants informed me) are all former police officers who are housed together in two pods (smaller housing units) in one of the two main sections, called gallerias, of the prison.  I never did find out who was housed in the other pods in the galleria we visited or who lives in the other galleria, which is entirely separate from the one we visited.  Apparently other men in that galleria are eligible to participate in this workshop, but right now only six men, all from the pods where former police are housed, have chosen to do so.  The men in the workshop discussed how hard it has been to encourage others to join the group.  Some former participants in the group are no longer part of the workshop because they had behavior problems in the prison or because they were transferred to other prisons.  Others in the prison believe that participation in theatre would cause people in the prison to think they were gay and will not join the group for that reason.  I would speculate that the fact that the group is now completely made up of former police officers might deter men from other groups in the prison who would perceive any such homogenous faction to pose a difficult challenge for a new person to find social acceptance among men who have already bonded with one another and share common life experiences.

The idea of housing former government officials together is not unique to the Brazilian prison system.  We have prisons in the U.S., sometimes referred to as “protection units” where not necessarily the prison’s entire population but a fairly high number of the prisoners housed there are former law enforcement, district attorneys, or judges.  Also, U.S. prisons sometimes segregate their inhabitants by race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gang affiliation in efforts to prevent violence.  These forms of segregation can offer the type of protection that they are meant to provide but can also exacerbate tensions within prisons.  These practices most commonly occur in the U.S. on a smaller scale than what we’re seeing here.  The Brazilian prisons within this complex, if I understand this correctly, are segregating on the level of entire prisons being made up of one category of prisoner, whereas what I’ve seen more often in the U.S. is usually one wing or section of a prison being set aside for a certain category of prisoner or a prison having a higher percentage of a certain category of prisoner within the general population of one facility.

Getting into the men’s prison was a more complicated and intimidating process than what we’d experienced last week at the women’s facility.  After we dropped off the group going to the women’s prison, the UniRio van drove us inside the gate to the prison complex, and a uniformed guard with a large pistol strapped to his hip got on the van with us to take our IDs and compare them to the list of approved visitors.  Apparently the list of us foreigners was not with the first set of papers he’d picked up, and he and Professors Fiche and Narvaes got off the UniRio van for what felt like about twenty minutes to straighten it all out.  Then they came back with two guards who checked all of our names off the list and compared our faces to our passport pictures.  One of the guards stayed on the van with us as the UniRio driver took us deeper into the prison complex, past at least three other prisons, to the building we were to enter.  Before the eighteen of us went into the gatehouse, the guard took our passports inside.  We stood outside and formed a circle.  Prof. Narvaes reminded all of us that we do not go anywhere alone inside the prison, even to the bathroom, and that those of us who had never been to this prison before should never be without at least one of the experienced Teatro na Prisão folks to guide us.  As we held hands in the circle, she asked each of us to look to our right and say in Portuguese, “I will take care of [the name of the person standing to your right].”  Prof. Fiche stood on my left and promised to take care of me, and then I looked to my right and promised to take care of Andy.

The eighteen of us went into the front room of the gatehouse where Profs. Fiche and Narvaes introduced me to the director of the prison–a man whom an UniRio student told me he’d never seen in the entire year he’d been coming to this prison with Teatro na Prisão.  Today because there were so many foreigners visiting the theatre workshop, the director stayed with us throughout our entire visit.  The guards in the gatehouse all wore holstered pistols on their hips, and one woman carried a large rifle.  As in U.S. prisons, the guards beyond the gatehouse in the interior of the prison did not carry guns.  They took us three at a time into a separate room where we walked through a metal detector and signed a visitor’s log.  After everyone had gone through this process, we went further into the prison, leaving our passports at the front gate.

This prison, like the women’s one we’d seen, was made completely out of concrete, but the men’s facility seemed to have dozens of gates made of iron bars which could close and section off portions of the hallways.  Most of these gates were wide open as we made our way further into the prison, but even without the gates closing behind us as we walked, we could feel the presence of the layers of cages we crossed through.  I saw two visiting booths for families who have to talk to one another on phones through a pane of glass, and it struck me as so odd and painful that Brazilian prisons would be so similar to U.S. ones in that particular detail.  Jodie and I observed repeatedly during this trip when people questioned us about the differences between U.S. and Brazilian prisons that really they are very much alike.  Nothing we saw in the Brazilian prisons surprised us.  It all felt painfully familiar.  I wonder how many of these similarities are due to the homogenizing forces of globalization and how many of them developed simultaneously yet independently.  It seems likely that both globalization and a cross-cultural willingness to devalue the lives of incarcerated people are at play in carceral systems all over the world.

As we walked down the main hallway of Galleria A, we could see the pods where the men lived branching off the hall on our right side.  The pods are built around narrow open air courtyards, which looked dismal but at the same time received quite a bit of sunlight, which is a comfort that most U.S. prisoners do not have in their living spaces.  The opposite side of the main hallway seemed to have rooms that were used for other purposes, though I couldn’t really see into most of them.  One of these rooms, toward the far end of the hall, is the meeting space for the Teatro na Prisão workshop.  It’s a rectangular concrete room with iron bars in lieu of a door.  Old wooden theatre seats line three of the walls, and the fourth has a huge and quite remarkable wooden table pushed against it.  This room also has an adjoining doorway, with another set of iron bars, leading to a smaller room which serves as the prison’s library.  A couple of the UniRio students who came with us spent the duration of our visit to the prison sifting through books in the library.  Apparently they are helping to cull the books that are worn out and molding.

A line of six incarcerated men all wearing orange tee shirts with the name of their theatre troupe on it.  (Sorry! I couldn’t take notes while in the prison and now can’t remember what the wording on the shirts said.)  We shook each man’s hand and greeted one another as we made our way into the workshop room.  Then we visitors took seats along the walls, while the UniRio students, Professor Narvaes, and the incarcerated workshop participants formed a circle and did a few warm ups.  Then they left the room en masse, and we tentatively followed them into the main hall of the galleria to see where they’d gone.  They gathered at the far end of the hall and then came back to us in a festive procession which included singing, dancing, tambourine playing, and waving straw fedoras and large pieces of brightly colored fabric above their heads.  The procession was the only piece of the performance that the many men locked in the pods branching off from the main hallway could watch.  Unlike the Teatro na Prisão group which goes into the women’s prison, these UniRio students and Professor Narvaes rehearse and perform with the men in the workshop, rather than directing and observing without taking roles in the improvised play.

When the procession ended back in the workshop room, we visitors took our seats again, and the workshop participants, including the UniRio folks, formed a circle like the one in which they had done warm ups.  They produced about a dozen rubber balls about the size of tennis balls and in a variety of bright colors.  They tossed the balls to one another across the circle, making rhythmic noises as they did so.  When a new color of ball was introduced, they made new sounds, and the patterns of ball tossing grew more complex.  One UniRio student held up signs periodically during the game.  One sign told us in the audience that we would see a performance of Maxim Gorky’s play Ralé (commonly translated in English as The Lower Depths).  Subsequent signs stated that the performance would include rhythm, music, hip hop, and beat boxing.  Each sign set off the introduction of a new sound or rhythm amongst the performers who were now tossing the rubber balls to one another quite rapidly and making an assortment of interesting beats as they did so.  Some of them also began to sing the song they’d sung during the procession.  My meager Portuguese was not serving me well that day, but I did understand the word feliz, meaning “joy” or “happiness,” as it was repeated frequently in the rather festive song.

As a chorus of the song ended, the ball tossing and rhythms ceased suddenly.  The circle disbanded, and all participants became a tightly packed group in the middle of the room.  One UniRio student jumped out of the crowd and told us that we would be introduced to some of the characters in the play.  He struck a military-looking pose and made a loud grunt.  The other members of the group repeated both the gesture and the sound.  Another male student jumped out of the group, leaned back, crossed his arms, threw his head back, and laughed maniacally.  The others did the same.  A female student struck a flirtatious pose and giggled.  Everyone else did, too.  Then the group broke apart and scattered.  They used the hats and colored fabric from their earlier procession as they positioned themselves in sleeping poses all across one end of the room, many of them lying on, under, or on the floor in front of the enormous table.  They grumbled and poked at each other, stole the fabric from one another to use as blankets, and settled in to sleep for a bit.  Then they all awoke and had a rather comical argument which escalated into a shouting match.  There they ended the performance, and we all sat in a circle on the floor to discuss what we’d seen.

This group is at the beginning of their rehearsal process for this play.  They’ll be improvising scenes based on Gorky’s play in a process similar to what the women at the other prison are doing with Romeo and Juliet.  What we saw was both an introduction to their practice and the first scene of the play.  The musicality and playfulness of the group are remarkable and infectious.  We had a wonderful time watching them and could palpably feel the spirit of fun and joy in the room.  Given their obvious desire to make this space one of celebration, it’s very interesting that the group chose The Lower Depths as the subject of their performance.  Before we entered the prison, I’d asked Prof. Narvaes who had chosen this play as the subject for the group’s latest work.  She told me that she’d offered them a choice between this and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and the prisoners chose Gorky.

Like most great Russian writers, Gorky is not known for comedy.  A Marxist and advocate for the social-democratic movement in Russia in the early 1900s, Gorky was imprisoned at least twice and penned a number of political plays, most notably The Lower Depths, which is widely considered to be a masterwork of the theatre.  The play describes the lives of a group of men living in a homeless shelter.  The 1902 production of the play launched director Konstantin Stanislavski’s storied career.  One of the major tensions at the heart of the play is whether people living in dire circumstances should confront the painful reality of their lives or create more beautiful fictions to distract them from the brutal conditions under which they live.  It’s a pretty dark play, though a very good one.

We only got to see Teatro na Prisão’s first scene of this play, but I would love to be able to see how the rest of their improvisations on Gorky will develop.  Will the pervasive playfulness of the group somehow alter Gorky’s original plot, as the women in the other prison saved Romeo and Juliet from their once inevitable demise?  Or will the level of engagement and energy that these men bring to the workshop be channeled into grappling with both the tragedy of Gorky’s characters and the prisoners’ actual circumstances?  To the best of my knowledge, whatever performance they create will not be seen by anyone besides the members of the group themselves.  No audience of other prisoners or outsiders will be invited, unless something changes between now and then.

What does the absence of a viewing public do to a play?  All social justice theatre finds meaning in the process of rehearsal and creation, but it usually aims to make its most significant impact in performance for an audience likely to be swayed by its message or encouraged to think critically about the issues at hand.  Inside a prison, captives might choose to participate in a process such as this one for a multitude of reasons: to have a way to pass the time, to engage with one’s peers in a safe and productive way, to have meaningful contact with volunteers from outside the prison, to learn, to hone a skill set, to prove something to one’s self or others.  Whatever their reasoning, the men in the workshop must find value in the doing of the work itself, rather than seeking any outside recognition for their participation in this process or this play.  The upside to this work from a social justice point of view is that guards and prison administration don’t seem to be interfering or censoring the work of Teatro na Prisão, and they apparently have only been observing the workshops when we foreigners come to visit.  This, I’m guessing, is why Teatro na Prisão can do politically charged theatre work that I do not believe could be done in most U.S. prisons, but their freedom to be political, like everything else in prison, is rather narrowly confined because their work does not have an audience.  I don’t believe this in any way diminishes the quality or meaningfulness of the theatre practices we’ve witnessed in Brazilian prisons, but the lack of audience does make for a distinct theatrical experience–one in which only the participants can benefit.

I wonder what Gorky would think of this.  Surely he would be glad that people in prison know his work and can experience it performatively more than 100 years after he wrote it.  Perhaps he would also feel, as I do, that both the privileged and the oppressed among us are poorer for our inability to witness a full length performance of the improvised version of The Lower Depths that this theatre workshop will produce.  I know that my life would be greatly enriched were I to have the chance to see it.

Alas, my trip to Brazil has ended.  I am finishing this post from an airport in the United States as I wait for the connecting flight that will take me home to my beloved husband and my comfortable life in Michigan.  Liz Raynes has already safely arrived back in our native country, and Renee Gross returns very soon.  Hector/Heitor will remain for a few more weeks and continue to study directing, but my lovely trip is over.  Thank you to all the folks we met at UniRio and the places where they conduct their workshops!  Thank you UM Brazil Initiative and LACS!  We look forward to continuing this work next summer.

Last Night’s Protests in Rio: A Reflection from the Safe and Privileged

18 Jul

This morning when Andy and I went to breakfast in the café in our hotel, we saw news coverage of a large demonstration that occurred last night in here in Rio.  If I understood the news story correctly, a large crowd of demonstrators marched to the governor’s or the mayor’s home, and some of the protestors engaged in vandalism of local banks and stores, leaving large piles of


burning garbage in the streets.  The police arrived in riot gear and threw tear gas into the crowd.  The news on television this morning also showed a policeman shooting into the crowd with what looked to me like a rifle.  Fifteen protestors died.  Another thirty were wounded, as were seven police officers.

I can find nothing in the English language news online this morning about the protests, except these photo from Yahoo news: one of the police and one of looters in a store.


Our friends at UniRio are already writing about all of this on Facebook, but I’m wondering why major English-language news outlets are not.  The Pope is due to arrive in Rio de Janeiro in a few days (shortly after our departure), and it seems that the protests here are escalating to coincide with the media presence that will be in Rio covering the Pope.

Some of my students went to another protest earlier in our trip.  Some UniRio students took them, and they left when the police arrived.  Beyond that, we have not seen any of the social unrest firsthand or felt that we were in any danger of violence.  Last night Renee, Andy, and I attended an evening class at UniRio with Professor Marina Henriques and the students who go with here to the Maré favela.  They meet on campus every Wednesday evening to make plans for what they will do in their Saturday morning workshops in Maré.  Their class let out around 9 PM, and Andy, Renee, and I waited at the bus stop near UniRio for over an hour before we decided that our bus back to Ipanema was not coming.  We hopped in a cab and made it back to our hotel just fine.  This morning we’re wondering if last night’s protests are what disrupted our bus service, but at the time we had no inkling of what was going on elsewhere in Rio and neither saw nor heard any evidence of the protests as we made our way back to Ipanema.  We are living in the intersection of two types of privilege that most residents of Rio do not have: that of being foreigners  and that of staying in one of the wealthiest parts of the city.

Most of the students we’ve met at UniRio do not have such luxuries, and the vast majority of participants in the social justice theatre workshops we’ve visited live in highly precarious situations.  The prisoners we’ve met were certainly not at last night’s protest, and I’m doubtful that the elderly workshop participants from Teatro Renascer would have been there.  I have no idea whether or not any of the children or teenagers we met in Maré might have attended the protests, but it seems likely that members of any of these theatre workshops might have family members or friends who have attended the recent demonstrations in Rio.  I wonder how all of them are feeling this morning and if they know if their loved ones are safe.  People in prison often do not have access to fast-traveling forms of communication with their loved ones, and I hope that none of the incarcerated people we have met on this trip are sick with worry today about whether or not the people they love are safe.   I know that my own father worries quite a bit when I travel and has been concerned for my safety in Rio, despite my best assurances that I will keep myself and my students out of trouble.

Rosangela Lawrence, our Portuguese tutor back in Ann Arbor, gave us her thoughts on the protests before we came on this trip.  She said she supported the protestors but expressed great frustration about the acts of vandalism that have accompanied the protests because such behavior distracts from the overall purpose of the demonstrations, which is to advocate for the rights of the poor.

May the national and local governments of Brazil find ways to hear the concerns of the demonstrators and to provide some relief in their struggles.  May everyone involved work to avoid further violence and loss of life, and may the people of Brazil find safety and peace.

Trayvon Martin and the Justice We Cannot Seem to Reach

15 Jul

What I meant to write when I sat down at my computer this morning was a post about our second trip to the Maré favela here in Rio de Janeiro (You can read about our first visit to the favela here.), but all I can think about is Trayvon Martin and what his family must be feeling this morning.  Many people are writing quite eloquently about their sense of despair, powerlessness, and anger about the acquittal of George Zimmerman.  My favorite piece so far was posted by Frank Leonard on the Huffington Post.

As both the child of a currently incarcerated man and as someone who spends a lot of time seeing the damage that prisons do to people, I never feel like rejoicing when I hear news of another person being sentenced to a prison term.  That said, I also believe very deeply in the notion that governments should attempt to mete out fair and equitable justice, that every human life should be protected by the law, and that those who take a life should be called upon by the state to take responsibility for their actions, face the consequences, and make efforts towards atonement.  The Florida court and jury that acquitted George Zimmerman failed to ardently pursue justice, and they have failed not just Trayvon Martin’s family and loved ones but our entire nation.  If Trayvon Martin’s life is not worthy of even a conviction for manslaughter, then we cannot really claim to value any individual life in the United States.  Fundamentally, a person died, and there is no dispute about who shot him.  The fact that Zimmerman was not even convicted of manslaughter legalistically defines Trayvon Martin as less than human.

But, of course, we do value some lives and not others.  The specter of racism clouds every judicial process I have yet witnessed in my travels to prisons around the world.  All of the women we met in the theatre workshop at the prison here in Rio last week were phenotypically Black. (I realize that the terminology and understandings of race are significantly different in Brazil than they are in the U.S., and I make no claim to being able to parse this subtly.  I merely observe that whether these women self-identify as Black or not, every single incarcerated woman in the Teatro na Prisão workshop we witnessed would be phenotypically coded as Black or mixed race in the U.S.)  When I performed my one-woman play in a women’s prison in Canada in 2011, my friend who had taken me to the prison told me afterwards not to be fooled by the fact that I did not see any First Nations women in the prison; she reported that most of them were in solitary confinement.  In the small group of incarcerated women I met in an Irish prison in Dublin in 2005, I encountered two Black Panamanian women and a high number of other foreigners, mostly Eastern Europeans. Of course, in prisons across the U.S. we disproportionately lock up Blacks, Latina/os, Native Americans, the poor, and the undereducated.

None of this is news, and perhaps that’s why it hurts so much.  We continue to see the glaring inequalities in the ways in which we meet out justice, and so little changes across time and even various systems of government that it’s hard to stay hopeful.  I ceased believing in the righteousness or infallibility of any nation’s criminal justice system decades ago, yet justice remains a goal and a value that we must unceasingly pursue.  The lives of young people like Trayvon Martin are worth defending, and we cannot let this latest blow to human dignity, social justice, and individual freedom stop us in the interminable but necessary struggle to create the kind of world in which we would want all people to live–one in which the sight of a Black child in a hoodie would not inspire such fear that homicidal force would be anyone’s gut reaction.

My heart today is with Trayvon Martin’s family and friends, with one of my former students who said on Twitter that this verdict once again displayed the worth of his Black body, with the Black man I met in Louisiana who is serving ninety-nine years for stealing a toaster because of that state’s equivalent of the Three Strikes Law, with all who mourn for justice and those who are brave enough to continue to hope for something different in our future.

O Prisioneiro da Grade Ferro: A Meditation on a Documentary Film and How We Encountered It in Rio

14 Jul

100_1754The UniRio campus has some great graffiti, but this bit is my favorite so far: POUCA VIDA, MUITA ARTE (SO LITTLE LIFE, SO MUCH ART).  The sentiment sums up my feelings about being here.  The students and I have had so many amazing opportunities to see and participate in theatrical activities since our arrival here that we really do feel quite conflicted about choosing which things to do in the few weeks’ time we have.  Already some of us are more than halfway finished with our trips.  (We all had different travel schedules, so Liz Raynes arrived first and is due to return home soonest.  When she leaves in a few days, we will sorely miss her!)  Each day there are more interesting things going on than we could possibly attend or that I could fully write about on this blog.  Today’s post is about just one of our recent adventures.  More will follow shortly in posts to come.

On Friday nights the Teatro na Prisão program shows movies related to prison issues in Brazil.  Professor Fiche and her students gather to watch a different film each week and to discuss issues surrounding incarceration in their country.  Andy, Renee, Liz, Sarah, and I attended last Friday night’s screening of O Prisionero da Grade Ferro (called  Prisoner of the Iron Bars in English).  This documentary, released in 2004 and directed by Paulo Sacramento, depicts the conditions inside the infamous Carandiru prison in São Paulo.

In 1992 a fight amongst several prisoners in Carandiru escalated into a riot which involved an estimated 10,000 prisoners in the vastly overcrowded prison.  Carandiru was at its height the largest prison in Latin America, and at the time of the riot the prison housed more than double the number of prisoners it was built to hold.  Though prisoners offered their surrender when the prison was surrounded by police in riot gear, the police took the prison by force.  111 prisoners were killed, almost all by bullets (which, of course, only the police possessed).  These men were trapped inside a building they could not escape, gunned down by the dozens by their own countrymen.  In 2013, more than twenty years after the massacre, twenty-three police officers were convicted of killing just thirteen of Carandiru’s slain prisoners.

Drauzio Varella, a doctor who had been volunteering at the prison infirmary for more than a decade to try to curb the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS within Carandiru, wrote a popular book about the prison and the frighteningly bad conditions there.  The book, Estação Carandiru (published in English as Carandiru Lockdown: Inside the World’s Most Dangerous Prison), first published in 1999, was a critical success and was later made into a very popular Brazilian film called Carandiru (2003), directed by Hector Babenco.  My students and I had watched this film, which is not a documentary and is a bit glossier and sexier version of the actual events, in Michigan before we came to Rio.  We found the film to be very moving, and it gave us a bit of the history of Brazil’s prisons before we entered one ourselves.

O Prisionero da Grade Ferro, the documentary that we watched with the Teatro na Prisão folks here in Rio this past Friday, offered an even more disturbing look at Carandiru prison.  Filmed in the seven months prior to the prison’s demolition in 2002, this documentary showed similar conditions to those depicted in the more popular movie, except the truth was more devastating than the fictive version of events.  The team of documentarians taught a course on filmmaking inside the prison during the months that they were gathering footage, and some residents of Carandiru were given handheld cameras to record their own observations of prison life.  The final version of the film combines footage taken by the prisoners with that of the filmmakers.

The  most troubling scenes in the film depicted the “isolation cells.”  Ironically, isolation cells in Carandiru held up to fourteen men in a closet-sized space.  Their bodies were so tightly packed into the cells that the prisoners had to take turns sleeping.  They were not allowed to bathe or to leave these cells for months at a time, and they showed the filmmakers the rotting food that served as their meager sustenance.  The men looked into the cameras and pleaded with international human rights organizations to intervene.

Another portion of the film showed families visiting prisoners on the weekly visiting day. An incarcerated photographer would take snapshots of prisoners and their families in the central courtyard that defined each of Carandiru’s nine buildings.  The same photographer was also forced to take pictures of the bodies of the men murdered by fellow prisoners.  At times this man had taken a picture of a prisoner with his loved ones just hours before being called upon to photograph the same man’s body, riddled with stab wounds.  The documentary showed quite a few of these gruesome photos of corpses. Both before and after the massacre, Carandiru was a terrifying and brutal place to live.  Some of the men in the documentary held up giant knives the size of machetes and reported that most men kept two of them for protection–one for each hand.  Their accounts of the prisoner-on-prisoner violence in Carandiru reminded me of things I’ve read about Anogla Penitentiary in Louisiana.  In the 1970s when Angola was one of the most dangerous prisons in the United States, prisoners often slept with a phone book on top of their chests because of the likelihood that someone might try to stab them during the night.  Thankfully, my father has never had to live in a prison with this kind of reputation for bloodshed, but seeing this film rekindled anxieties that never quite dissipate for most prisoners’ families.  The contrast between the photos this incarcerated man took of the prisoners with their families and the ones he took of their mangled bodies starkly depicted what so many of us fear lurks behind the snapshots we carry home with us from prison visiting rooms.  Prisons are places where the potential for this kind of violence always exists, even though most prisoners don’t see this sort of thing happen every day.  No one is ever truly safe inside a cage.

After we watched the documentary (which thankfully had English subtitles), the Teatro na Prisão students and Professor Fiche had an energetic discussion about what we’d seen in the film.  Unfortunately, Sarah had had to leave a bit early to return to the student hostel where she serves as the emergency contact person for all of the University of Michigan students traveling in Rio right now.  (Brazil Initiative folks, you can be very proud of Sarah’s attentiveness and responsibility to her work for you!  She didn’t even get to see the end of the film.)  Since Sarah is by far the most fluidly bilingual person in our group, we had to make do with my mixture of Portuguese and Spanish and our best efforts as a group to discern the various Brazilian accents of the members of Teatro na Prisão.  (Many members of Teatro na Prisão speak excellent English, but none of those folks were on hand on Friday night.)  Despite our language barriers, we had a very productive conversation about the differences and similarities between prisons in the U.S. and Brazil.

The Brazilians were eager to find out what surprised us about the documentary, and the thing that surprised me most was that the film exists at all.  I cannot imagine U.S. prisons allowing filmmakers or even photographers that kind of access to the human rights abuses that exist inside our prisons.  In most states in the U.S. you cannot even take photographs of the exteriors of prisons without risking punishment.  In 1997 Ken Light put together an incredibly powerful book of photographs called Texas Death Row, showing portraits of all of the men who were awaiting execution in Texas at that time.  He also took pictures of death row itself and the few material belongings of the condemned, including family letters and photos.  The final image in the book shows the cross-shaped table to which prisoners are strapped before receiving lethal injection.  The book was so disturbing that the state of Texas vowed not to let cameras back inside their prisons again.  In fact, maps are also banned in Texas prisons because they might give prisoners a sense of where they are and help them to escape.  The fact that this Brazilian documentary could show images of dead bodies and men piled up like firewood inside overcrowded cells is something that I could never imagine happening in such a film made in my own country.

To be sure, documentaries and reality television shows are allowed to film inside U.S. prisons on a regular basis, but that footage  and the filmmakers are strictly monitored by prison authorities.  In this Brazilian documentary, incarcerated men at Carandiru and the filmmakers recorded footage of moonshine being brewed and crack being prepared for sale within the prison.  The prisoners in Carandiru filmed guards sleeping while on duty, and the prisoners provided candid commentary on what the guards do and do not do at the prison and how they treat those under their supervision.  This, too, could not happen in the U.S.  I cannot imagine a scenario in which prisoners could film guards or comment on their behavior in a negative light.

The UniRio students and Professor Fiche told us about a prison in Rio, which, like Carandiru, was demolished.  This prison was closer to the university and to the city center than the prisons where they now conduct their theatre workshops, and it was also more conveniently located in terms of enabling families to visit their incarcerated loved ones.  Rio has an extensive public transportation network, including many different bus lines and a rather limited subway system (which is currently being renovated in anticipation of next year’s World Cup).  However, riding public transportation here can be quite an ordeal.  One of the Teatro na Prisão students told me that he transfers between several different buses to travel between his home and the university and that the journey takes about two hours in each direction.  Here he was at UniRio on a Friday night watching this film with us until after 10 PM, only to face two hours of bus riding to get home.  The fact that prisons in the center of Rio are closing means that it’s more difficult and more time consuming for Teatro na Prisão to do their work.  We face the same problem at the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP).  The Michigan Department of Corrections has closed several of the prisons in Detroit, where most incarcerated people’s families live, and is shipping even more prisoners to remote parts of the state, especially Michigan’s Upper Peninsula which is rural, distant from the urban centers of the state, and difficult to navigate during our brutal winters.  Prisoners in rural and isolated locations get far fewer visits from loved ones and receive much less programming from volunteer organizations, like ours.  PCAP students, faculty, staff, and volunteers sometimes drive up to two hours each way every week to get to some of the prisons where we hold arts workshops.  The more time we spend in transit, the less time and energy we have to do our best work.  The closing of prisons in Detroit, which is only forty-five minutes from our campus in Ann Arbor, give us fewer options for nearby sites for PCAP’s work.

The more I see of prisons outside of the U.S., the more struck I am by how much all carceral systems have in common.  What is it in human nature, in globalization, or in our systems of national governance that enable so many of the same problems to reoccur in so many different parts of the world?  I am deeply convinced that we have to keep having public conversations of a detailed and informed nature about systems of punishment if we hope to stem the tide of mass incarceration worldwide.  There has to be a better way to deal with crime and violence, and we will only find potential solutions if we share information and continue to seek the humane treatment of all people.


Teatro Renascer: Theatre with Elderly Residents of Rio

11 Jul

Today’s excursion involved a trip to a hospital in the neighborhood of Tijuca, courtesy of the UniRio van and Professor Carmela Soares.  As you can see in this picture, the hospital was brightly painted and surrounded by plants and gardens.  The building itself and the medical school next door had Spanish tile on the roofs and beautiful archways everywhere

100_1742we looked.  The place had a much warmer feel than the sleek, antiseptic hospitals to which I am accustomed in the United States.

Every Wednesday morning Professor Soares and four of her students lead a theatre workshop called Teatro Renascer, which means the theatre of rebirth. This program is not only part of UniRio’s theatre programming but also a part of the larger Renascer organization which provides many different kinds of services to people in the neighborhood.  The woman who started the Renascer organization was a nurse and a nutritionist who began approaching patients waiting in the long hallways of the hospital and offering them services, like nutrition classes.  Over the past fifteen years, the program has expanded to include literacy courses, physical therapy, and arts therapy.  Six years ago Teatro Renascer began doing theatre workshops in a meeting space off the side of the hospital.  The Renascer organization now serves many Tijuca residents who are not patients in the hospital, as well as those who are currently being treated there.  UniRio currently has multiple theatre workshops in hospitals: Teatro Renascer’s theatre workshop for elderly people and Enfermeria do Riso (led by Professor Ana Achcar) in which students and faculty trained in clowning entertain those sitting in the waiting rooms of various hospitals.  This morning we visited Teatro Renascer and saw their work with elderly people.

100_1744Professor Soares gave us a brief tour of the hospital as we made our way to the place where the theatre group meets.  We saw beautiful courtyards and gardens, like the one in which Renee Gross and I are standing with Professor Soares in this picture.  The hospital had many long corridors with high, arched ceilings where people waited to be seen by doctors.  I have no idea how long people usually wait in those hallways, but I had no trouble in seeing what a gift it would be for clowns to come along to break the monotony for those waiting for care.  Wouldn’t that be a pleasant distraction for any of us who need to wait in a hospital?

The theatre workshop that Professor Soares and her students facilitate takes place in a spacious room in a small building off to the side near the hospital’s main entrance.  The workshop participants range in age from sixty to eighty-eight years old, and they were definitely the most lively bunch we’ve encountered on this trip!  They had more energy than either the children of the Maré favela or the women we met in the prison, and neither of those groups was the least bit lackluster.  This workshop made more use of music than the others we’ve seen so far.  Two of the student facilitators were very talented singers, and one of them played the flute with remarkable skill and seemingly inexhaustible lungs.

We arrived ahead of most of the workshop participants, and as they began to wander into the room for the beginning of the workshop, they hugged us and kissed us on both cheeks before even asking who we were.  At several points during the workshop, someone would take me warmly by the hand and say something obviously friendly but not quite intelligible to me in rapid fire Portuguese, and when I would smile back, my new friend (and I made plenty throughout the morning!) would laugh and hug me. This group was contagiously good spirited and friendly.

To begin the workshop, we made a circle with plastic chairs and then stood in front of them to begin physical warm ups.  I’d assumed that this would be physically kind of a low impact workshop since some of the members of the group were nearly ninety years old, but I could not have been more mistaken.  We hardly sat down again for the rest of the three hour workshop.  I’m really not sure why we bothered to make a circle of chairs in the first place.  One of the UniRio students led us in a few simple stretches, and then we went around the circle with each of us leading a new stretch or warm up.  I tried to pick something simple and easy to do, but the older participants of the workshop pushed us to do more when their turns came.  After the physical warm ups, the same UniRio student led us in a few scales for vocal warm ups.  Then she played her flute and sang with another student.  One of the workshop participants, a woman named Marta, sang a whole song by herself.  Andy was later able to identify it as the Brazilian standard “Por causa de você.”  Then the rest of the group was invited to sing the same song with her.  They had a couple of lyric sheets for us to follow along as best we could.  None of the workshop participants ever displayed the slightest tinge of shyness or embarrassment about their voices or their bodies.  They sang, danced, and moved with both physical ease and the kind of total abandon that we theatre people so admire in actors who are able to shed their inhibitions.

After the song, another UniRio student led us in an exercise in which we were to each one by one step into the middle of the circle, state our first names and an adjective starting with the same letter as our first names, and create a physical gesture to go with it.  The workshop participants and facilitators were all very creative and funny (as were my students Renee, Liz, and Andy), and the exercise went without a hitch until it got to the oldest person in the workshop–a eighty-eight year old man named Claudiomir.  His first name is Claudiomir, but everyone calls him by his last name, which was something that began with a B that I never did quite catch.  He had to repeat himself three times in this exercise because he refused to choose an adjective to describe himself that began with the same letter as his name.  He was hilariously funny and loved the spotlight so much that he seemed to deliberately mess up his part in the games so that he would be asked to repeat himself.  He has a trickster’s sense of humor and decided to mess with me from the beginning of the workshop.  He would  approach me and say, “You’re not Brazilian are you?” And when I confirmed his suspicion, he began mumbling and speaking in jibberish to try to make me think he was really saying something to me and that I couldn’t keep up with him because of my lack of skill in Portuguese.  The UniRio students immediately recognized what he was doing and explained it to me, but he thought this was such a funny trick that he repeated it every chance he got in the workshop.  He also made a big show of wanting to hug me goodbye at the end of the day and then would turn and walk in a different direction at the last second right before he was about to hug me.  I’ve never before met someone his age with that much energy!  He moved and danced all over the place for three hours straight and didn’t seem the least bit tired when it was all over.

After we introduced ourselves, we were asked to invent a character with a different name and give that person a voice and a body.  I became a character named Rosangela in tribute to our Portuguese teacher in Michigan, and we then interacted with other people in the room as our characters and had to switch to become the character we’d just met as soon as we’d shaken hands with them.  It was a rather complicated game, and the workshop participants kept us on our toes.  They were amazing!

Then we gathered at one end of the room while the student with the flute played music.  Each person had to cross the room by her/himself, moving in time to the music the flautist played.  At first it seemed that people were moving to match her rhythms and notes, but then it became clear that the workshop participants had taken over and that the talented flautist was following them, trying to anticipate their rhythms and improvise music to suit each person’s style of movement.  It was an incredible thing to see.

After about two hours or so, we folks from the U.S. were pretty tired and starting to fall behind, and we were ushered into a side room by the UniRio students who had brought quite a spread of chocolates, small cakes, coffee, and tea.  We gratefully partook while the workshop participants were rehearsing the improvised scenes they are currently developing on the theme of birthday parties.  On our way back into the workshop room, as we were heading to our seats in the rows of chairs that had been set up as an audience, Claudiomir snatched a half-eaten cracker from Renee’s hand, gobbled it up, and laughed.  He was always at least two steps ahead of us no matter what we did!

The workshop participants were divided into two groups, and they had made themselves elaborate props.  The first group


had made quite complicated paper mache food for the party and brought a baby doll in a stroller.  One of the guests at the party got very drunk, and the others kept trying to take away her beer as she became more and more disruptive.  The second group adorned their table with tablecloths in a Brazilian flag pattern and served real food at their party.  They ended with a patriotic song and dance number that included much flag waving and putting leis of fake flowers around each party guest’s neck.  After they bowed at the end of their scene, they rushed to put their leis around our necks and insisted that we keep them as souvenirs of our visit to the workshop.

We had a fabulous time this morning and are very grateful to members of Teatro Renascer for letting us be a part of their workshop today.  We will carry their hugs, songs, and leis back to the U.S. with us.  Obrigada, Teatro Renascer!  The group’s name makes sense to me now because I feel that I’ve been infused with new life and energy because of the joyous presence of these people in the world.

*This blog post was updated on July 16 to correct a few incorrect facts that were pointed out to me by Professor Carmela Soares.  Thank you, Carmela!


The following portion of this post is made up of reflections from Andy Martínez on the same workshop:

IMG_2157Greetings from The Riviera—This afternoon I sit in a crowded Starbucks in Ipanema waiting for my clothes to dry at the Laundromat around the corner. I’m taking a break from my Brazilian sojourn to sip some Western capitalism—iced tea—as well as my reading of Carson McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” in order to offer a few precious accounts of my morning at a hospital in Rio.Singing songs from their prime and playing theatre games that focused on integrating integral motor skills, I trespassed upon an energetic and enthusiastic crew of fifteen 60-to-90-year-old people in their weekly class.

My love-cup was filled when I sat down to observe the golden-aged practitioners improvise one-by-one across the room in collaboration with a live flautist. Using their hips, legs and arms like fine brushes, the aged dancers painted a breathtaking portrait of grace at an advanced age. The sounds of the flute responded to every staccato, legato, and accented efforts made by each respective dancer.

We finished the class in a circle dance. We held hands. We rocked backward and forward perhaps to songs of their youth. We picked up the tempo and began to rotate our circle counter-clockwise, maintaining our hold to one another.

When we reached the end of the song, the elders took the lead from the UNIRIO undergrad facilitators. Impromptu, they repeated the song’s coda three times, each time adding a greater emphasis to the words, until our entwined hands were thrown into the air in a final exclamation.

What my iced tea, Carson McCullers and I realize here in my air-conditioned cocoon of cacao, is that this last circle game can be more than simply a closing exercise to which a song is sung and steps are repeated. Rather, the song could be an anthem, and the exercise in motor skills could be a celebration of life for these folks. Their conviction certainly supports this theory.

It is my express hope that should I reach the ages of these particular friends that I engage in a similar way. You know, celebrate the everyday? I don’t want to miss that.

Will you join me?

In Rio with Teatro na Prisaõ, or Romeo and Juliet Live to See Another Day

9 Jul

Knowing that we wouldn’t be able to take anything but our passports into the prison with us today, we weren’t able to take our cameras to get pictures of our latest adventures.  This photo was taken a few days ago when Liz Raynes was

100_1707standing in front of the Shakespeare mural which adorns the side of UniRio’s theatre building.  This image is apropos for this post because our morning was spent watching the Bard’s work get reinterpreted by incarcerated women.

We rose early today in order to eat breakfast and get to UniRio’s campus by 7:45 AM to meet Professor Natália Fiche and her students.  Fiche and the Teatro na Prisaõ program have been doing theatre work in prisons for the last fifteen years.  Every Tuesday the program goes into two prisons on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro–one women’s facility and one men’s.  We visited the women’s prison this week and will go to the men’s next week.

When we arrived at the prison, we got off the bus while those who were headed to the men’s prison continued on to another location.  Fiche and five of her students led us to a large metal gate where a guard slid open a small panel just large enough for him to look through.  Then he opened up a door in the gate and admitted us two at a time, searching the large bags of costumes that the UniRio students carried with them as he admitted them.  Andy, Flores, and I were near the back of the group, and as those in front of us were being admitted through the door, the guard decided that Andy and Hector would not be allowed to enter because they were wearing shorts–albeit long ones.  Someone dug through the costumes and found two pairs of stretch pants that they could wear.  Both pairs of pants were bright pink, but the guys were very good sports about wearing them for our visit to the prison.  The guards confiscated the offending shorts and held them at the front gate until the end of our visit.

Professor Fiche told us that they had never given her a problem about people wearing shorts before.  Apparently, prisons all over the world have this in common; the dress code seems to shift often and arbitrarily so that visitors cannot possibly keep up with the rules.  We face this all the time in the United States.  In fact, during the last year when my family members have visited my father in a Texas prison, the dress code for female visitors has become much more highly regulated than ever before.  Now when the guards decide that a woman’s clothes are too tight or low cut, have too much writing on them, or are deemed unfit for any other reason, they force women to wear blue hospital gowns over their clothes.  Visitors to prisons, particularly wives and girlfriends visiting their loved ones, tend to want to look their best and have often been very careful in dressing themselves for the precious few hours they can spend with the people they love.  My mother and I have witnessed at least two women forced to wear the hospital gowns burst into tears when the men they loved arrived in the visiting room; the women’s shame and grief becomes palpable to all visiting families around them.  If Andy or Hector were ashamed of their makeshift outfits today, they did not show it.  They laughed good-naturedly about the incident and moved right along with their day.  In this case, the shaming force that prisons often inflict upon their inhabitants and visitors did not spoil our trip.

Once we got inside the prison gate, a guard took our passports, asked us to sign the visitor’s log book, and had us walk through a metal detector.  We then followed another guard across a courtyard and into a cement building.  The room in which Teatro na Prisaõ meets is concrete on all surfaces, like the rest of the building, and has a small raised stage at one end.  The dozen or so incarcerated women in the group welcomed the UniRio students, Professor Fiche, and even us visitors with smiles and hugs.  Those of us who have done work in U.S. prisons were surprised to see that even with a guard in the room, male volunteers and female prisoners were allowed to hug without repercussions.  All of the guards we saw beyond the front gate were women, and at least one of them stayed in the back of the room the whole time we were there to watch what was going on.  We gathered from the UniRio students that this is not usually the case; during their regular workshops, the guards don’t bother to watch.  Because we were there visiting from abroad, the workshop was not only watched by a guard but also visited by the warden.  Professor Fiche had previously received approval over email to video record  today’s workshop, and she had set up a tripod with a camera on it at the start of the workshop.  The warden came into the workshop shortly after we got started to tell Fiche that she was denied permission to film after all.

Teatro na Prisaõ uses both improvisatory games based on theatre of the oppressed and traditional theatrical scripts as starting points for its work.  In the past they have not held performances for audiences but have done theatre exercises strictly for themselves within the space of the workshop.  Now Professor Fiche is working to try to gain permission from the prison authorities to allow the women to perform twice: once for their families and once for the other women in the prison.  Whether or not they will be able to do this, they are currently in rehearsals for an original devised performance based on Romeo and Juliet.

The UniRio students and incarcerated women set up chairs to make an audience for us visitors, and they put a small partition upstage right.  This served as an area for costume changes and also became Juliet’s balcony when she would poke her head over the top of the partition to talk to Romeo.  The women had a great time with the costumes that the UniRio folks had brought, and I have to say that the costumes themselves were very diverse and rather impressive–well worth the women’s enthusiasm.  They even had makeshift swords made out of paper machê for the fight scenes.

While the women were trying on costumes and the debate over filming the workshop was happening, we had some time to talk to the workshop participants before they began their rehearsal.  One woman told me about her five children, two of whom have died.  Of the remaining three, two live with her mother.  In my limited Portuguese, I didn’t understand what she was telling me about the whereabouts of the third child, but it seemed important to this woman that we know that she had a life and family beyond the walls of the prison.

This workshop is using the story of Romeo and Juliet but not Shakespeare’s text–even in Portuguese translation.  The UniRio folks have given the women a basic outline of the plot, and the women improvise scenes using Shakespeare’s characters and plot–or at least as much of the plot as they liked.

This particular adaptation of Romeo and Juliet begins on the streets of Verona where the Montagues and Capulets are sizing each other up for a fight.  This opening scene was very funny because one actor in particular (I believe she was a Capulet) was doing such a good job of goading her opponents with gestures and facial expressions.  As in Shakespeare’s original, Prince Escalus (the lead government official in Verona) appears and stops the fight with a speech about keeping the peace.  The rival families dispersed with another round of intimidating looks and hand motions.

Then the whole cast attends the masquerade ball at the Capulet residence.  Everyone appeared in sequined mardi gras masks and danced to baile funk music as though they were at a modern day nightclub.  The cast was obviously having a great time and seemed surprised and excited by this choice of music.  The UniRio students had brought a small boom box and played a number of selections of background music at different points in the play.  Apparently in prior rehearsals, they’d been playing more classical dance music, and the women in the workshop found it boring and wouldn’t do much dancing.  With baile funk as their inspiration, the dance party became a whole lot of fun for the cast and audience alike.

Romeo and Juliet fall in love at the dance, and when Romeo leaves the party, he is so overjoyed that his happiness is positively contagious.  He runs to his friends to sing Juliet’s praises and then collapses in a lovelorn heap downstage center to contemplate the many virtues of his love.  Juliet’s head pops up over the partition in the back of the stage, and she begins a soliloquy about Romeo’s virtues.  He quickly leaps to his feet and runs to stand beneath her balcony.  They have an enthusiastic exchange and run off shortly thereafter to be wed by the friar.  The two women playing Romeo and Juliet were allowed to share what appeared to be a pretty decent kiss, albeit with Juliet’s wedding veil between them–a level of physical contact that I would not expect to be allowed in prison theatre in the U.S.

At this point in the story, we encounter a most excellent bit of comedy along with a casting change.  In order to give more women the opportunity to have significant roles, a new actor takes over for Juliet just after the marriage scene.  An UniRio student named Paolo had been telling me about the double casting before we arrived at the prison.  He referred to the first actor as “the long haired Juliet” and the second as “the short haired Juliet.”  The long haired Juliet played the character as demure and a bit shy, while the short haired Juliet was far more outgoing and demonstrative in her love of Romeo.  The first time we see the short haired Juliet, she is helping Romeo to sneak into her bedroom so that they can consummate their wedding night.  She darts out from behind the upstage right partition, grabs Romeo by the arm, and drags him into her bedroom.  A number of actors were hidden behind the partition, and they enacted Romeo and Juliet’s love making by throwing articles of clothing into the air along with whoops and shouts.  We, the audience, loved it.

Romeo emerges from the wedding night all aglow with his love for Juliet and stumbles into the street fight that kills both Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin) and Mercutio (Romeo’s dear friend).  Then Juliet distraught by this news takes a sleeping potion to fake her death.  Romeo finds her, believes her to be dead, and then proceeds to get falling down drunk.  (The women unanimously disliked Shakespeare’s ending to the tragedy and decided to change it.)  Romeo passes out, and Juliet is first worried that Romeo is dead, then very irritated at Romeo for having gotten drunk.  She shakes him awake and forces him to his feet where he stumbles around still drunk and trying to explain himself, yet overjoyed by Juliet’s unexpected recovery.  The families reconcile.  Another baile funk dance party ensues.  Curtain call.

After the applause died down, the women and UniRio facilitators cleared away our chairs and formed a circle.  Not only did they include all of us in their circle, they deliberately spaced themselves between us so that each visitor held hands on both sides with an incarcerated woman.  The music began again, and one of the UniRio students jumped into the circle and started dancing.  We all cheered.  He pulled one of the incarcerated women into the middle of the circle and then exited to rejoin the group so that the woman in the middle could have the spotlight.  We danced this way for quite a while, each person in the middle bringing a new person into the center of the circle before exiting to rejoin the group.  Then we held hands again, and Prof. Fiche talked to the members of the group about how important their weekly attendance at the workshop is.  A short discussion ensued, and then we broke the circle.  Out of what felt like nowhere, a table appeared with food and drinks that the UniRio students had brought with them to the prison, and we were all encouraged to eat and drink as we mingled and talked about the performance.  When the food and drink were gone, we all hugged and thanked one another before we left–the women heading off into a different area of the prison as we made our way back to the front gate to reclaim Hector and Andy’s confiscated shorts.

We gathered at a little store across the street from the prison, shared more refreshments, and petted a very friendly stray cat while we waited for the UniRio bus to return from the men’s prison to collect us.  On the hour-long bus ride back, the UniRio students and Prof. Fiche shared snacks with us and much conversation about the theatre work that each of us do, both inside and outside prisons.  Someone produced a tambourine from a backpack and played it expertly as all the UniRio students sang loudly in Portuguese.  We arrived back at the university full of good spirits.  We had planned to meet up with this group again on campus two days from now for their weekly Thursday class in which they plan their activities for the coming week’s workshop at the prison, but as part of the nationwide demonstrations and protests in which many Brazilians are currently engaged, all teachers and students at public schools, including those at UniRio, will be on strike this Thursday.  Fortunately we’ll be here another week and can attend a Thursday class after our trip to the men’s prison next Tuesday.

For now, we’re left to ponder this Romeo and Juliet who chose to live rather than die.  When Jodie and I traveled to Cuba shortly after the release of our book in 2011, we saw the Ballet Nacional de Cuba perform a version of Swan Lake in which the swan Odette not only survives but marries Sigfried and has a big dance in which the chorus of swans become ladies in waiting.  After seeing both this take on Romeo and Juliet inside a Brazilian prison and the Cuban Swan Lake, I cannot keep from wondering if unexpected happy endings are signs of resistance.  When one cannot secure one’s own freedom from incarceration or an oppressive government, then perhaps imagining worlds in which Romeo, Juliet, and Odette can overcome their previously inevitable tragedies gives performers and audiences alike a sense of hope.  We cannot always escape the devastating situations in which we find ourselves, but, like another great character from classical drama–Segismundo in Calderon de la Barca’s La vida es sueño–at least we can dream, especially when we’re in the theatre.

Addendum to Day Two in Rio Post–Thoughts from Sarah Thompson

7 Jul

100_1676Here’s another photo from the start of our journey to the favela yesterday in the UniRio van.  From left to right, you’ll see Liz Raynes, Jodie Lawston, Sarah Thompson, and me.  After I posted my reflections on yesterday’s adventures, I received a very thoughtful email from Sarah, adding her impressions of what we saw in Maré (and teaching me how to add accents to words in my blog posts!).  Sarah has been a real gift to us on this trip because as a recently graduated Latin American Studies major from the University of Michigan (Way to go, faculty at LACS and the Brazil Initiative for doing such an excellent job of training students!), she speaks excellent Portuguese and is on her third trip to Brazil.  She has been serving as translator for those of us with limited language skills, and she knows a great deal about local customs and culture, including practical things like how and where to catch the bus.  As you will shortly see from her comments on our time in Maré, she is an excellent critical thinker with much compassion and insight.

Sarah’s response to my blog post from yesterday begins with a reference to an art exhibit that Isabella Porto described to us.  The Crossing Rio exhibition took place at the Centro de Artes de Maré and used art to try to bridge the gaps between various communities in Rio.  Here’s what Sarah wrote:

Anything I’d add would be about the idea of Crossing Rio and combining the two cities, the South Zone (where we are) and the North Zone (where Maré is). As a student of urban development, I found it fascinating to learn that that was the focus of the previous art exhibition, as well as the proposed theme of the play at the end of the year [devised by the children in the second workshop we saw, the one at the Centro de Artes de Maré]. Particularly poignant was how this linking of geography through the barriers of socioeconomic class, quality of life, and so many things also came through the lens of using history, linking past and present. I think I already commented to you about this a little but but I found it so great how they were using the past, like the case of the Revolta da Vacina [one of the historical events featured in the second workshop’s play], to make the children reflect on, and think critically about, the protests today. There were tons of moments like the girl saying that she just submitted herself to the power at the expense of her friends without thinking. I saw it in that group but even in the children’s group [at the third workshop in the hospital]– part of the protests have been against Rede Globo, the media monopoly, and by using the newspaper clippings and ending with a discussion encouraging the kids to take liberty with their scenes and use the facts to build a story, pointing out this is what the media does anyway, is a really subtle way to get them thinking politically. And about their own role in the story. It seemed to all be about making sure the residents of Maré, who like all favela residents have been told by the government for generations that they are off the grid, a blemish on the city of Rio, making sure that they understand how much they are a legitimate part of this world, significant in quantity and perspective. So cool.

Thank you, Sarah, for these reflections!

More on our time in Rio soon!  A group of us are going tonight to see a production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard in Portuguese!

Rio Exchange, Day Two: Mare Favela

7 Jul

The Michigan/UniRio Theatre Exchange is off to an exciting start!  We are all so grateful to our hosts at UniRio as well as to the Brazil Initiative and the faculty and staff of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) at the University of Michigan who have worked so hard to make it possible for us to be here.


Our day started off at UniRio where we met Professor Marina Henriques (pictured here with Andy Martinez in the UniRio van that took us around town) who gave us a brief history of the Mare favela. (There should be an accent on that “e” in Mare, but I can’t figure out how to put accents in my blog posts. Mare is pronounced “mar-ay-ah” in Portuguese.)  Mare is a very large favela within Rio de Janeiro–so large in fact that there are sixteen or seventeen (the exact number varies depending on your source) communities inside it.  Professor Henriques and her students conduct Saturday morning theatre workshops in two of those communities: Nova Holanda and Praia de Ramos.  Their program is called Redes de Teatro na Maré.

Favelas are often described by sites like Wikipedia as shanty towns, but we saw today that they have far more infrastructure than that.  Those of us who have traveled to other parts of Latin America agreed that what we saw of the favela looked very similar to other economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and distinctly more built up than some places I’ve seen, like some of the colonias in Juarez, Mexico, where people live in makeshift shelters made of cardboard boxes.  The parts of Mare that we saw today were composed of 100_1691real buildings made of concrete, metal, and wood arranged around narrow streets and alleys, as can be seen in this picture that I took from inside the second or third story of a building in which one of the theatre workshops takes place.  We felt completely safe while we were in the favela and saw no hint of violence, past or present.  However, Professor Henriques and her students stay safe in large part because they are cautious and thoughtful about the ways in which they approach the favela.  On the morning of each trip to the favela, Henriques calls the staff at the NGO in Mare with whom UniRio partners in setting up these theatre workshops to make sure that it is a safe day to enter the favela.  Only then do she and her students make their way to Mare to engage the residents of the favela through theatre.

The UniRio van took us to the edge of the favela, alongside a major thoroughfare known as Avenida Brasil.  We stopped briefly at the Centro de Artes da Mare–a remarkable place to which we later returned–and then boarded yet another van (one owned by a local NGO called Redes da Desenvolvimento da Maré or REDES) to ride deeper into the interior of Mare so that we could visit the first theatre workshop of the day, which took place inside a building where REDES offers classes and community programming for the people of Mare.  We passed classrooms in which children were studying French and English and then arrived in the room in which Henriques’ UniRio students facilitate a theatre workshop with about a dozen middle and high school aged students.  They invited us to participate in the physical theatre games that they were playing, and we kicked off our shoes and joined the group.  I was surprised to discover that they played some of the same theatre games that I’ve seen used time and again in the U.S., including a version of Zip Zap Zop that they called Zip Zap Ho! (“Ho!” being their equivalent of “Whoa!” from the U.S. version of the game).  Liz Raynes also recognized a song and dance exercise that another group employed later in the afternoon.  She had played that theatre game in a Spanish speaking country elsewhere in Latin America during previous travels abroad.  The facilitators and participants in this first workshop seamlessly incorporated us into their group and seemed disappointed when we had to leave early in order to get to visit the other two workshops in the favela.

The UniRio students’ facilitation style is much like the one we use at PCAP; two or three students lead the same workshop every week so that they develop longstanding relationships with the people in the workshops.  This program for theatre in the favelas began three years ago, and many of the facilitators and participants have been part of the project since its inception.  The first and third workshops we saw today will hold public performances of their theatre games and short improvisations, while the second workshop will hold a more formal original performance devised by the workshop participants (more on this later).  Henriques’s students are obviously both well-trained and very committed to the residents of Mare.  In all of the workshops we observed today, the student facilitators were energetic, highly competent, and good motivators.  The workshop participants were without exception completely focused on the task at hand.  All three of the workshops we observed were with youth, though one workshop with adults was also taking place at the final site we visited.  Doing theatre with youth can be very challenging in terms of focusing their energy on the subject matter of the workshop, teaching them to engage respectfully with one another, and convincing the outliers of the group to participate when teenagers often insist that they are “too cool” to play theatre games or risk embarrassing themselves.  Today’s workshops avoided all of these common traps and displayed remarkable cohesion.  Anyone who underestimates the potential of urban youth should spend a morning observing the children of Mare in these theatre workshops.

100_1679The REDES van took us back to the Centro de Artes da Mare where we observed the second theatre workshop in the beautifully restored space you see in this picture.  When we arrived, the UniRio facilitators were costumed outlandishly–one in a cape and the other in a top hat–leading a theatre of the oppressed exercise in which the youth were drilled in a rapid fire version of Simon Says.  Each person who made a mistake in following the leader’s orders was told to stand in a kind of holding pen offstage, guarded by the facilitator in a cape.  The final girl standing after all the others had been eliminated was given a large stick to hold and told to take over guarding her peers.  The facilitators barked orders at her and asked her if any of those in the holding pen were her friends.  The girl immediately said, “No!” and brandished her stick at the offending captives.  When the exercise had ended, and the group sat in a circle discussing what had happened, the girl who had been transformed into a soldier reported that during the exercise, she thought nothing of becoming the oppressor; she had just enjoyed exercising the power given to her.  The young residents of Mare discussed how easily this had happened and related it to other experiences in their actual lives.  Agosto Boal (may he rest in peace) would’ve been very proud.

We also had the opportunity to watch the members of this workshop perform several scenes from the play they are currently devising about the history of Rio de Janeiro.  The first two scenes of the play will deal with historical events, the third scene with life in Mare in the present, and the final scene with Mare’s future.  The play will be performed in the Centro de Artes da Mare, likely in December 2013.

The Centro’s director Isabella Porto (pictured here on the right with Marina Henriques and me)

100_1705was very gracious in giving us a tour of the facility and telling us about the history of the space.  In 2007 the building was in shambles and with very little money and many volunteers, members of the community restored the space and made it into a professional performance venue.  One side of the building is built for theatre, the other for dance.  The famous Brazilian dance company Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Dancas (the “c” in “Dancas” should have the little tail on it that makes the letter take on an “s” sound in Portuguese, but again I’m not able to figure out how to put special characters into my blog posts.  Sorry, readers of Portuguese!) served as the driving force behind the renovation of the space and continues to perform there.  Isabella and Marina both emphasized how important it is that professional quality performances of both theatre and dance take place in this space inside the favela.  The Lia Rodrigues Company includes two dancers who are from Mare, but they are equal to the rest of the company in their dancing abilities.  The company does not do community outreach work through theatre; rather they create cost-free professional performances in a space that is readily accessible to those who live in the favela.  This commitment to high quality art for an audience that cannot pay for it is admirable and ought to be emulated by more professional artists and cultural centers.  All people deserve access not just to the arts but to the arts in their most refined forms.  Too often we treat working class or poor audiences as though they are not deserving of the same quality of art as those who can afford to be patrons.

From the Centro, we rode the REDES van to a more distant part of the favela where we visited our final theatre workshop, which took place in a hospital called Centre Municipal de Saúde Américo Veloso.  The workshop participants were, once again, children from Mare, and they met in the hospital only because it provides a good space for their work, not because anyone involved in the project needed treatment at the hospital.  These students were improvising scenes based on news stories they had read, and their performances reminded me of the Living Newspaper work of the Federal Theatre Project, reimagined for the era of television news.  Many of the young performers used their cell phones as stand-ins for the handheld microphones used by news reporters or talk show hosts.  They addressed timely topics, including the present debates in Brazil about whether people can choose their sexuality or are born with a particular sexual preference.  All of the skits were both informative and uproariously funny, and like the other two workshops we observed, these children and college students were having a great time, as did we.

We emerged from Mare in awe of the work that Henriques, the UniRio students, and the residents of the favela are doing, and we look forward to rejoining them there again next Saturday.

*This blog post was updated on July 8 to correct some information that I had misunderstood and to add in extra names and facts that Professor Marina Henriques sent to me.  Thank you, Marina!

Univ. of Michigan/UniRio Theatre Exchange Program: Day One from Rio de Janeiro

6 Jul

The University of Michigan is beginning a new campus wide exchange program with the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janiero (also known as UniRio), and I arrived in Rio yesterday to begin a fifteen day trip to explore ways in which Michigan’s Theatre & Drama Department can partner with UniRio’s five various theatre departments, which specialize in directing, acting, theatre education, dramaturgy, and design. Though I am here to help establish as many connections as possible between our departments, I am particularly interested in a program called Teatro na Prisao in which UniRio professors Natalia Fiche and Viviane Narvaes take their students into Brazilian prisons (one men’s facility and one women’s) to conduct theatre workshops.  We are making plans to establish an exchange specifically between the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at Michigan and Teatro na Prisao here in Rio.  PCAP student Renee Gross will be arriving in Rio tomorrow to participate in this exchange and to help me find ways in which our programs can best share our theatre practices with one another.  We will go into the both the men’s and women’s prisons here in Rio with the Teatro na Prisao folks in the days to come during our stay in Brazil.

In the meantime, I’ll be blogging about the highlights of our theatre department’s exchange with UniRio, so regular readers of this blog may not see quite as much about prisons as you are accustomed to finding here over the course of the next fifteen days.  I will, of course, include observations and reflections on the work of Teatro na Prisao once we have seen the work that they are doing.

Jodie Lawston, co-editor of the book Razor Wire Women and co-author of this blog, is here in Rio with me, as is Andy Martinez who is currently pursuing his doctorate in World Arts and Culture/Dance at UCLA.  University of Michigan Theatre & Drama major and actor Liz Raynes is here in Rio participating in the exchange, and Hector Flores Komatsu, a directing student in our department, will arrive tomorrow.  Lighting design student Liz Williams will travel separately to Rio later in the summer to participate in a lighting and set design project at UniRio.

UniRio professor Renato Icharahy, chair of the directing program, is serving as our host, and Andy, Liz, and I were able to observe one of his directing classes this afternoon, after which he introduced us to a number of UniRio faculty and students.  We attended a performance of Afro Brazilian dance this evening on campus, hosted by Professor Zeca Ligiero who runs a program connected to African and indigenous performance.  The dance troupe performed two pieces that evolved out of Yoruba narratives about Orishas and nature.  The athleticism and strength of the male dancers in particular was very impressive, and the audience was invited to participate in the performance when we were handed cups of white paint and small brushes and encouraged to paint on the bodies of the dancers.  (We took pictures of the performance but are having trouble uploading them tonight.  Hopefully we’ll be able to post them later.)

Tomorrow we’ll be going with Professor Marina Henriques and her students to the Mare favela where UniRio faculty and students conduct a weekly theatre workshop.

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