My name is Wilder Erb, and I have been involved with PCAP or (Prison Creative Arts Project) at the University of Michigan for one year. During the past year as a student I was fortunate enough to be a part of the Atonement Project as well as the Theatre and Incarceration course. I applied to the Brazil exchange program for three weeks in Rio de Janeiro because I am passionate about working in prisons in Michigan as a member of PCAP. I spent the previous two semesters facilitating theatre workshops at the Cooper Street men’s correctional facility in Jackson. I firmly believe doing theatre along with other kinds of social activism work is vital to achieving community uplift. For this reason, I feel deeply invested in working for and with PCAP. Having the ability to take part in similar work in Brazil specifically with the Theatre of the Oppressed was an opportunity that I could not pass up.
As part of our cultural exchange here in Brazil, we work hand-in-hand with students and faculty at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, also referred to as UniRio. This partnership allows us to experience multiple perspectives of the Theatre of the Oppressed, such as sitting in on theatre performances by UniRio students, touring the Maré favela, watching full productions, going into a hospital and playing improv games with the elders, as well as getting a first hand experience of how theatre is performed within both men’s and women’s prisons. Brazilian Augusto Boal founded the Theatre of the Oppressed in Rio de Janeiro where the CTO or (Center Theatre Oppressed) operates as the theatre’s headquarters. Boal’s methodology focuses on emphasizing the importance of creative expression and the need for alternative forms of open dialogue to exist in spaces that traditionally repress these values. One of the experiences to date that I feel best epitomizes the Theatre of the Oppressed was traveling to the Maré favela to watch an amazing performance about how acts of discrimination based on race, the color of one’s skin, and where someone lives remains a prevalent issue in Brazilian society.
Favelas, which are unique to Brazil, are designated territories that house Brazil’s marginalized poor communities that not coincidentally consist of overwhelmingly black and darker skinned peoples. These confined areas are often times surrounded by physical barriers, i.e. walls, and experience disproportionately high levels of crime, violence, gang activity and general instability. The performance put on within Maré used vibrant costumes and elaborate stage sets to tackle the problematic issues of discrimination and injustices that places like Maré experience on a daily basis. I found it very interesting how the actors and actresses used legislative theatre to express these controversial realities. One of theatre’s most powerful qualities is that it creates a space for people to come together and actively engage in discussions that otherwise would be looked down upon and viewed as inappropriate means of expression. Being a part of this exchange program has been an incredibly rewarding experience so far. Actively engaging in social activism work such as the Theatre of the Oppressed, along with having access and being exposed to places like prisons, hospitals and favelas give students the most meaningful forms of educational learning.