This guest blogger, another student of mine, wishes to remain anonymous as the author of this post. She took both the Atonement Project and Theatre & Incarceration courses last year and has co-facilitated creative writing and theatre workshops in a men’s prison in Jackson, Michigan.
On Friday morning, Angela, a lovely professor from UniRio, took us on a tour of the center of Rio and the old theatre district, an area full of historic architecture and buildings that were built both during and also immediately after the colonial era. We learned about the origins of the architecture and colonists’ desires to make the city seem as European as possible, but also walked past recently developed high-rise apartment buildings, looming in between colorful French balconies and baroque windows from Portugal. As a graduate student studying public policy and urban planning, I am continually fascinated by the somewhat haphazard blending of old and new, of modern and colonial that can be found throughout the city. In fact, I have seen the resonance of this uneasy dichotomy in almost everything we have done since arriving in Rio. I see the rush to modernize, to expand, to grow (just in time for the Olympics) at the same time that I see a foundation of unexamined history and marginalized communities getting left behind in all the expansion.
The very first week we were here, we had the incredible privilege of visiting one such community, the Maré favela, to witness some very meaningful theatre work being done there. We were told that Maré’s original residents were northern migrants who came to the region looking for economic opportunity and instead found themselves stranded and isolated in an area in north Rio that is now the massive Maré favela, composed of 16 different communities.
We went into Maré with the Center for Theatre of the Oppressed, an organization that has continued the work of Augusto Boal in Rio and which had been working with youth in Maré to develop a performance piece focused on the discrimination that favela residents face when they leave their community. Using a technique called legislative theatre, this performance started as a traditional forum theatre piece; in addition to be able to intervene though, spect-actors were also given the opportunity to suggest possible policies that could address the situations being acted out in front of them. At the end of the entire piece, we then all had a conversation with representatives from outside organizations about the suggested policies and reached a consensus about which policy made the most sense to pursue. The representatives present then agreed to bring that policy back to their work and begin to advocate for it.
The effortless blending of theatre and policy we witnessed was impressive. The performance was able to illustrate the problem (discrimination) in a vivid and concrete way that a policy brief or set of statistics would never have been able to accomplish. In my classes back home, we often talk about how successful policy-making usually evolves out of some kind of urgent need that citizens can emotionally relate to; it is much easier, for example, to develop environmental regulation after an oil spill has ensured that voters have been staring at slick, oil-covered animals with endearing faces and sad eyes for a few weeks on the front page of their newspapers. Watching the talented youth from Maré paint a bleak picture of the treatment favela residents face outside the favelas, however, I realized that well-done political theatre can accomplish the same thing. Theatre can draw in an audience and emotionally entangle viewers in a scene; it as the power to get people involved and passionate in a way that a news article on the same subject would entirely fail to do. While I do not know enough about current Brazilian anti-discrimination policy to know what types of solutions would be most effective, I still felt lucky to be able to observe the debate and the performance from the Maré children that was driving it.
Sitting in the favela that evening, I could not help but think of the massive amounts of money being poured into fancy new developments and stadiums all over the city and wonder why even a little of that funding could not have been used to alleviate the extreme poverty evident within the community. From the vantage point of my admittedly limited knowledge, the favelas seems to have grown out of the pieces of Brazilian past that are most uncomfortable, and I wonder if their extreme isolation is at least a partly a result of that. Like prisons, like Native American reservations in the U.S., these are communities that exist on the margins, in part because they make us uncomfortable, because in order to change them, we as a society would also need to confront the forces that created them and our own part in doing so.
During the prison workshop I participated in last week, one of the women asked us for a photo that they could keep as proof that someone outside cares enough about them to come visit; she said that too many people see these women as garbage being hidden away from society. It was heartbreaking to listen to her articulate this so matter-of-factly, and it echoed the refrain I heard from the men I worked with in prisons back home. It was also hopeful though, because this theatre workshop, for her, was proof that was not true. Just like the performance we watched in Maré, I was struck by the power of theatre, even the simple theatre that we have witnessed over the last two weeks, power to inform and change minds, to touch emotions and build connections. I find myself increasingly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of such meaningful work, both here in Brazil and back home in Michigan.