Guest blogger Joe Ambrose on theatre with incarcerated mothers and babies in Rio

21 Aug
Joe at the Top of the Cristo

Joe at the Top of the Cristo

Ola! I’m Joe, and I am a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Public Policy with a minor in Intergroup Relations. I have been involved with PCAP since enrolling in Dr. Lucas’s Theatre and Incarceration course last January. Through this course, I co-facilitated a theatre and improv workshop at Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson, MI. I will also have the privilege of taking Dr. Lucas and Shaka Senghor´s course, The Atonement Project, this fall, which will allow me to facilitate another wonderful workshop!

While I have traveled outside of the United States before, this abroad trip to Rio de Janeiro is my first immersive experience in another country. I started the application just hours after a friend told me about her experiences with PCAP and said she would be going to Brazil to do theatre for social change in collaboration with other university students. Surprisingly, my friends and family did not share the same excitement when I told them that I would be participating in creative arts workshops in Brazilian prisons, as well as hospitals and favelas. I have learned a lot about the stigmas and stereotypes placed on prisons and the people in which they attempt to hide from the rest of society, but I had never considered that these stereotypes are amplified when referring to foreign prisons in particular. I don’t know if this is a result of the media, or T.V. shows like “Locked Up Abroad,” but what I do know is that I have never felt more free and able to openly engage in theatre than when in these Brazilian facilities. My experiences inside of U.S. correctional facilities have involved strict policies and guards that will go to extreme lengths to make sure that the guys in my workshop aren’t “having too much fun.” Although I recognize that there is not a single prison in the world that is perfect, I have had the great honor in participating in some great programs here in Rio.

Last Tuesday, I was able to visit a facility called Materno Infantil. Materno Infantil serves as a temporary place for incarcerated mothers to continue their sentences alongside their newborns until their babies are six months at most. Having heard about past students’ experiences visiting this facility and the abundance of baby holding, I was overly excited to visit these heart-warming people. While Materno Infantil still felt like a prison (barbed wire, locked gates, armed guards, etc.), I have never seen a brighter and more beautiful landscape within the walls of a correctional facility. The staff, which was composed of almost all women, was dressed casually; there were colorful gardens, not to mention the dozens of strollers with the cutest babies scattered all over. It wasn’t more than five minutes after we entered, before I had a one-month old named Jennifer, fast asleep in my arms. As an uncle myself, it’s needless to say that I was in my happy place. Despite the language barrier, I could sense the immense amount of joy in this workshop through the wide smiles and rich laughter of the women. After singing and dancing around a circle of seven strollers, a few of my classmates, and I participated in some familiar improv games with the mothers. I had the chance to lead one call-and-response dance activity that I have previously done in other workshops. Although the women had a hard time learning the English version (as I do with games in Portuguese), we still had a ton of fun, and the women busted out some great moves nonetheless. I’ve come to learn how important theatre is because it serves as a single language and allows people to understand and relate to each other on a common ground.

The Man Himself

The Man Himself

After two hours of games and our stomachs hurt from laughing, the workshop started to come to a close. I was able to have a verbal conversation with three of the women, thanks to our translator and friend João, who is a student at UniRio and co-facilitates this workshop. The women asked us some questions about the U.S. correctional system, including curiosity about capital punishment. But then one of the women asked us a question that I will never forget. “They want to know if you are scared of them because they are in jail,”João translated to us. I had completely forgotten that we were interacting with women who would soon most likely be separated from their children and who transferred back to another prison. Our workshop was filled with so much laughter and joy that, for a brief period of time, I had forgotten that we were in prison. I can only hope that these women felt the same way. This woman’s question proves that too many people are socialized to be afraid of people inside of prisons and that we isolate them from the rest of society rather than addressing the larger problem at hand. I will be forever grateful for the experiences I’ve had in Rio, and I look forward to continuing this not only important but necessary work in the United States.

Tchau for now,

Joe Ambrose

Joe's beach acrobatics

Joe’s beach acrobatics

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