This student guest blogger wishes to remain anonymous.
The first thing I notice about Gabriel is his sharp hair cut, brilliant smile and the soccer ball in his hands, shuffling from one to the other. He’s full of charm and he knows it. Roughly a dozen men, all of them of various ages wear a white T-shirt, blue pants and white Havainas, and they move about on the stage inside this hollowed out church talking with the workshop facilitators. On the wall behind them is a large mural of a bible verse from Psalms. Gabriel asks me where I’m from and I spend 10 minutes trying to explain Detroit through the default references of “Ford,” “Motown,” and “Eminem.” Everyone knows Eminem. After a while he has an idea of where I’m talking about and asks if it’s near Chicago. I tell him it is and he asks, “You know Chicago Bulls?”
“Yeah,” I respond. “Derek Rose.”
“Michael Jordan,” he says now using the ball to mime Michael’s iconic pose.
I keep trying to tell him about Detroit, even though I’m from Pontiac. Gabriel is the first Brazilian I’ve met who knows anything at all about American sports. He’s a fan of Lebron James and knows how the game of football works, which is a big surprise. I tell my team is the Detroit Lions, and we make loud growling sounds. When I ask him where he is from, he drops the soccer ball, points to the ground beneath his feet and says, “I’m from Rio de Janeiro.”
I’ve just recently graduated from the University of Michigan, and for the past two years I’ve been involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project, an organization founded on the basis of building a better community by creating art and theater with incarcerated adults and juveniles. I first found out about this program when I enrolled in Professor Ashley Lucas’ Theatre and Incarceration class the start of my Junior Year, and after my first workshop, a theatre production with Incarcerated young men at Maurice Spear Campus in Adrian, Michigan, I wanted to do more. I took another class in PCAP with Professor Lucas and Shaka Senghor called the Atonement Project, and from that class I learned about the exchange with the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro when professors Marina, Viviane, and Natália came to visit Michigan and see the work we do in the winter of 2014.
This is my second trip to Brazil. Last year’s encounter with this work at the University and with the Center for the Theater of the Oppressed as well as the community work in Maré inspired my return. Since I’ve been in Brazil, the only landmark I have visited more than once is Pedro do Sal, the Birthplace of Samba. In the early 1900’s many gatherings of minority communities were repressed and criminalized in Brazil. People would gather in residential places to express their religion, their dance, their history and culture. Pedro do Sal is one of these places, and I like to think that our work within prisons and marginalized communities is like a revival of this tradition of building community by creating art.
Outside, in the churchyard, Professor Natália explains to us that the prison isn’t segregated by crime but by faction. So every man within the walls of the prison is part of the same gang. It helps us understand the need to control violence and also the ease at which the men in the workshop work together, not to mention the prohibition on wearing colors affiliated with gangs. I don’t want the guards to think I’m affiliated with their gang, and I most certainly don’t want the men in prison to think I’m affiliated with their rivals.
As the men in the workshop perform their production on stage, I think about Gabriel and the American influences that he’s encountered. I think about the hip-hop and rap music they must have been exposed to (One of the sketches in their play is a rap), and I wonder if they know about the Bloods and Crips tennis shoes sponsored by Kendrick Lamar to promote unity, to promote community. Off the top of my head I can’t remember what Michael Jordan’s shoes promoted. With my time in Rio coming to an end, I still ponder the meaning of liberty, freedom, and history in connection to art and theater. On the bus ride home one of the facilitators still sings one of the songs from the performance and asks me how to say these words in English. My Portuguese not being very good I tell her, roughly, that “Art is my reason” is all I can come up with.