Hello readers! I´m Laurel, a rising senior at the University of Michigan dual majoring in International Studies and Psychology with a minor in Community Action and Social Justice. I joined UM´s Prison Creative Arts Program (PCAP) through Ashley´s first Theatre and Incarceration class two years ago and have since facilitated (with a partner) a theatre workshop at Women´s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Michigan´s sole women´s prison, as well as a visual arts workshop at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility. In addition, I worked on the Prison Art Show Committee for the 19th annual show exhibiting donated art and items for sale by prisoners from the majority of Michigan´s prisons. This fall, I plan to join PCAP´s Literary Review Committee, which compiles selected writing pieces from Michigan prisoners each year into its Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.
When people asked me why I had decided to go to Brazil to work in prisons, as if this was some insane longing for extra thrill in my life, I always had a hard time answering. It is difficult to articulate my understanding that coming here would undoubtedly teach me more about what it means to be human. After my previous experiences working in Michigan prisons (another “crazy” notion) brought me more in touch with the relationship between policy and people, it is clear to me that a person can read and learn all they want to in a classroom, but until something is before them, being understood in some physical capacity, it remains in the imagination ready for the mind´s interference. As a result, when friends returned from the trip last year with newfound enlightenment and even more questions about how the world works, I could not say no to Ashley´s invitation.
Although I came to Rio most interested in attending the theatre workshops run by UniRio students in local Brazilian prisons, the program led by Miguel, a retiring UniRio professor, at a local hospital ultimately became my favorite. It is not a workshop, per se, as the students did not interact regularly with the same group of people throughout their hours at the hospital on any given day, but this in no way diminishes the work they do there. When I arrived at the facilitators´ office with a few of my UM companions, we were each handed a brightly colored apron and given a brief explanation of what we were about to partake in: fun! Moments later, we lined up behind the bubbly facilitators and were off!
The group sang a samba song while playing guitars and a tambourine as we all danced our way through the gray halls of the hospital up to a sunlit lobby, out to the front of the building, and right up to a woman leaving the hospital. The singing continued until one of the UniRio students asked her if she would like a happiness checkup, to which she agreed with a mile-long smile across her face. He put his ear near her chest, listening to her “samba heartbeat,” created by the deep ka-thunk of the his classmate´s tambourine. It seems that her happiness was in full health! He then opened up an emergency aid kit box filled with small slips of paper, pulled one out, and read to her what I believe was some sort of sweet proverb about love and happiness. The woman was absolutely delighted, leaving in joyful laughter.
We continued these checkups periodically with patients, family members, and various hospital staff members alike as we rhythmically wandered our way through the hospital until we reached a pediatric waiting room. After asking a few small children their names, each troubadour pulled simple props our of their apron pockets and commenced their silly skit about a frog, played by the sole male member of the group, who must overcome his fear of jumping high into the sky in order to go to a party he so longingly wants to attend. Although I couldn´t understand a word of the Portuguese, the students moved so fluidly, making such dramatic expressions and absurd sounds, that no one could miss the amazingly executed humor.
Next, we worked our way to the chemotherapy ward, turning a room that previously had a dull and sterile atmosphere into a small, soft parade! While these adult patients were visibly exhausted and uncomfortable, many lit up at our entrance, and it was here that us foreigners were finally able to articulately join in on the singing with “Stand by Me.” While we sang, one woman´s grown daughter snuck into the room to video our short performance and her mother´s response of pure gratitude and delight. Although this particular patient expressed more enthusiasm than the others, her reaction will forever change the meaning of this song in my life. After that, each patient in that room and the next was offered a happiness checkup and a slip of paper, and then we continued on once more.
All throughout our trips in the hallways, I was overwhelmed by the bodies we had to work through as waiting patients and their family members continued to accumulate in surprising numbers. Ashley explained to me that because Brazil has a socialized healthcare system, with very few privatized facilities, the hospitals are constantly overwhelmed, and patients often suffer for months or years before receiving non-priority treatments, such as elective surgeries like knee-replacements. As I gazed at the mild chaos around me, I couldn`t help notice that in many ways, these jammed narrow spaces resemble a packed United States emergency room, making me wonder how much worse the crowds must be in Brazilian hospitals. Even so, the UniRio students continued their singing and games, forcing out grins and giggles from the people around them. We continued dancing and singing from ward to ward, and by the end of the workshop, I found myself ready to collapse into bed. Amazingly enough, the UniRio students didn´t seem at all exhausted, and when we finally made our way back to their office, they seemed reluctant to lock everything up in the cabinet. It is rare to find so much energy, compassion, and humor in five different people all at once, and in a place so filled with sadness and pain, I felt truly privileged to see and partake in even the momentary goofiness and delight that they brought so many individuals.