Archive by Author

Patience and Resilience, a post by Dana El-Khatib

9 Jun

Dana hugging a child at a workshop for Teatro em Comunidades. Eddie Williams appears on the left.

My name is Dana El-khatib. I’m currently a rising junior at the university of Michigan, studying Economics. Though born in Ann Arbor to a Palestinian family, I lived most of my life in Jordan. For that reason, I constantly find myself comparing how different cultures approach different practices.

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) at the University of Michigan aims to provide arts programming among other things to incarcerated individuals in Michigan prisons, and returning citizens. This is done through drama workshops, a literary art review and an annual art exhibition. This past winter semester, I was one of six alternating facilitators for drama workshops in the Federal Correctional Institute at Milan. When people ask me why I decided to join PCAP, I think of many reasons that I could blab on and on about. I think about how I cannot make a moral judgment about the people inside because I didn’t grow up in the conditions that many of them did. I think about our dysfunctional educational system, I think about systemic racism, etc. However, if I’m being honest, one of the biggest reasons I chose to do PCAP is for my own selfish desire to grow as a person. There is a word in Arabic that has a special value in Islam;الصبر; pronounced as“alsabir.” Though I do not believe there is a direct translation in English that could embody all of its meaning, if I had to explain it, I would say it’s a combination of resilience and patience. This concept has become more and more important for all Arabs due to the economic and social conditions the region faces. Even more than that, its value has become rooted in Palestinian culture with resistance and struggle. Although everyone faces adversity in their lives in many forms, I, having lived a very fortunate life, knew that I could learn a thing or two about alsabir from the incarcerated, and that’s why I initially joined PCAP. Imagine growing up in horrible economic conditions and then being stripped of your freedom because of the life that society has pushed you towards. Yet, I have never seen more forgiving and positive people than the individuals I have worked with on the inside. When setting guidelines for the workshop in Milan, two of the men immediately said that one guideline should be: peace and love at all times. If I had been in their shoes, I think I would have so much hate and anger in me that I would want to get revenge on this world, but most of the people I have met seemed to have a wonderful soul that just wanted to better their life; that is what I see as the embodiment of الصبر.

In Brazil, I wondered how the different social and cultural scene would affect how people reacted to their living situation. When we visited a facility specifically for mothers who give birth in prison and their children, I was amazed by the strength of the women. In Arab culture, when a woman gives birth, everyone is there to help her. The grandmother or mother-in-law also usually stay with the mother for a couple of months to help manage the burden of a newly born baby. As I watched the mothers in the prison holding their crying babies, I compared the life they live with the life that I had always expected a new mother to be living. There was no outside support or comfort. No one to hold you when you don’t know what to do, no one to take care of your crying baby at night so you could rest. You only had yourself and the other women in the prison. I tried holding as many crying babies as I could so that the women could have the closest possible experience to a normal workshop, but I knew that there is only so much of your reality that you can escape for a few minutes. I saw the women care for each other’s babies; I thought about their solidarity together. This doesn’t even compare to the burden of knowing that in a matter of six months, your baby will be stripped from your hands, and often put into foster care if the mother’s family does not take them in. Yet, I saw the women smile and laugh. One said she named her son Moses after the prophet, because she feels that he is a warrior in this prison; this gave her strength. Again, I thought about how resilient and patient these women were. I admired the amount of صبر they had and only hoped that I could be nearly as strong in my life.

The favelas offered a whole new look into what this strength could mean to a community. We facilitated workshops for adults and children in what is known as a favela. A favela is a unique low income area in Brazil. Looking at the favelas and walking through them, I felt as though I had already been there. They were almost a carbon copy of the older and more established Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. The children had the biggest and brightest smiles. The elderly had the strongest spirits even after living so long in such harsh conditions. On the bus ride back, a friend of mine was very sad. When I talked to him, he said he kept thinking about all the shit these kids have been through in their lives. I simply smiled and said, they have the strength to handle it. I really do believe that the universe does not throw something on you that you cannot handle. These children are raised in circumstances that enable them to develop a level of صبر that we can’t even understand or compare to. They find ways to carry on and strength that radiates through their smiles. I wish no one in the world was put in such conditions, but the truth is many are living these conditions and worse everyday. If we want to wallow in sadness of how depressing that is, we surely all can; but that won’t do anyone any good. I admire their strength and I do not fear that they will not survive because I know they will. I refuse to think of them with pity, but I insist on admiring all those who have lived through much worse than what I have experienced because the truth is, they can teach us a lot.

Creative Outlets, a post by Shannon Harper

9 Jun
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Michigan and UniRio students with teens at a workshop for Teatro em Comunidades. Shannon Harper is in pink on the right. All of the photos in this post are from this workshop.

Hello, my name is Shannon Harper, and I am currently a rising sophomore studying Theatre at the University of Michigan. When I was admitted into the university, I was also selected to take part in the Summer Bridge Scholars Program that is provided to incoming first year students through the Comprehensive Studies Program (CSP). That means the summer before my freshman year I was on campus early and took classes such as math and my first year English. This allowed me to become well acquainted with things at the university such as the location of class buildings and helpful resources, as well as being academically ahead of other freshmen entering in the fall. This program came with many benefits, one of them being the LSA Passport Scholarship, which was a scholarship for a passport that was given to incoming CSP freshmen that fall semester. This program was provided by the LSA Scholarship office in partnership with the Center for Global and Intercultural Study (CGIS). When going to the CGIS office to turn in forms for my passport, there was a man talking about study abroad programs, and I asked were there any programs that included theatre. He told me he knew about one program and gave me a book that included all the information. After looking into the program and doing more research, I found myself in the class, Theatre and Incarceration, and fell right into the lap of an organization called the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP). I decided to come on this trip to Brazil because the whole summer in my CGIS meetings I told my friends I would never study abroad because I was too scared to go out of my comfort zone. Months later I re-evaluated my thinking and decided that if I always stayed in my comfort zone then I would never grow as an individual. I signed up for this study abroad program before I knew about PCAP, but I’m proud that I pushed myself to try new things because if I didn’t I wouldn’t have found a lot of the great people that I now know today.

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This winter semester was my very first workshop, and I had the honor of facilitating a group at Miller Manor alongside Cozine Welch and Patrick Bates. Miller Manor is a community workshop that is open to everyone but was created for returning citizens coming home from prison. This workshop connected me with people I will never forget and memories I will always have. This workshop gives previously incarcerated people a space to talk about topics such as the prison system, institutionalized racism, and a lot of other important issues. A recurring topic this semester was adjusting to life when coming home. All of these conversations then make their way into an amazing final performance. The Miller Manor workshop meant a lot to me because it reminded me of the people from home. When your a black person or person of color and go to a predominantly white university, it can be hard to find people that relate to your experiences.

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My favorite workshop in Brazil has been the favela workshop. The favela is a poor neighborhood that is systematically disadvantaged. The university (UniRio) facilitates three workshops in the favela, and I was assigned to the group that worked with middle school aged children. This was my favorite because like the Miller Manor workshop, the kids reminded me of home. The games they taught us reminded me of the improv based games I played in high school, and although my Portuguese is terrible, I was able to communicate effectively  and have great laughs. One girl named Mariah made me laugh a lot when we were partners in a game where we had to change something about our appearance and guess what our partner had changed. She was really bad at the game, not even realizing when I took my glasses off. I personally think it’s very important to bring creative outlets to teens because theatre is a form of therapy. Teenage years can be very rough, and just getting a group together and playing theatre games can be a great outlet for many. A lot of poor neighborhoods don’t have any theatre programs and lack art programs as a whole, which means many people go through life without ever even trying theatre because it’s not an option. The first step is just having a consistent person show up every week. The teens in the favela probably can’t attend every workshop, But they know every time they do, someone from the university will be there, and they will have a great time. Eventually word spreads, and people bring their friends. Before you know it, a small community of its own can form, but it can’t happen if no one is there to show up. These past few weeks in Brazil I have experienced the raw theatre I originally fell in love with when I was younger. The type of theatre when it’s just a small group of people wanting to create something great without access to a budget, training, or even a stage. I truly believe that is the best theatre because it teaches a person to be innovative and persevere.IMG_5904.jpg

Accessibility Abroad, a post by Syd Lio Riley

8 Jun

Oi! My name is Lio Riley. I’m a rising sophomore at the University of Michigan studying theatre arts and (potentially) American Culture. Before classes even started Fall semester, I met the lovely Ashley Lucas, who said she took a group of students to Brazil each summer to study theatre and incarceration. I looked her in the eye and said, “I’m going with you.” Almost a year of facilitating workshops in Michigan prisons and communities has passed, and here I am in the Mango Tree Hostel writing about my experiences doing the same in Brazil. With only a week left, it still doesn’t feel real.

In the time between meeting Ashley and traveling to Brazil, I learned a lot about how prisons work. I took her class The Atonement Project in the fall and Theatre and Incarceration in the winter (both of which are co-taught by the lovely Cozine Welch. Hi, Cozine!). In addition to gaining an unexpected interest and passion for carceral studies and activism, I began to study the intersections of transgender identity and disability in the American Culture department (Hi, Prof L!). I’m a transgender student at the university, and I’ve been living with a chronic pain condition in my knees for just over six years. Both of these identities, along with academic study and my newfound passion for prison activism and justice work, have lead me to ask a lot of questions on this trip concerning accessibility and representation, in theatre and theatre work abroad.

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An example of tactile paving on a sidewalk

One of the first things I noticed after exiting my plane in São Paulo was the tactile paving found on every walking surface of the airport. Tactile paving is a system of ground tiles with raised bumps and ridges, used to help blind and visually impaired people navigate public spaces. In the US, they’re commonly placed at the ends of sidewalks, but I’d never seen entire networks of them inside buildings. When we left the airport, I found them lining every sidewalk and many hallways inside buildings, too. I thought this was pretty cool — the more I learn about accessibility, the more I recognize it (or the lack of it) in public spaces. It made me wonder why we didn’t use tactile paving this generously in the US. Still, as I began to navigate the landscapes of Florianopolis and Rio, I found the cities to still be largely inaccessible.

 

With pavement more frequently broken than not and a lack of curb cuts (small ramps built into the ends of sidewalks for wheelchair or stroller users) everywhere, the physical accessibility of the cities has been frustrating. For me, a broken escalator or elevator that requires a key to use can be the difference between a fun night out with friends or missing the next day’s activities (I’m writing this from the hostel while my classmates sing and dance at the hospital). This was reflected in the prisons, as well. The conditions of the prisons we’ve seen have been heartbreaking. As a non-incarcerated person navigating the prison, there were often only stairs or incredibly steep ramps. We saw very limited space for the folks incarcerated to get sunlight or fresh air and in one prison, large trash-can sized bins filled with rice left out in the open for bugs to land on and crawl in. It made me wonder what accessibility looked like for the people living inside. With how everything else looked, I wasn’t optimistic.

In addition to just the physical accessibility of space for people with physical disabilities, accessibility also is about accessibility of education and other government-provided services. We learned right away that many of our friends in Brazil take the bus for several hours each day to get to school. Some take multiple busses, and even boats. We also learned when traveling to the favelas that in some places, streets are so narrow that cars can’t fit through. Many are built into hillsides which makes them difficult to navigate, and because there are no street names or house numbers, people living in the favelas can’t receive mail, and also have a hard time finding employment without a permanent address. This perpetuates the cycle of poverty. In prisons, the religion you practice can determine your living situation, making religious freedom complicated. Evangelicals are provided with “nicer” living accommodations and more colorful surroundings due to the prevalence of Evangelicalism in Brazil, while Catholics are more crowded and don’t have access to as many things. For the trans women living in the men’s prison, this can mean choosing between denouncing their identities and losing access to their community in order to claim a religion for access to slightly better conditions, or claiming no religion to maintain the ability to live as women and attend the theatre workshop exclusive to trans women. Most incarcerated people are denied access to any programming at all, as we’ve learned after visiting several facilities here.

Many of these problems are too large for any one of us to solve in the three weeks we spend here, and I’ve been struggling with finding ways I can help improve accessibility while also honoring my own body and accessibility needs. Throughout the trip, the most surprising thing I’ve learned is how central accessibility is to PCAP. By literally bringing theatre into spaces like the prisons, hospitals, and favelas, we are making theatre and the arts accessible. One of the most striking examples of this was in a women’s facility called Unidade Materno Infantil, a facility where incarcerated mothers can keep their newborn children for about six months before either their families care for them or the babies are turned over to the state. The workshop participants included both mothers and their babies, meaning that many women (and some of us!) were occupied feeding, changing, soothing, and holding babies. Because there was such an obvious need for theatre games that accommodated this situation, we played each game sitting down, and adapted the game or our own movements to the needs of ourselves and the group. While the obvious reason for the accommodations was the babies, playing the games sitting down alleviated my pain personally and made it easier for me to facilitate and participate.

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Materno Infantil workshop facilitators standing in front of their bus after workshop

The fact that these games were so easy to adapt for mothers and their new children, but we still struggle to adapt theatre for folks with other less-obvious access needs frustrates me at times.  PCAP is built on uncertain schedules and arbitrary rules of the prison, as well as creativity and improvisation, so accessibility is often an easier goal in our small workshops. Not to say that PCAP has mastered accessibility — there is always work to do — but we can use these principles and mindsets when addressing accessibility and disability representation in theatre as a whole. This starts with how we include disabled people in our conversations. Do we use language like “deformed” to describe babies who are born disabled because of the Flint Water Crisis? Do we put an elderly actress in a wheelchair for the entirety of a show, but prompt her to get up and dance when comedic timing calls for it? Do we expect less from the elderly folks in our workshops than we do of the young ones, and express surprise when they actually can act (or twerk!) better than most of us? Changing our own attitudes of what disability looks like, what counts as “comedy,” and what kinds of people are disabled can lead to a larger attitude change that hopefully builds a more accessible world for everyone — whether that means physically, financially, religiously, based on gender or sexuality, or any other reason.

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Teatro Renascer participants and facilitators in a tableau from a short scene. They are all posing with different expressions of fear.

Navigating my own access needs abroad has been a challenge, and I’ve learned many of my classmates are struggling similarly. It is incredibly frustrating at times, especially when I have to miss class, workshops, and other fun outings, but it’s made me keenly aware of where accessibility falls short in other areas, both here and in the US. Learning about the work our friends in Brazil are doing with trans women in prison makes me wish PCAP offered resources like that, and has encouraged me to pursue the study and advocacy for transgender people in prisons at home upon our return. Facilitating a theatre workshop with a baby in my arms reminded me that theatre is secondary to access and inclusion. There’s a lot of work to be done in regards to accessibility in and out of prison, as well as in theatre, but addressing the problems that exist and recognizing solutions we have found can help us continue to push for an even more inclusive environment in our workshops and our world.

Rio de Janeiro, a post by Julia Barron

6 Jun

Hello readers,

My name is Julia! I recently graduated this May with a Bachelor of Arts with a double major in Psychology and English. I’m excited to write that this coming fall I will be returning to the University of Michigan to begin my graduate studies in Developmental Psychology. I was first introduced to PCAP and Ashley Lucas through the lovely Justin Gordan, who has been deeply connected to PCAP since his arrival at the University of Michigan. I will forever be grateful to Justin for introducing me to PCAP and Ashley. This past winter semester I have had the pleasure of joining PCAP and facilitating a workshop with a group of youth at Lincoln Center located in Highland Park, MI. Lincoln Center is an all-male juvenile justice detention center that focuses on giving the youth tools and resources to move towards a life of rehabilitation. 

As good as the intentions of the administrators of Lincoln Center might be in “rehabilitating” the youth that are placed in their care, I can attest that rehabilitating a child should never be at the cost of locking 12- 19 year olds up behind bars and treating them as if they have no purpose or humanity. Through my limited time in working with the faculty at Lincoln Center has been problematic in the sense that they have vocalized statements such as, “This place is no different than prison, and the boys know it,” or “You have to remember that most of these boys are dangerous and are heading to prison no matter what we do for them here.” We hold this concept that children are resilient, but Frederick Douglass said it best, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Two points to ponder here: 1. Just because a child can be resilient does not mean they should have to be resilient in the face of poverty, urban violence, a failing education system, and a cycle of trauma, and 2. Are children really resilient with all the broken adults we have existing in this world? 

I wanted to continue the work I do with the youth back in Michigan to Brazil because I’ve learned the importance of a PCAP workshop and how much hope, joy, and love they bring to the people on the inside. Often at the end of a PCAP workshop one or a couple of the youth in my workshop would echo during Rose, Thorn, Bud (a PCAP exercise that allows everyone to express an enjoyment, trouble, and future hope) that PCAP made them feel human again and that us being there was the only reminder that someone believed in them. I wanted to continue this work in Brazil because everyone deserves to be treated as a human, to experience joy, hope, laughter, kindness, and having another human believing in them. 

This week we’ve entwined our PCAP workshops with our Rio de Janeiro friends at UniRio and have been fortunate enough to participate in their workshops they have here in Rio. Every Saturday morning our UniRio facilitators do various theatre workshops in the Maré favela, including an intergenerational population workshop that focuses on movement, dance, and laughter! On Saturday morning, my group had the pleasure of participating in the intergenerational theatre workshop where we danced, laughed, and experienced a series of movement through exercises and theatre games that required using our entire body from head to toe.  My group will be returning to the Maré favela this Saturday where we will be facilitating the theatre workshop! I am excited for our group to merge our PCAP games and exercises with this beautiful group of people! 

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PCAP and UniRio students, Prof. Clarisse Lopes, and members of the intergenerational workshop in the Ramos section of the Maré favela.

The favelas here in Brazil are complicated places because they represent more than the poverty and crime attached to them. The favelas hold a history that is often overlooked and romanticized by tourist here in Rio de Janeiro. Here in Brazil the favelas are birthed out of slavery. Many of the people who live in the favelas work in the city but have little to no money which means they can not afford to live in the city. Often, to get to the city they have to take a boat and two buses, but keep in mind that public transportation does not reach the favelas. 

Also, many parts of the city are gated where an individual has to be buzzed in to have access to a building – this is to keep the people who are homeless out. When walking the city of Rio it is common to see a person sleeping on the street, using a plastic bag as a blanket and their shoes for a pillow. I have no words to describe the heartache of seeing another human sleeping on the streets of Rio or along an underpass of a bridge. No human should know this suffering. 

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Tourists here in Rio are bombarded with tourist attractions such as (to name a few) Cristo Redentor, Pão de Açúcar, and Escadara Selarón, which offer us tourists a beautiful experience while here in Rio. Along with the attractions listed above, tourists are welcomed to partake in a “Rocinha Favela Walking tour,” which absolutely mortifies me. Rio using their favelas to generate money and tourism is problematic, horrifying, and deeply disturbing. The people and government of Rio ostracize the individuals and communities who live in the favelas and yet they think nothing of exploiting them for profit. Today on our day off, most of us got to experience the Féria Hippie (the hippie fair) in a town square called Praça General Osório where vendors sell anything and everything your heart could ever want to buy! Along with food, belts, dresses, and bracelets,came paintings of the city that were colorful and held rich meanings of Rio. One particular vendors paintings stopped me in my tracks where he was selling hand paintings of a favela. The painting of the favela led me to a series of questions: Is someone else’s pain and misfortunes meant for my gazing pleasure? How can you paint something that isn’t yours to voice? How can you be okay with profiting on behalf of others? These questions generated from a place that extended beyond a painting but from a bigger meaning – it’s about the faces and voices unseen and unheard within these paintings that will be placed on someone’s wall for viewing pleasure. Romanticizing the pain and misfortunes of another human is never okay. 

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We have one more week in Rio in which I am looking forward to experiencing more theatre exchange workshops between our UniRio friends, the singing hospital, and the upcoming theatre workshops in the prisons and with our friends in the favela. Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts. 

Sexta-Feira A Noite Em Flint (Friday Night in Flint), a post by Kendall Young

4 Jun

Heyo!

My name is Kendall Young! I just completed my first year at the University of Michigan! Yay! I am currently an Acting major in the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. I was first introduced to PCAP during my audition for the BFA Acting program. After completing my two monologues and answering a few questions, the theatre faculty was curious to know if I had any questions about their program or the university in general. After nervously standing for what felt like an excruciatingly long time, I finally formulated a genuine question of interest. I wanted to know if there was any social justice related theatre on campus. Prior to attending college, I was always interested in bringing the arts into underprivileged and underrepresented communities. I believe the arts is a medium for educational and emotional understanding, thus making it one of the most important forms of expression. To my surprise, the theatre faculty mentioned the Prison Creative Arts Project. They mentioned how PCAP  was a campus organization that facilitated arts workshops within local incarcerated facilities. Upon hearing this explanation, I was immediately interested in this organization and U of M!

Following my admittance into the university, I immediately became involved with PCAP second semester of my first year. After enrolling into Ashley Lucas’ Theatre and Incarceration course, I had a formal meeting with her concerning both the course and the study abroad program to Brazil. After hearing that there was a possibility I could do this work in another country, I immediately fell in love with the idea of traveling to Brazil! However, I thought there was a slim chance that I would actually get in since I was only a little ole freshman. So, you can only imagine how shocked I was when I received my acceptance into the program! This shock soon turned into excitement as I began to facilitate my first workshop at a Michigan federal prison called Milan. The talented men at Milan truly made my second semester of college unforgettably special. Although our time together was very short, the joy and laughter that came out of this workshop only inspired me to want to do more of this work! Milan was my first testament to how important and life-changing this work can be for both the facilitators and workshop participants.

Along with the importance of the PCAP workshops, I also learned the importance of social justice and political theatre. I was given the honor to be in José Casas’ new monologue based play, Flint. The monologues within Flint were all collected from conversations and interactions that Casas had with individuals who had a connection to the city. In the production, I was cast as the Ensemble 3 track which included U of M Student, The Commissioner, and A MotherThe Commissioner and A Mother both being stand alone monologues. This was my first time being in a politically relevant production that expressed social activism artistically. After being accepted into the Brazil study abroad program, I was then provided with the opportunity to perform the two stand alone monologues alongside a student from UniRio who would perform the monologues in a Portuguese translation. For an entire semester, I only imagined what the performance was going to entail: one monologue done in English followed by another done in Portuguese, the two of us standing on opposite ends of the stage speaking back and forth between the two languages, or maybe it would be a combination of the two. I truly had no idea what to expect, but my imagination could not have prepared me for the beautiful and powerful connections that would be made between our American society and the current political climate in Brazil.

Through the process of preparing for UniRio’s adaption of the two monologues from Flint, I spent a few rehearsals following the outstanding direction of Professor Miguel Vellinho. Having done this production a set way for a two week run in Ann Arbor and one performance in Flint, I was very excited and a bit nervous to see what Miguel had in store! When I walked into the rehearsal space, I was immediately greeted by the gleeful UniRio students along with piles of cardboard signs with phrases and names in Portuguese. I attempted to read the signs, but couldn’t understand the meaning (I really should’ve done more than 1800 points on Duolingo). Fortunately, one of the students took the time to explain a few of the signs that were lying across the floor. The signs were out of order, but the student proceeded to explain the meaning. “Sexta-Feira À Noite Em Flint.” This translates to “A Friday Night in Flint” which was the name of the production.

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Following the explanation of the signs, I saw another sign with the name “Marielle.” This name was very unfamiliar to me. One of the UniRio students asked me if I knew the story of Marielle. I nervously chuckled and said no. The student looked at me as if I was from a different planet! Not accepting my answer, she then repeated her previous question. Still unsure, I nervously let out another chuckle. The student explained that Marielle was a black city council member who was outspoken about many issues concerning police brutality along with the political climate of Brazil. The student then concluded by delivering the devastating news about Marielle’s brutal assassination. Hearing this revelation made me feel ignorant. I felt embarrassed that the simple mention of this woman’s name didn’t stimulant any memory, remorse, or pride of her legacy. It saddened me that I could not put her name to her face. Only moments before, she had just been an unknown name painted on a piece of cardboard. Seconds ago, she ceased to exist and now my mind was racing with fabricated images of what I imagined to be this woman’s legacy. All my fabrications that should have been real memories and true images.

Marielle’s name was just one of many that appeared on the painted cardboard signs for the performance. I unfortunately was not able to learn the stories of all the names of the Brazilian individuals who were painted on the posters, but I only hope that their names are remembered and said with love, pride, and respect.

The UniRio adaption of the Flint monologues proved to be a night of passion, power, and promise. Through redefining the importance of social justice theatre, the performance gave a clear message about the connection of the injustices faced in both countries. The performance became less about Flint specifically and more about the true issues of injustices towards people of color and individuals with lower income. This performance truly reminded me of the importance of the arts. Theatre is not only an outlet to escape your own reality, but can be a lens to capture a glimpse of someone else’s reality.

Experiences of Misogyny and Machismo in Latin America, a post by Lisa Garcia

3 Jun
Olá gente!
My name is Lisa, and last month I graduated with a B.A. in international studies. I came to PCAP after watching Ashley’s performance of her play, Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass. It was such a touching topic and an incredible performance that I decided I needed to meet this woman and be her friend ASAP. I visited her office, she told me all about her work with PCAP, and a few weeks later I was enrolled in her Winter class. I spent second semester co-facilitating a theatre workshop at the federal men’s prison in Milan. Throughout this time I learned a lot about the complexities of prison bureaucracy, disorganization, overcrowding, and understaffing. As a volunteer, I saw that we were the last priority because of these and lots more forces working together. I also experienced firsthand what theatre can do in spaces that don’t allow space for vulnerability and creative expression.
I wanted to come do this work here in Brazil because I genuinely believe in PCAP’s values and mission, and because my heart is in Latin America. I was born in Guatemala, so I’ve had the privilege of traveling in and experiencing several Latin American and Caribbean countries. The University has also allowed me these opportunities through study abroad programs.
In every community I enter I am always very aware of how patriarchy affects women. Coming to Brazil, I felt no different. In my experience of my own, as well as other Latin American cultures, machismo and misogyny are pervasive in social life. Women and LGBTQ folks are, in a lot of similar and different ways to the U.S., treated unjustly and violently. However, I’ve had a few refreshing experiences here in Rio, as well as in Florianópolis, that I wanted to share. I believe other patriarchal societies, not just in Latin America and the Caribbean, can learn from these practices.
 
When we visited the women’s prison in Floripa I learned that, by law, women’s prisons can only have female staff for the safety of the incarcerated women. Men’s facilities don’t have any similar rules, so anyone can work there. Although it would be better if none of the men or women were locked away and forgotten in the first place, I was at least relieved to know that male staff don’t pose a threat to the incarcerated women of Brazil. 
 
In Rio, while riding the metro, I noticed that there’s a pink line behind the yellow safety line on the platform, but only for the length of two metro cars. Upon asking, I learned that there are metro cars reserved exclusively for women during morning and evening rush hours. I thought about how much safer I would feel if I rode a New York subway car with no men on it. I was impressed with how this city is trying to provide protection for women in public spaces. However, this is not the case largely throughout Brazil. The metro only runs through the wealthier parts of Rio, so relatively few people have access to it at all. This is not to invalidate that the system is inspiringly progressive in the first place.
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The experience that stayed with me the most, though, was facilitating a theatre workshop on Friday for trans women in a men’s prison. In spite of their identity, these women are still locked up at the men’s facility. Julia, Kym, and I accompanied five UniRio students to their relatively new workshop: it’s only been happening since December 2018 (less than six months). It took a very long time for the staff to let us in because Friday is also the day when families of the incarcerated persons can come drop off food and hygiene supplies for their loved ones. This is not allowed in U.S. prisons, but because food and resources in Brazilian prisons are so poor in quantity and quality, some families must trek long distances to make sure their incarcerated loved one has access to decent necessities. There was a long line of mainly women; some held Bibles, all held giant, heavy bags of supplies. After an hour and a half of waiting outside, we finally made it into our workshop space. As the women slowly arrived, I noticed that we had a trans staff member participating in the workshop, and the rest of the women seemed to have a friendly relationship with her. This would never happen in U.S. prisons, so it was refreshing and also comforting – in a twisted way – knowing that these women had a sort of ally among their jailers.
Once we were all seated in a circle we did introductions and talked about PCAP and how our work connects to the work we are doing in Brazil. The women had a lot of great questions about PCAP, our motives for coming to Brazilian prisons, and about the U.S. prison system. This was humbling and encouraging to me because they didn’t merely accept that these Americans were here to teach them some theatre, but made everyone in the space think critically about each of our positionality and the greater impact our work has on incarcerated people, women, and the LGBTQ community. This start made our workshop feel a lot more vulnerable and safe. Though we only had time to play one game, I was able to teach them a PCAP favorite, “Funky Chicken,” in the Portuguese that I’ve been working on, which was a personally proud moment. We each had a turn at dancing our funky chicken, laughing, and encouraging each other. By the end we were all hot, tired, and sweaty, but also filled with joy. We ended with a circle, holding hands, rotating, singing and dancing a beautiful song about community and solidarity. I continue to be amazed by how the arts can transcend physical walls and iron bars, but also cultural and language barriers. Our hugs and kisses goodbye were so heartfelt and genuine; I’ll never forget them. I was sad that we only had forty minutes with these marvelous women, but so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet them and tell you all about them. Maybe you’ll feel like telling these stories, too, about the beautiful humans we so inhumanely imprison and forget about, and about how it should be different and more compassionate.
With love and hope,
Lisa

Teatro Renascer: Humanity and Individuality, a post by Eddie Williams

2 Jun

My name is Eddie Williams, and I recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A) in Acting Performance, a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Psychology and minor in Community Action and Social Change (CASC). I have been apart of the Prison Creative Project (PCAP) community since January 2018. The decision to be a part of such a meaningful organization has changed my life and opened my eyes to what the arts can do in various environments.

Coming to Brazil with PCAP has been such an amazing experience so far. I have had the great opportunity to relive this trip because I am one of the few people that did this program last year. This year is different though in terms it of allowing me to see things from a different perspective as a returner and do workshops that I couldn’t do last year. I am specifically referring to the theatre workshop we recently did with Teatro Renascer, an intergenerational project in which students and women try to address the stereotypes that people have about older folks. We had a really great time playing theatre games with women whose age ranged all the way up to 90 years old. You wouldn’t have known though because they were just as vibrant, mobile, and active as the younger people in the group. Their energy gave us the extra push of energy from the time we arrived and when it was time to leave.

One activity in particular I had a lot of interest in. We basically were divided into four groups and were assigned a song; each group had their own song. We listened to our music and was given the objective to create four different tableaux (frozen images) that told a short story. We were then given a few minutes to converse with our group and prepare to present. I took a lot of interest in this activity because it was so cool to see how each group interpreted the music that they were assigned. It is so interesting to me how us as humans process information and the way we react or interpret it is based on our own previous knowledge or experience with that information. As an audience, we were given the task to figure out what the images were and what story each group was trying to tell. I believe our ability to do such tasks, both presenting images based on the music and then recognizing what those images were, speaks to our connectedness as humans in general and our individuality. Both are beautiful and should be equally acknowledged and celebrated.

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In the Teatro Renascer workshop, from left to right, Teresa (the oldest member of the workshop at 90, Shannon, Naguissa, Eddie, and Lio.

This notion was reaffirmed for me at this workshop, but the thought was introduced earlier on our second day in Rio. We went to UniRio and had a theatre game exchange with one of the classes. We were basically separated into three groups but as a collective group we all listened to the same music. One group was given the task to draw what the music made them feel, another group had to do a movement based on the music, and the last group had to write their own phrases. When it came time to present, I saw the beauty in how we all listened to the same music but interpreted it differently.

When I think of people inside of prison, I think it is important that we see them as human, and not criminals or animals locked up cages. We are connected as humans and these arts-based workshops create opportunities for them to feel human again. It is also just as important to see them as individuals with their own set of experiences, identities, and previous knowledge that is different from person to person. Acknowledging these things will help in alleviating the stereotypes and boxes that we tend to put people in prison. These people are bigger than their current circumstances. Their humanity and individuality helps us to see that.

 

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