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Themba Interactive: South African Theatre and HIV/AIDS

3 Aug

Andy and I took an overnight train from Johannesburg to Durban, and we are now staying at a most wonderful bed and breakfast called Essenwood House. If you are ever headed this way, you should not miss it. The house is beautiful and quite comfortable, and the gardens are enchanting.

Here I am at Collectors Treasury.

Here I am at Collectors Treasury.

The day before yesterday we explored a rather artsy section of Johannesburg called Maboneng where we’d heard rumors that we might find a good bookstore.  Ever since we went to Constitution Hill, I’ve been wanting to find a book that would tell me more about Mahatma Ghandi’s time in South Africa and what brought him here in the first place. Constitution Hill has a pretty neat little bookstore, but they were sold out of Ghandi books. We made our way over to a place called Collectors Treasury where we saw the largest collection of used books in the Southern Hemisphere! It was actually pretty overwhelming, and I wish books didn’t weigh so much in one’s luggage.  I’d bring armloads of them home if I could. Still didn’t find the Ghandi book I’m seeking, but I’ll keep enjoying the hunt.

A few days ago, during our first day in Johannesburg, Andy and I went over to the offices of a local applied theatre company called Themba Interactive. This nonprofit  is really a public health organization that uses theatre as its primary mode of educating its target audiences. They work almost exclusively on issues related to HIV/AIDS, and some of the key sites for their work are in prisons throughout Gauteng (the province in which Johannesburg is located) and beyond. We had the pleasure of speaking with two of Themba’s staff members, Sila Chatikobo and Sne Makanya.

Andy and I have now met with participants in three different prison theatre projects in South Africa, and all of the people with whom we’ve talked have stated that prison theatre in South Africa tends to address HIV/AIDS in one way or another. In the other parts of the world where I’ve done similar research public health concerns do emerge in some aspects of prison theatre, but those ideas range from drug abuse to domestic violence as well as sexually transmitted diseases. In no other country have I seen so unified a concern. Of course, it should come as no surprise that South Africans would be preoccupied with HIV/AIDS. According to AVERT–a U.K.-based HIV/AIDS charity organization:

South Africa has the biggest and most high-profile HIV epidemic in the world. In 2012, an estimated 6.1 million people were living with HIV, with 240,000 South Africans dying from AIDS-related illnesses.

South Africa now provides free HIV/AIDS medication to its citizens, both in and out of prison, and has reduced the number of HIV-related deaths in the country significantly since 2009. However, the social stigmas attached to HIV often prevent infected individuals from seeking treatment or support.

Themba Interactive uses theatre to train students and incarcerated people to be peer educators in their communities. Themba employs both a theatre company and a set of facilitators who train the peer educators. In a prison setting Themba programming usually plays out in several phases. First, the Themba theatre company devises and rehearses an original play about the issues they wish to address for this particular audience. Then the company performs inside the prison and afterwards holds an interactive discussion with the audience of prisoners. At this point prisoners have the option to sign up to participate in a series of workshops that will train them to be peer educators.

Each workshop has around twenty-five incarcerated participants. Over the course of about ten sessions, the Themba staff members educate the workshop participants about HIV/AIDS (or any other topic at hand, like sexuality in prison or gender violence, yet always with an HIV/AIDS focus) and train them to teach this information to others. The workshop participants then become peer educators, holding sessions of their own with others in the prison, and Themba staff members come back at various times throughout the following year to observe these sessions and support the peer educators. At the end of a year and the completion of a series of their own informational sessions for other prisoners, the peer educators receive a certificate from Themba showing that they are now trained peer educators.

During the training for peer educators, Themba’s staff facilitators use theatre to make the educational process interactive. Sne Makanya said that many other organizations seeking to provide information about HIV/AIDS will show up with a PowerPoint presentation and a lecture, condescending to the prisoners as they pass along information rather than seeking their partnership in combating the epidemic. Makanya also noted that theatre enables folks in prison to take on a role other than that of a perpetrator, enabling them to discover that they have both agency and responsibility in their own lives and in their communities. She emphasized that ensemble work in the theatre teaches us to be respectful to and inclusive of others–the opposite of the isolating effect of the social stigma attached to positive HIV status. Theatre also helps the peer educators in training to rehearse their roles as leaders before they facilitate sessions of their own with others in the prison. Storytelling, role play, and team building games are all a part of Themba’s training, as are exercises in music and visual art. The program works in both English and Zulu to make the training accessible to as broad a population in the prison as possible.

Themba Interactive’s process is remarkable in its longterm follow up to the initial performance work. Interestingly, the theatre component fades with time. Though Themba’s initial encounter with a given population takes the form of a performance and much of the peer educator training is done in theatre games and role playing, theatre is not essential to the peer education work led by prisoners for other prisoners. Themba’s staff members told us that while the theatre games function effectively when led by Themba facilitators, the peer educators are reluctant to use them in their group work with other prisoners and often defer to the separate drama group within the prison when Themba staff suggest that peer educators incorporate performance into their sessions.

Since Themba is so actively engaged in fighting the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, the organization has more avenues for funding than your average nonprofit theatre organization. In fact all of Themba’s funding comes from agencies with interests in public health rather than the arts, including USAID, the South African government, and a health organization based in Germany. The public health focus of the work also helps Themba to maintain positive relationships with South African Correctional Services. Rather than gaining entry to the prisons through a staff person who works on recreation or special activities, as many other prison theatre companies would, Themba works with the staff of the health clinics at the prisons. Themba staff members reported to us that when they cease programming at a particular facility, the prison nurses are sad to see the folks from Themba leave because their work really does improve the health of the prisoners and lightens the load of the nursing staff by encouraging prisoners to take their medications. Apparently, in the fight to curb the AIDS epidemic, many health care providers in South Africa spend inordinate amounts of time convincing people to receive treatment rather than actually treating them, so the work of groups like Themba proves invaluable to those who would prefer to put all of their resources into providing health care. The South African prisons not only support Themba’s work but also enable (and encourage!) the peer educators who come out of this program to hold group sessions with their fellow prisoners.  In fact the prisons will actually pay wages to the peer educators and count this work as their prison jobs or sometimes give them positions as caregivers in the prison hospitals. In the United States prisoners are often punished for gathering in groups for purposes other than sanctioned religious services, and the ability for prisoners to educate one another in U.S. prisons remains rare. The idea that the work of Themba’s trained peer educators is readily accepted and supported in South African prisons may be an indicator of the profundity of the AIDS crisis here rather than a trend toward progressive empowerment of incarcerated people. Regardless, it provides enormous benefit to the prisoners and should be used as a model for educational programming in prisons around the world.

Like most nonprofits, Themba’s funding comes in term-limited grant cycles, which at present means that their work in the prisons ceased on the Thursday before our arrival and cannot begin again until they secure another grant. Like the theatre itself, this kind of grassroots work is all about the embodied moment, and the experience of it can be fleeting and ephemeral if the proactive public health message that Themba conveys is not maintained and supported. If people stop speaking publicly about the facts about HIV/AIDS and retreat into the myths and stigmas that have contributed to the epidemic, then the disease will continue to spread, particularly inside prisons where infection rates are high and unsafe sex a common practice.

Not all peer educators trained by Themba continue to do the work of HIV/AIDS education for prolonged periods after their certification, but some do. The Themba staff told us about a woman who has been leading peer education groups in her neighborhood since her release from prison and about others who have helped a great many of their fellow prisoners.  Empowering the incarcerated to become well-informed leaders in their own communities provides a lasting and potent strategy for fighting the war on this epidemic. South Africa’s greatest human rights victories were won because of the extraordinary work of formerly incarcerated people like Nelson Mandela, and undoubtedly Themba Interactive is making critically important interventions–what Jorge Huerta calls “necessary theatre”–in this fight for the very lives of hundreds of thousands of South Africans.

Play in Tehran Draws Attention to Juvenile Executions in Iran

24 Jul

My dear friend Jules Odendahl-James–an excellent dramaturg and scholar who shares my interest in prison theatre work–forwarded me a link to this article about an interview-based play in Tehran about juveniles on death row in Iran.  Another really interesting and beautiful play on a similar topic was written by my good friend and former colleague Mark Perry.  A New Dress for Mona describes the life and death of Mona Mahmudnizhad, who is considered a martyr of the Baha’i faith because the Iranian government executed her for her beliefs in 1983.  Mona was seventeen at the time of her death.  Amnesty International and many other human rights groups have taken stands against the execution of juveniles, but the practice continues in Iran. The United States outlawed the execution of juveniles in 2005 (not very long ago by international human rights standards), but we still sentence juveniles to life without parole.  Amnesty International reports:

There are at least 2,500 people in the US serving life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for crimes committed when they were under 18 years old. The United States is believed to stand alone in sentencing children to life without parole. Although several countries technically permit the practice, Amnesty International knows of no cases outside the US where such a sentence has been imposed in recent years.

We need far more theatre and other types of art to draw attention to what happens to young people all over the world.  Congratulations and many thanks to the Iranian theatre practitioners do this work and to Mark Perry who writes from the United States about Iran and the Baha’i faith.  May your work have many audiences, and may our governments evolve to end juvenile executions and life without parole.

Last Night’s Protests in Rio: A Reflection from the Safe and Privileged

18 Jul

This morning when Andy and I went to breakfast in the café in our hotel, we saw news coverage of a large demonstration that occurred last night in here in Rio.  If I understood the news story correctly, a large crowd of demonstrators marched to the governor’s or the mayor’s home, and some of the protestors engaged in vandalism of local banks and stores, leaving large piles of

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burning garbage in the streets.  The police arrived in riot gear and threw tear gas into the crowd.  The news on television this morning also showed a policeman shooting into the crowd with what looked to me like a rifle.  Fifteen protestors died.  Another thirty were wounded, as were seven police officers.

I can find nothing in the English language news online this morning about the protests, except these photo from Yahoo news: one of the police and one of looters in a store.

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Our friends at UniRio are already writing about all of this on Facebook, but I’m wondering why major English-language news outlets are not.  The Pope is due to arrive in Rio de Janeiro in a few days (shortly after our departure), and it seems that the protests here are escalating to coincide with the media presence that will be in Rio covering the Pope.

Some of my students went to another protest earlier in our trip.  Some UniRio students took them, and they left when the police arrived.  Beyond that, we have not seen any of the social unrest firsthand or felt that we were in any danger of violence.  Last night Renee, Andy, and I attended an evening class at UniRio with Professor Marina Henriques and the students who go with here to the Maré favela.  They meet on campus every Wednesday evening to make plans for what they will do in their Saturday morning workshops in Maré.  Their class let out around 9 PM, and Andy, Renee, and I waited at the bus stop near UniRio for over an hour before we decided that our bus back to Ipanema was not coming.  We hopped in a cab and made it back to our hotel just fine.  This morning we’re wondering if last night’s protests are what disrupted our bus service, but at the time we had no inkling of what was going on elsewhere in Rio and neither saw nor heard any evidence of the protests as we made our way back to Ipanema.  We are living in the intersection of two types of privilege that most residents of Rio do not have: that of being foreigners  and that of staying in one of the wealthiest parts of the city.

Most of the students we’ve met at UniRio do not have such luxuries, and the vast majority of participants in the social justice theatre workshops we’ve visited live in highly precarious situations.  The prisoners we’ve met were certainly not at last night’s protest, and I’m doubtful that the elderly workshop participants from Teatro Renascer would have been there.  I have no idea whether or not any of the children or teenagers we met in Maré might have attended the protests, but it seems likely that members of any of these theatre workshops might have family members or friends who have attended the recent demonstrations in Rio.  I wonder how all of them are feeling this morning and if they know if their loved ones are safe.  People in prison often do not have access to fast-traveling forms of communication with their loved ones, and I hope that none of the incarcerated people we have met on this trip are sick with worry today about whether or not the people they love are safe.   I know that my own father worries quite a bit when I travel and has been concerned for my safety in Rio, despite my best assurances that I will keep myself and my students out of trouble.

Rosangela Lawrence, our Portuguese tutor back in Ann Arbor, gave us her thoughts on the protests before we came on this trip.  She said she supported the protestors but expressed great frustration about the acts of vandalism that have accompanied the protests because such behavior distracts from the overall purpose of the demonstrations, which is to advocate for the rights of the poor.

May the national and local governments of Brazil find ways to hear the concerns of the demonstrators and to provide some relief in their struggles.  May everyone involved work to avoid further violence and loss of life, and may the people of Brazil find safety and peace.

Rio Exchange, Day Two: Mare Favela

7 Jul

The Michigan/UniRio Theatre Exchange is off to an exciting start!  We are all so grateful to our hosts at UniRio as well as to the Brazil Initiative and the faculty and staff of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS) at the University of Michigan who have worked so hard to make it possible for us to be here.

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Our day started off at UniRio where we met Professor Marina Henriques (pictured here with Andy Martinez in the UniRio van that took us around town) who gave us a brief history of the Mare favela. (There should be an accent on that “e” in Mare, but I can’t figure out how to put accents in my blog posts. Mare is pronounced “mar-ay-ah” in Portuguese.)  Mare is a very large favela within Rio de Janeiro–so large in fact that there are sixteen or seventeen (the exact number varies depending on your source) communities inside it.  Professor Henriques and her students conduct Saturday morning theatre workshops in two of those communities: Nova Holanda and Praia de Ramos.  Their program is called Redes de Teatro na Maré.

Favelas are often described by sites like Wikipedia as shanty towns, but we saw today that they have far more infrastructure than that.  Those of us who have traveled to other parts of Latin America agreed that what we saw of the favela looked very similar to other economically disadvantaged neighborhoods and distinctly more built up than some places I’ve seen, like some of the colonias in Juarez, Mexico, where people live in makeshift shelters made of cardboard boxes.  The parts of Mare that we saw today were composed of 100_1691real buildings made of concrete, metal, and wood arranged around narrow streets and alleys, as can be seen in this picture that I took from inside the second or third story of a building in which one of the theatre workshops takes place.  We felt completely safe while we were in the favela and saw no hint of violence, past or present.  However, Professor Henriques and her students stay safe in large part because they are cautious and thoughtful about the ways in which they approach the favela.  On the morning of each trip to the favela, Henriques calls the staff at the NGO in Mare with whom UniRio partners in setting up these theatre workshops to make sure that it is a safe day to enter the favela.  Only then do she and her students make their way to Mare to engage the residents of the favela through theatre.

The UniRio van took us to the edge of the favela, alongside a major thoroughfare known as Avenida Brasil.  We stopped briefly at the Centro de Artes da Mare–a remarkable place to which we later returned–and then boarded yet another van (one owned by a local NGO called Redes da Desenvolvimento da Maré or REDES) to ride deeper into the interior of Mare so that we could visit the first theatre workshop of the day, which took place inside a building where REDES offers classes and community programming for the people of Mare.  We passed classrooms in which children were studying French and English and then arrived in the room in which Henriques’ UniRio students facilitate a theatre workshop with about a dozen middle and high school aged students.  They invited us to participate in the physical theatre games that they were playing, and we kicked off our shoes and joined the group.  I was surprised to discover that they played some of the same theatre games that I’ve seen used time and again in the U.S., including a version of Zip Zap Zop that they called Zip Zap Ho! (“Ho!” being their equivalent of “Whoa!” from the U.S. version of the game).  Liz Raynes also recognized a song and dance exercise that another group employed later in the afternoon.  She had played that theatre game in a Spanish speaking country elsewhere in Latin America during previous travels abroad.  The facilitators and participants in this first workshop seamlessly incorporated us into their group and seemed disappointed when we had to leave early in order to get to visit the other two workshops in the favela.

The UniRio students’ facilitation style is much like the one we use at PCAP; two or three students lead the same workshop every week so that they develop longstanding relationships with the people in the workshops.  This program for theatre in the favelas began three years ago, and many of the facilitators and participants have been part of the project since its inception.  The first and third workshops we saw today will hold public performances of their theatre games and short improvisations, while the second workshop will hold a more formal original performance devised by the workshop participants (more on this later).  Henriques’s students are obviously both well-trained and very committed to the residents of Mare.  In all of the workshops we observed today, the student facilitators were energetic, highly competent, and good motivators.  The workshop participants were without exception completely focused on the task at hand.  All three of the workshops we observed were with youth, though one workshop with adults was also taking place at the final site we visited.  Doing theatre with youth can be very challenging in terms of focusing their energy on the subject matter of the workshop, teaching them to engage respectfully with one another, and convincing the outliers of the group to participate when teenagers often insist that they are “too cool” to play theatre games or risk embarrassing themselves.  Today’s workshops avoided all of these common traps and displayed remarkable cohesion.  Anyone who underestimates the potential of urban youth should spend a morning observing the children of Mare in these theatre workshops.

100_1679The REDES van took us back to the Centro de Artes da Mare where we observed the second theatre workshop in the beautifully restored space you see in this picture.  When we arrived, the UniRio facilitators were costumed outlandishly–one in a cape and the other in a top hat–leading a theatre of the oppressed exercise in which the youth were drilled in a rapid fire version of Simon Says.  Each person who made a mistake in following the leader’s orders was told to stand in a kind of holding pen offstage, guarded by the facilitator in a cape.  The final girl standing after all the others had been eliminated was given a large stick to hold and told to take over guarding her peers.  The facilitators barked orders at her and asked her if any of those in the holding pen were her friends.  The girl immediately said, “No!” and brandished her stick at the offending captives.  When the exercise had ended, and the group sat in a circle discussing what had happened, the girl who had been transformed into a soldier reported that during the exercise, she thought nothing of becoming the oppressor; she had just enjoyed exercising the power given to her.  The young residents of Mare discussed how easily this had happened and related it to other experiences in their actual lives.  Agosto Boal (may he rest in peace) would’ve been very proud.

We also had the opportunity to watch the members of this workshop perform several scenes from the play they are currently devising about the history of Rio de Janeiro.  The first two scenes of the play will deal with historical events, the third scene with life in Mare in the present, and the final scene with Mare’s future.  The play will be performed in the Centro de Artes da Mare, likely in December 2013.

The Centro’s director Isabella Porto (pictured here on the right with Marina Henriques and me)

100_1705was very gracious in giving us a tour of the facility and telling us about the history of the space.  In 2007 the building was in shambles and with very little money and many volunteers, members of the community restored the space and made it into a professional performance venue.  One side of the building is built for theatre, the other for dance.  The famous Brazilian dance company Lia Rodrigues Companhia de Dancas (the “c” in “Dancas” should have the little tail on it that makes the letter take on an “s” sound in Portuguese, but again I’m not able to figure out how to put special characters into my blog posts.  Sorry, readers of Portuguese!) served as the driving force behind the renovation of the space and continues to perform there.  Isabella and Marina both emphasized how important it is that professional quality performances of both theatre and dance take place in this space inside the favela.  The Lia Rodrigues Company includes two dancers who are from Mare, but they are equal to the rest of the company in their dancing abilities.  The company does not do community outreach work through theatre; rather they create cost-free professional performances in a space that is readily accessible to those who live in the favela.  This commitment to high quality art for an audience that cannot pay for it is admirable and ought to be emulated by more professional artists and cultural centers.  All people deserve access not just to the arts but to the arts in their most refined forms.  Too often we treat working class or poor audiences as though they are not deserving of the same quality of art as those who can afford to be patrons.

From the Centro, we rode the REDES van to a more distant part of the favela where we visited our final theatre workshop, which took place in a hospital called Centre Municipal de Saúde Américo Veloso.  The workshop participants were, once again, children from Mare, and they met in the hospital only because it provides a good space for their work, not because anyone involved in the project needed treatment at the hospital.  These students were improvising scenes based on news stories they had read, and their performances reminded me of the Living Newspaper work of the Federal Theatre Project, reimagined for the era of television news.  Many of the young performers used their cell phones as stand-ins for the handheld microphones used by news reporters or talk show hosts.  They addressed timely topics, including the present debates in Brazil about whether people can choose their sexuality or are born with a particular sexual preference.  All of the skits were both informative and uproariously funny, and like the other two workshops we observed, these children and college students were having a great time, as did we.

We emerged from Mare in awe of the work that Henriques, the UniRio students, and the residents of the favela are doing, and we look forward to rejoining them there again next Saturday.

*This blog post was updated on July 8 to correct some information that I had misunderstood and to add in extra names and facts that Professor Marina Henriques sent to me.  Thank you, Marina!

Ashley Lucas to speak in El Paso on June 27, 2013

14 Jun

Doin’ Time: Families and Incarceration
A public lecture and performance
by Ashley Lucas

Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 7 PM
Hanks High School Theater
El Paso, Texas

Proceeds from this event benefit Community Solutions of El Paso (an organization that provides services to prisoners’ children) and the Prisoners Family Conference

Tickets: Adults $20, Students & Children $7

Click here to see the poster.

New Graphic Novel about Prison Grievances

1 Jun

An innovative new resource for prisoners has recently been written by Terri LeClercq, an advocate for incarcerated people in Texas.  LeClercq’s new book, Prison Grievances, is a graphic novel providing instructions on a fifth grade reading level for prisoners who wish to file grievances within the prison system.

For more information, click here.

Straight Talk: A Support Group for Prisoners’ Families in Durham, NC

13 May

Despite the fact that we number in the millions in the U.S. alone, prisoners’ families do not have very many opportunities to come together to share our experiences.  Fortunately, some folks in Durham, North Carolina, have formed an organization to support one another.  Read more about it here.

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