Knowing that we wouldn’t be able to take anything but our passports into the prison with us today, we weren’t able to take our cameras to get pictures of our latest adventures. This photo was taken a few days ago when Liz Raynes was
standing in front of the Shakespeare mural which adorns the side of UniRio’s theatre building. This image is apropos for this post because our morning was spent watching the Bard’s work get reinterpreted by incarcerated women.
We rose early today in order to eat breakfast and get to UniRio’s campus by 7:45 AM to meet Professor Natália Fiche and her students. Fiche and the Teatro na Prisaõ program have been doing theatre work in prisons for the last fifteen years. Every Tuesday the program goes into two prisons on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro–one women’s facility and one men’s. We visited the women’s prison this week and will go to the men’s next week.
When we arrived at the prison, we got off the bus while those who were headed to the men’s prison continued on to another location. Fiche and five of her students led us to a large metal gate where a guard slid open a small panel just large enough for him to look through. Then he opened up a door in the gate and admitted us two at a time, searching the large bags of costumes that the UniRio students carried with them as he admitted them. Andy, Flores, and I were near the back of the group, and as those in front of us were being admitted through the door, the guard decided that Andy and Hector would not be allowed to enter because they were wearing shorts–albeit long ones. Someone dug through the costumes and found two pairs of stretch pants that they could wear. Both pairs of pants were bright pink, but the guys were very good sports about wearing them for our visit to the prison. The guards confiscated the offending shorts and held them at the front gate until the end of our visit.
Professor Fiche told us that they had never given her a problem about people wearing shorts before. Apparently, prisons all over the world have this in common; the dress code seems to shift often and arbitrarily so that visitors cannot possibly keep up with the rules. We face this all the time in the United States. In fact, during the last year when my family members have visited my father in a Texas prison, the dress code for female visitors has become much more highly regulated than ever before. Now when the guards decide that a woman’s clothes are too tight or low cut, have too much writing on them, or are deemed unfit for any other reason, they force women to wear blue hospital gowns over their clothes. Visitors to prisons, particularly wives and girlfriends visiting their loved ones, tend to want to look their best and have often been very careful in dressing themselves for the precious few hours they can spend with the people they love. My mother and I have witnessed at least two women forced to wear the hospital gowns burst into tears when the men they loved arrived in the visiting room; the women’s shame and grief becomes palpable to all visiting families around them. If Andy or Hector were ashamed of their makeshift outfits today, they did not show it. They laughed good-naturedly about the incident and moved right along with their day. In this case, the shaming force that prisons often inflict upon their inhabitants and visitors did not spoil our trip.
Once we got inside the prison gate, a guard took our passports, asked us to sign the visitor’s log book, and had us walk through a metal detector. We then followed another guard across a courtyard and into a cement building. The room in which Teatro na Prisaõ meets is concrete on all surfaces, like the rest of the building, and has a small raised stage at one end. The dozen or so incarcerated women in the group welcomed the UniRio students, Professor Fiche, and even us visitors with smiles and hugs. Those of us who have done work in U.S. prisons were surprised to see that even with a guard in the room, male volunteers and female prisoners were allowed to hug without repercussions. All of the guards we saw beyond the front gate were women, and at least one of them stayed in the back of the room the whole time we were there to watch what was going on. We gathered from the UniRio students that this is not usually the case; during their regular workshops, the guards don’t bother to watch. Because we were there visiting from abroad, the workshop was not only watched by a guard but also visited by the warden. Professor Fiche had previously received approval over email to video record today’s workshop, and she had set up a tripod with a camera on it at the start of the workshop. The warden came into the workshop shortly after we got started to tell Fiche that she was denied permission to film after all.
Teatro na Prisaõ uses both improvisatory games based on theatre of the oppressed and traditional theatrical scripts as starting points for its work. In the past they have not held performances for audiences but have done theatre exercises strictly for themselves within the space of the workshop. Now Professor Fiche is working to try to gain permission from the prison authorities to allow the women to perform twice: once for their families and once for the other women in the prison. Whether or not they will be able to do this, they are currently in rehearsals for an original devised performance based on Romeo and Juliet.
The UniRio students and incarcerated women set up chairs to make an audience for us visitors, and they put a small partition upstage right. This served as an area for costume changes and also became Juliet’s balcony when she would poke her head over the top of the partition to talk to Romeo. The women had a great time with the costumes that the UniRio folks had brought, and I have to say that the costumes themselves were very diverse and rather impressive–well worth the women’s enthusiasm. They even had makeshift swords made out of paper machê for the fight scenes.
While the women were trying on costumes and the debate over filming the workshop was happening, we had some time to talk to the workshop participants before they began their rehearsal. One woman told me about her five children, two of whom have died. Of the remaining three, two live with her mother. In my limited Portuguese, I didn’t understand what she was telling me about the whereabouts of the third child, but it seemed important to this woman that we know that she had a life and family beyond the walls of the prison.
This workshop is using the story of Romeo and Juliet but not Shakespeare’s text–even in Portuguese translation. The UniRio folks have given the women a basic outline of the plot, and the women improvise scenes using Shakespeare’s characters and plot–or at least as much of the plot as they liked.
This particular adaptation of Romeo and Juliet begins on the streets of Verona where the Montagues and Capulets are sizing each other up for a fight. This opening scene was very funny because one actor in particular (I believe she was a Capulet) was doing such a good job of goading her opponents with gestures and facial expressions. As in Shakespeare’s original, Prince Escalus (the lead government official in Verona) appears and stops the fight with a speech about keeping the peace. The rival families dispersed with another round of intimidating looks and hand motions.
Then the whole cast attends the masquerade ball at the Capulet residence. Everyone appeared in sequined mardi gras masks and danced to baile funk music as though they were at a modern day nightclub. The cast was obviously having a great time and seemed surprised and excited by this choice of music. The UniRio students had brought a small boom box and played a number of selections of background music at different points in the play. Apparently in prior rehearsals, they’d been playing more classical dance music, and the women in the workshop found it boring and wouldn’t do much dancing. With baile funk as their inspiration, the dance party became a whole lot of fun for the cast and audience alike.
Romeo and Juliet fall in love at the dance, and when Romeo leaves the party, he is so overjoyed that his happiness is positively contagious. He runs to his friends to sing Juliet’s praises and then collapses in a lovelorn heap downstage center to contemplate the many virtues of his love. Juliet’s head pops up over the partition in the back of the stage, and she begins a soliloquy about Romeo’s virtues. He quickly leaps to his feet and runs to stand beneath her balcony. They have an enthusiastic exchange and run off shortly thereafter to be wed by the friar. The two women playing Romeo and Juliet were allowed to share what appeared to be a pretty decent kiss, albeit with Juliet’s wedding veil between them–a level of physical contact that I would not expect to be allowed in prison theatre in the U.S.
At this point in the story, we encounter a most excellent bit of comedy along with a casting change. In order to give more women the opportunity to have significant roles, a new actor takes over for Juliet just after the marriage scene. An UniRio student named Paolo had been telling me about the double casting before we arrived at the prison. He referred to the first actor as “the long haired Juliet” and the second as “the short haired Juliet.” The long haired Juliet played the character as demure and a bit shy, while the short haired Juliet was far more outgoing and demonstrative in her love of Romeo. The first time we see the short haired Juliet, she is helping Romeo to sneak into her bedroom so that they can consummate their wedding night. She darts out from behind the upstage right partition, grabs Romeo by the arm, and drags him into her bedroom. A number of actors were hidden behind the partition, and they enacted Romeo and Juliet’s love making by throwing articles of clothing into the air along with whoops and shouts. We, the audience, loved it.
Romeo emerges from the wedding night all aglow with his love for Juliet and stumbles into the street fight that kills both Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin) and Mercutio (Romeo’s dear friend). Then Juliet distraught by this news takes a sleeping potion to fake her death. Romeo finds her, believes her to be dead, and then proceeds to get falling down drunk. (The women unanimously disliked Shakespeare’s ending to the tragedy and decided to change it.) Romeo passes out, and Juliet is first worried that Romeo is dead, then very irritated at Romeo for having gotten drunk. She shakes him awake and forces him to his feet where he stumbles around still drunk and trying to explain himself, yet overjoyed by Juliet’s unexpected recovery. The families reconcile. Another baile funk dance party ensues. Curtain call.
After the applause died down, the women and UniRio facilitators cleared away our chairs and formed a circle. Not only did they include all of us in their circle, they deliberately spaced themselves between us so that each visitor held hands on both sides with an incarcerated woman. The music began again, and one of the UniRio students jumped into the circle and started dancing. We all cheered. He pulled one of the incarcerated women into the middle of the circle and then exited to rejoin the group so that the woman in the middle could have the spotlight. We danced this way for quite a while, each person in the middle bringing a new person into the center of the circle before exiting to rejoin the group. Then we held hands again, and Prof. Fiche talked to the members of the group about how important their weekly attendance at the workshop is. A short discussion ensued, and then we broke the circle. Out of what felt like nowhere, a table appeared with food and drinks that the UniRio students had brought with them to the prison, and we were all encouraged to eat and drink as we mingled and talked about the performance. When the food and drink were gone, we all hugged and thanked one another before we left–the women heading off into a different area of the prison as we made our way back to the front gate to reclaim Hector and Andy’s confiscated shorts.
We gathered at a little store across the street from the prison, shared more refreshments, and petted a very friendly stray cat while we waited for the UniRio bus to return from the men’s prison to collect us. On the hour-long bus ride back, the UniRio students and Prof. Fiche shared snacks with us and much conversation about the theatre work that each of us do, both inside and outside prisons. Someone produced a tambourine from a backpack and played it expertly as all the UniRio students sang loudly in Portuguese. We arrived back at the university full of good spirits. We had planned to meet up with this group again on campus two days from now for their weekly Thursday class in which they plan their activities for the coming week’s workshop at the prison, but as part of the nationwide demonstrations and protests in which many Brazilians are currently engaged, all teachers and students at public schools, including those at UniRio, will be on strike this Thursday. Fortunately we’ll be here another week and can attend a Thursday class after our trip to the men’s prison next Tuesday.
For now, we’re left to ponder this Romeo and Juliet who chose to live rather than die. When Jodie and I traveled to Cuba shortly after the release of our book in 2011, we saw the Ballet Nacional de Cuba perform a version of Swan Lake in which the swan Odette not only survives but marries Sigfried and has a big dance in which the chorus of swans become ladies in waiting. After seeing both this take on Romeo and Juliet inside a Brazilian prison and the Cuban Swan Lake, I cannot keep from wondering if unexpected happy endings are signs of resistance. When one cannot secure one’s own freedom from incarceration or an oppressive government, then perhaps imagining worlds in which Romeo, Juliet, and Odette can overcome their previously inevitable tragedies gives performers and audiences alike a sense of hope. We cannot always escape the devastating situations in which we find ourselves, but, like another great character from classical drama–Segismundo in Calderon de la Barca’s La vida es sueño–at least we can dream, especially when we’re in the theatre.