Archive | Inside Prisons RSS feed for this section

The Centre for Christian Spirituality: Arts Programming in and about Prison in Cape Town, South Africa

28 Aug

I’m now back in Michigan, getting ready for the start of the new school year. I apologize for not doing any Brazil blogging while in Brazil, but we had such a lovely, jam-packed trip that my schedule simply did not afford the time. I am going to post a little more on South Africa before writing about our adventures with the PCAP Brazil Exchange this year, but rest assured, I’ll get there as soon as I am able.

A poster from the Robben Island Museum.

A poster from the Robben Island Museum.

When Andy and I were in Cape Town, South Africa, our first order of business was to head to Robben Island to see the historic prison turned museum where Nelson Mandela had spent the majority of his incarceration. Unfortunately, we only got to see the small museum on the mainland shore where one catches the ferry to the island itself. August is winter in South Africa, and a rain storm and high tide caused the cancellation of all boats to Robben Island on the one day when we had time to make the trip. It feels wrong to have been on a prison-focused research trip to South Africa and to have missed Robben Island, but we couldn’t do anything about that.

Despite this, our time in Cape Town was quite productive. We met with staff members and formerly incarcerated participants of two local theatre projects and learned quite a lot about the nature and content of prison theatre in this part of South Africa. The rest of this blog post is devoted to one of those projects, and a later post will describe the work of another group called Young in Prison.

In the lobby of the beautiful Baxter Theatre, we met with Laurie Gaum from the Centre for Christian Spirituality and a reentrant named Lesley who has performed in a couple of theatre projects organized by the Centre. Laurie coordinates events for the Centre and has done a number of projects both inside Pollsmoor Prison (for some interesting photos of the prison and those who live within it, click here) and with reentrants in Cape Town. The Centre for Christian Spirituality was founded in 1986 by Father Francis Cull and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Centre’s website and the brochure that Laurie gave me both indicate a strong predilection towards addressing social justice initiatives as well as worship and spiritual contemplation. The language of justice and reconciliation appears frequently in their promotional materials, and this seems fitting not only because of the South African nation’s history with Apartheid and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but also because of the Centre’s active work in and around prisons. As Laurie described the Centre’s programming to us, he talked a good deal about masculinity and gender-based programming to help incarcerated men and reentrants explore both their spirituality and their family histories.  The Centre engages in visual art workshops which encourage prisoners to work with clay in silence and writing workshops which focus on gender biographies, family history, sexuality, spirituality, and leadership. He spoke of using theatre to enact “images of the male soul.”

The Centre is currently engaged in producing a series of dramas based on spirituality as it relates to social issues. The first of these, entitled Other, focused on stigmas of sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Though we didn’t hear a great deal about this production, we did learn that it involved a chorus and projected images on stage.

The second of theses dramas, called Fatherless, used three real life stories portrayed by their authors. Lesley Thomas, the reentrant who accompanied Laurie to meet us, was one of these author/actors. Fatherless grew out of a workshop that Laurie had been co-facilitating on masculinity in which a number of participants described instances of fatherlessness. In the production the three author/actors each told their own stories in different areas of a church. The audience stood in the middle and shifted to face each performer in turn. Lesley’s story had to do with going to prison and leaving his children as a result. Lesley grew up without a father and then was not present for his own children before or during his incarceration. He theorizes that everyone in prison is there because they focused too much on themselves and not enough on the other significant people in their lives. Lesley noticed while he was in prison that most of the men around him told stories about being fatherless and that the vast majority of visitors to the prison were women. He saw no fathers coming to visit their incarcerated sons.

Fatherless had two performances at the church in its initial run, and now officials in prison are talking about wanting to bring this performance inside the walls. Because the performance was created by volunteers, three of whom are professional actors along with a director and his assistant, Laurie worries that the group will be hard to hold together long enough to take the show to a new venue. They are also talking about the exciting possibility of taking the production of Other to the professional stage at the Baxter Theatre.

The Centre’s drama project focuses on masculinity because the participants find this theme both significant and difficult to address. They want to continue creating original performances and hope to address the issue of violence against women and children in one of their upcoming projects. The Centre works with a major NGO on issues of gender violence, and Laurie and Lesley are both trained as Gender Reconciliation facilitators. They see performance as an ideal medium for raising awareness and stimulating community involvement in social justice issues.

Lesley wants to change cultural perceptions in South Africa about incarceration as a rite of passage into manhood. He feels that many South African men actually want to serve time in prison because becoming a part of a prison gang earns them respect both inside the walls and on the streets when they return home. He says that many people believe that if you have not been in a prison gang, you aren’t a real man.

In our travels throughout South Africa, people kept recommending journalist Jonny Steinberg’s book The Number which recounts one man’s journey through life in a prison gang. (I confess here that I have not yet read Steinberg’s book and apologize if I am in any way misrepresenting prison gang culture in South Africa. I cannot tell you how much accuracy the following account holds, but I can say that we heard basically the same story from a number of different people throughout our trip.) The three main prison gangs in South Africa all identify themselves by numbers: the 28s, the 27s, and the 26s.  Apparently there are a few other numbers, but those three are the largest and most powerful. The shorthand explanation of the gangs that we received from several different people went something like this: The 28s control sex inside the prisons–both protecting some people from rape and bartering with the bodies of others. The 26s control drugs and money, and the 27s negotiate between the two. Once you are inducted into one of these gangs, you are a member for life, and your gang status and rank (accorded in military terms with the titles of general, captain, etc.) follows you both after you leave the prison and throughout any subsequent returns to prison.

Lesley managed to serve ten years in prison without joining a gang, and he now works with incarcerated boys, encouraging them to eschew gang life as well. He says many people believe that you have to join a gang in order to survive but that he teaches boys how to avoid this fate.

Lesley studied music throughout his time in prison. During Lesley’s incarceration (and perhaps now as well), imprisoned musicians had special privileges to sit outside and play their instruments. Les bonded with his children during visits by playing music for them, and since his release, he has grown closer to his son and daughter by playing music with them at their local church. Lesley plays the clarinet, and his children play the clarinet and trumpet. They have a new life as a reunited and committed family, and Les and Laurie continue their work with the Centre, striving to help other men learn to live peacefully.

*Many thanks to Laurie Gaum for his helpful feedback and edits on this post!

Theatre Programming in a Women’s Prison in Durban, South Africa

19 Aug

I’m in Rio de Janeiro with my University of Michigan students but trying to catch up on blogging about my South Africa trip before I launch into our adventures in Brazil. More to come soon.

Durban is a lovely beach town.

Durban is a lovely beach town. Since I couldn’t take pictures of the prison, this will have to do for an illustration.

Durban, South Africa is a beautiful seaside town–not exactly the place where you’d expect to find an enormous complex of prisons known as the Westville Correctional Facility. Andy and I were introduced to both Durban and Westville by Miranda Young-Jahangeer, a professor of drama and performance studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Miranda has been doing theatre work inside Westville for the past fourteen years. She’s worked with men and youth at the prison at different times, but she prefers to work with incarcerated women and has focused on them throughout most of her time at Westville.

Miranda drove us about twenty minutes outside of Durban to the prison.  Separate men’s and women’s prisons as well as youth facilities can be found inside the fences of the Westville complex, as can several rows of apartments for prison staff members and their families. One staff person told us that she chose to live inside the gates of the prison because the facility provides bus service for her child to attend the local school. She had lived somewhere outside the prison walls but had chosen to move into the staff housing in the prison complex for reasons of convenience, despite the fact that she does not like her job.

The guard at the main gate to the prison knew Miranda, and she signed a register before we drove through the entrance to the facility. The prison complex is vast, and we did not even come close to seeing all of it. Miranda parked near the women’s prison, and when we entered the building, we each signed a sheet at the front desk. We did not show identification, answer any questions, or get patted down. A guard gave visitors’  badges to me and Miranda (but not Andy because apparently men don’t need them at the women’s prison), unlocked a metal gate, and let us into the prison. Everyone there seemed to know Miranda, and undoubtedly her long relationship with this particular prison made entering it far easier than it would be for other people. In Michigan prisons, even when we know the staff well, my students and I still face some pretty significant security measures–advance security clearance, identification, metal detectors, pat downs, lots of questions about our plans for the day. It felt very odd to be able to gain access to a prison so easily in a country so vigilant about security. Miranda reminded me that the folks who run prisons in South Africa can be every bit as capricious and changeable as their U.S. counterparts. Prison authorities at Westville have have moved or cancelled performances and activities at the last minute, and Miranda has seen other groups try unsuccessfully to gain access to this facility which she and her students enter with relative ease. Prisons are nothing if not full of contradictions.

A prison staff member named Veli has worked with Miranda for many years, helping to set up the theatre workshops inside the facility. Veli’s brother had held the same position at this prison, and when he passed away, she took his place. When I asked Veli if it had taken time to build a solid working relationship with Miranda, she said that took up right where her brother left off. He had had a positive relationship with Miranda and her work in the prison, and Veli saw no reason to feel differently. Veli and Miranda led us up a flight of stairs and into a small activities room with several desks with sewing machines on them. The theatre workshop is on hiatus for a few weeks but will start up again in late August or early September. Unfortunately our travel schedule wouldn’t permit us to make the trip during a time when we could see the workshop in action. Instead we had a conversation with Miranda, Veli, and one of the incarcerated women (whom I’ll call P.) who has been doing theatre in the prison for nearly all of the fourteen years Miranda has been facilitating workshops there.

When P. came into the room, she greeted each of us with big hugs, and I was startled at how comfortable she felt in doing that, particularly with Andy–a man she’d never met. In the U.S. physical contact is strictly monitored, particularly between visitors and prisoners and between people of opposite genders. Often women in prison do not feel especially safe around men, and in the U.S. it would be even more unlikely for a prisoner and visitor to have physical contact with a prison staff person in the room. We didn’t see any male staff members working at the women’s prison, and Miranda tells me that very few male staff work there. That might explain the apparent lack of restrictions on physical touch. However, Miranda also reports that the number of incarcerated women in South Africa who report having been sexually or physically abused is above the global average, which hovers around 80%. This refers to abuse incurred prior to incarceration. I would assume that the predominantly single gender environment in female prisons in South Africa greatly reduces the amount of sexual abuse that women endure during incarceration. After reading an early draft of this blog post, Miranda also noted that P.’s hugging is a cultural signifier of her role as an older woman in the prison, a mother figure. A younger woman would not have hugged us so effortlessly, but P. did so as a way of showing that she trusts us and that we are welcome in her space.

The three of them–Miranda, Veli, and P.–asked about our work and why we were interested in theatre in prisons, and then they told us about some of the workshops and performances they have done together. Miranda teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in which students come into the prison to do theatre work. Her students will sometimes develop a performance of their own for the prisoners as a way of starting a conversation about a relevant social issue. At other times, the students work with the prisoners to devise an original performance–sometimes in response to the performance the students brought into the prison.

P. loves to sing, and music is an integral part of each performance. Most South African prisons have a choir inside them, and once a year the national Correctional Services will pay to bring the incarcerated choirs from across the country to the same prison to have a choral competition. This astounded me. The only time that I’ve ever heard of prisoners going from one institution to another to perform in the U.S. was for a huge play called The Life of Jesus Christ at Angola prison in Louisiana. For that production, which in recent years has been revived once or twice a year, women from a prison a few towns away are brought to Angola to rehearse and perform in this enormous passion play. That only requires coordination between two prisons.  I can’t imagine what a logistical feat it must be to move incarcerated choirs (presumably men and women) from all corners of South Africa to a single location for a competition. A 2007 documentary film called The Choir follows one group of prisoners to the National Prison Choir Competition.  I haven’t seen the film (if anyone knows how to acquire a copy, I’d be grateful for the information), but I’d love to see both the film and the actual competition itself some day.

Apparently most of the theatre work that these folks have done together in Westville has dealt with social issues of one kind or another, including HIV/AIDS, gender discrimination, and the poor treatment of prisoners. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, this is not a thing we can do in most of the U.S. because prison administrators feel that any critique of the system could lead to unrest or violence amongst the prison population. This does not seem to be the case in South Africa–or at least not in the work of theatre folks and prisoners I met. I was trying to explain to Miranda, Veli, and P. that we can’t even mention prison guards in our plays, and Veli said that if they couldn’t make fun of the guards, they wouldn’t have ever a play.  Mocking the guards has been a major point of comic relief in their productions, and for the most part the guards don’t seem to mind.

In one notable production the women in the prison were responding to the terrible conditions at the prison clinic. The AIDS epidemic was claiming many lives, and often the bodies of prisoners remained in beds at the clinic for days before being removed for burial. This meant that other women confined to the clinic would have to lay for days on end next to the dead bodies of their friends. The play that the women devised about this situation included a character of a particularly unkind nurse in the clinic, and Miranda didn’t realize until the performance of the play that the nurse in question was not only a real person but was being represented in such a way that she was totally recognizable to the entire prison audience. The nurse was in the audience of the performance along with 250 incarcerated women, and at some point during the play, the nurse got up and fled the courtyard where the play was taking place. As the nurse ran away, the women in the audience all raised their arms above their head and shouted “la la la la la,” mocking her in unison. In a bizarre twist of fate, that same nurse ended up becoming a prisoner at Westville sometime later, and she joined the theatre group and became a much-beloved member of the troupe.

A performance like this would have shut down a prison theatre program in the U.S., but seemingly the only enduring consequence of this at Westville is that the audiences for the group’s plays are now much smaller. Big gatherings of the entire prison population for the sake of a performance are no longer possible, but the theatre group endures.

In thinking about the theatre work at Westville, I’m struck by how much national context and culture matter in terms of what is and is not permissible inside prisons. The legacy of Apartheid in South Africa has left people throughout the country with a publicly acknowledged sense that prisons often enforce the unjust whims of the government. In the U.S. we tend to defend our own sense of righteousness and see prisons as one part of the long arm of justice, believing that the people inside them brought all the negative aspects of their confinement upon themselves. During our trip, someone in South Africa told me that everyone in the country knows someone in prison or someone who was incarcerated at some point. South Africa has the highest incarceration rate in the continent, but the U.S. has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. Yet most of the folks I meet in my own country genuinely believe that they have never known someone who served time. This can’t possibly be true of the majority of us, but the cultural silence and stigmas surrounding incarceration prevent us from having meaningful conversations about it. South Africans continue to struggle with myriad social problems, including mass incarceration, but their ability to speak openly about this particular type of injustice is one of the things that made it possible for a former prisoner to become president and lead the country into a new era of democracy. This ability to acknowledge the problem of mass incarceration fueled by racism has certainly not led to greater justice or a significant reduction in the prison population, but I can’t help feeling like the ability to name and discuss this issue has to be a step in the right direction. How can we move towards a higher form of justice unless we can honestly describe both the world in which we now live and–to paraphrase Ghandi–the change we would like to see in our lives.

The Atonement Project: Restorative Justice and the Arts

10 Feb

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) is excited to announce an opportunity to be part of its new Atonement Project initiative—an arts-based restorative justice program that seeks to start meaningful conversations about crime, incarceration, and reconciliation.

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is invited to join a weekly Atonement Project arts workshop in either Detroit or Lansing. Workshops are facilitated by University of Michigan students enrolled in PCAP Director Ashley Lucas’ Atonement Project course. Workshops began February 1 (Detroit) and February 4 (Lansing) and run for 12 weeks. Contact Ashley Lucas at for more information or to register. You are welcome to join even if you already missed the first weeks of the workshop.

Project Description

The Atonement Project is an innovative, arts-based approach to addressing issues that many crime victims and people who have committed crimes find difficult to discuss (i.e. forgiveness and reconciliation). We wish to create spaces, both through an interactive website and through arts workshops in prisons and in communities affected by crime, where the arts and creativity can help us bridge the divides created by crime and incarceration. The ultimate goal of the Atonement Project is to bring together people whose lives have been shaped by crime so that we can join our efforts to prevent further harm to our families, loved ones, and communities.

Drawing on a broad variety of art forms, including visual art, creative writing, theater, music, poetry, and dance, the Atonement Project uses creative expression to engage participants in tough conversations about crime, punishment, and reconciliation. Technology, including the Atonement Project website, video, digital photography, social media, and interactive online tools will enable web users to have access to the products of our arts workshops and participate in larger conversations about forgiveness and atonement.

The use of creativity and art in examining issues related to atonement and reconciliation is a central component of the Atonement Project. Many people respond more openly to and are able to connect with the experiences of others when they read their stories and experience visual art. The art created in our workshops and displayed on our website will focus on the following three areas of the atonement process:

  • Acknowledgement: Recognizing how we have hurt and how we have been hurt by others.
  • Apology: Apologizing to those we have hurt, and apologizing to ourselves for the hurt we have caused ourselves.
  • Atonement: Atoning through direct actions in our community, with people we have hurt as well as ourselves.

Community Workshops

Anyone whose life has been touched by crime or incarceration in any way is welcome to participate in community workshops, and there is no cost involved in participation. Workshops will take place once a week for two hours and will run for twelve weeks. We ask that participants try to come to all workshops, but we understand that not everyone who participates will be able to attend every single week.

Each workshop will be a space for participants to collaborate as a group on creative writing, performance, and/or visual art. No prior artistic training or previous affiliation with PCAP is required. Everyone is welcome, and no particular skill set is necessary for participation.

Detroit Workshop

Saturdays, 1-3pm

February 1-April 19, 2014

U-M Detroit Center (South Studio)

3663 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

Lansing Workshop

Tuesdays, 6:30-8:30pm

February 4-April 22, 2014

Michigan State University

Snyder-Phillips Hall C301
362 Bogue Street (close to the intersection of Bogue and Grand River)
East Lansing, MI 48825

Contact Ashley Lucas at to register.

About the Prison Creative Arts Project

The Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) was founded in 1990 with the mission to collaborate with incarcerated adults, incarcerated youth, urban youth and the formerly incarcerated to strengthen our community through creative expression. Housed in the University of Michigan’s Residential College, faculty and students work with community members both inside and outside prisons to engage in theatre, dance, visual art, creative writing, slam poetry, and music.

More information, including a link to the Atonement Project website (which we hope to launch later this month) will appear on this blog soon.

Meanwhile, my dear friend Margarita Mooney (a sociologist at Yale) visited our class and wrote a fantastic blog entry of her own that explains our work beautifully.  Thank you, Margarita, for your support of the Atonement Project and for your wonderful visit to the Atonement Project class!

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.

Gorky Never Looked Like This Before: Teatro na Prisão in a Men’s Prison

20 Jul

We, of course, could not take our cameras with us into the prison when we visited Teatro na Prisão’s workshop, so in view of the fact that I don’t have many photos to post in regards to our trip to the men’s prison this past Tuesday, I decided to begin this post with a picture of my student Hector Flores Komatsu, who has yet to appear in any of the other photos on the blog despite the fact that he’s been doing fantastic things as part of this exchange program.  In fact he’s the one of us who will stay here for the longest, spending a full month in Rio and returning to the U.S. in early August.  Hector (now known in Rio as Heitor–the Portuguese translation of his name) is a directing student at Michigan and has been attending many directing and acting classes at UniRio during his time here.  He’s working with UniRio students to make plans for future collaborations in which actors, directors,


and designers visiting from one campus to the other could work on short student productions for a few weeks at a time.

In this photo Heitor is eating Brazil’s national dish, feijoada–a black bean stew with several kinds of sausage and many different cuts of beef and pork. It’s served with rice, black beans, shredded collard greens, chunks of yucca, yucca flour (which is kind of like cornmeal), and pork rinds, all of which can be mixed into your feijoada in whatever amount you like.  Slices of oranges are also served on the side.  The students and I sampled this Brazilian staple at a restaurant in Ipanema called Casa de Feijoada, and we loved it.

On Tuesday, July 16, 2013, we accompanied the students and faculty of Teatro na Prisão to the men’s prison where they conduct a theatre workshop.  Here’s a picture of us at UniRio before we got on the bus to the prisons.


Pictured here from left to right are Renee Gross, Jodie Lawston, Sarah Thompson, Natália Fiche, me, and Viviane Narvaes (the UniRio professor who leads the workshop in the men’s prison).  The men’s prison where Teatro na Prisão facilitates a workshop is just down the road from the women’s prison we visited last week.  By all appearances, the women’s prison we visited stood on its own away from any other prison complex, while the men’s prison is inside a walled and gated compound with multiple prisons for men inside.  The UniRio students told me that the various prisons in the compound house prisoners grouped by various kinds of categories.  Some of the prisons house men who have committed a particular offense.  In Brazil as in many other countries, sex offenders are a high risk for being attacked or abused during their incarceration, and one of the UniRio students with whom I spoke on the bus ride said that one of the prisons in this complex houses only sex offenders so that they will not be in general population with other prisoners.

The prison we visited is just for men who used to be state employees.  One of the UniRio students said this prison houses former government and court officials as well as former professors from public universities.  The men in the theatre workshop (one of the workshop’s incarcerated participants informed me) are all former police officers who are housed together in two pods (smaller housing units) in one of the two main sections, called gallerias, of the prison.  I never did find out who was housed in the other pods in the galleria we visited or who lives in the other galleria, which is entirely separate from the one we visited.  Apparently other men in that galleria are eligible to participate in this workshop, but right now only six men, all from the pods where former police are housed, have chosen to do so.  The men in the workshop discussed how hard it has been to encourage others to join the group.  Some former participants in the group are no longer part of the workshop because they had behavior problems in the prison or because they were transferred to other prisons.  Others in the prison believe that participation in theatre would cause people in the prison to think they were gay and will not join the group for that reason.  I would speculate that the fact that the group is now completely made up of former police officers might deter men from other groups in the prison who would perceive any such homogenous faction to pose a difficult challenge for a new person to find social acceptance among men who have already bonded with one another and share common life experiences.

The idea of housing former government officials together is not unique to the Brazilian prison system.  We have prisons in the U.S., sometimes referred to as “protection units” where not necessarily the prison’s entire population but a fairly high number of the prisoners housed there are former law enforcement, district attorneys, or judges.  Also, U.S. prisons sometimes segregate their inhabitants by race, ethnicity, sexuality, or gang affiliation in efforts to prevent violence.  These forms of segregation can offer the type of protection that they are meant to provide but can also exacerbate tensions within prisons.  These practices most commonly occur in the U.S. on a smaller scale than what we’re seeing here.  The Brazilian prisons within this complex, if I understand this correctly, are segregating on the level of entire prisons being made up of one category of prisoner, whereas what I’ve seen more often in the U.S. is usually one wing or section of a prison being set aside for a certain category of prisoner or a prison having a higher percentage of a certain category of prisoner within the general population of one facility.

Getting into the men’s prison was a more complicated and intimidating process than what we’d experienced last week at the women’s facility.  After we dropped off the group going to the women’s prison, the UniRio van drove us inside the gate to the prison complex, and a uniformed guard with a large pistol strapped to his hip got on the van with us to take our IDs and compare them to the list of approved visitors.  Apparently the list of us foreigners was not with the first set of papers he’d picked up, and he and Professors Fiche and Narvaes got off the UniRio van for what felt like about twenty minutes to straighten it all out.  Then they came back with two guards who checked all of our names off the list and compared our faces to our passport pictures.  One of the guards stayed on the van with us as the UniRio driver took us deeper into the prison complex, past at least three other prisons, to the building we were to enter.  Before the eighteen of us went into the gatehouse, the guard took our passports inside.  We stood outside and formed a circle.  Prof. Narvaes reminded all of us that we do not go anywhere alone inside the prison, even to the bathroom, and that those of us who had never been to this prison before should never be without at least one of the experienced Teatro na Prisão folks to guide us.  As we held hands in the circle, she asked each of us to look to our right and say in Portuguese, “I will take care of [the name of the person standing to your right].”  Prof. Fiche stood on my left and promised to take care of me, and then I looked to my right and promised to take care of Andy.

The eighteen of us went into the front room of the gatehouse where Profs. Fiche and Narvaes introduced me to the director of the prison–a man whom an UniRio student told me he’d never seen in the entire year he’d been coming to this prison with Teatro na Prisão.  Today because there were so many foreigners visiting the theatre workshop, the director stayed with us throughout our entire visit.  The guards in the gatehouse all wore holstered pistols on their hips, and one woman carried a large rifle.  As in U.S. prisons, the guards beyond the gatehouse in the interior of the prison did not carry guns.  They took us three at a time into a separate room where we walked through a metal detector and signed a visitor’s log.  After everyone had gone through this process, we went further into the prison, leaving our passports at the front gate.

This prison, like the women’s one we’d seen, was made completely out of concrete, but the men’s facility seemed to have dozens of gates made of iron bars which could close and section off portions of the hallways.  Most of these gates were wide open as we made our way further into the prison, but even without the gates closing behind us as we walked, we could feel the presence of the layers of cages we crossed through.  I saw two visiting booths for families who have to talk to one another on phones through a pane of glass, and it struck me as so odd and painful that Brazilian prisons would be so similar to U.S. ones in that particular detail.  Jodie and I observed repeatedly during this trip when people questioned us about the differences between U.S. and Brazilian prisons that really they are very much alike.  Nothing we saw in the Brazilian prisons surprised us.  It all felt painfully familiar.  I wonder how many of these similarities are due to the homogenizing forces of globalization and how many of them developed simultaneously yet independently.  It seems likely that both globalization and a cross-cultural willingness to devalue the lives of incarcerated people are at play in carceral systems all over the world.

As we walked down the main hallway of Galleria A, we could see the pods where the men lived branching off the hall on our right side.  The pods are built around narrow open air courtyards, which looked dismal but at the same time received quite a bit of sunlight, which is a comfort that most U.S. prisoners do not have in their living spaces.  The opposite side of the main hallway seemed to have rooms that were used for other purposes, though I couldn’t really see into most of them.  One of these rooms, toward the far end of the hall, is the meeting space for the Teatro na Prisão workshop.  It’s a rectangular concrete room with iron bars in lieu of a door.  Old wooden theatre seats line three of the walls, and the fourth has a huge and quite remarkable wooden table pushed against it.  This room also has an adjoining doorway, with another set of iron bars, leading to a smaller room which serves as the prison’s library.  A couple of the UniRio students who came with us spent the duration of our visit to the prison sifting through books in the library.  Apparently they are helping to cull the books that are worn out and molding.

A line of six incarcerated men all wearing orange tee shirts with the name of their theatre troupe on it.  (Sorry! I couldn’t take notes while in the prison and now can’t remember what the wording on the shirts said.)  We shook each man’s hand and greeted one another as we made our way into the workshop room.  Then we visitors took seats along the walls, while the UniRio students, Professor Narvaes, and the incarcerated workshop participants formed a circle and did a few warm ups.  Then they left the room en masse, and we tentatively followed them into the main hall of the galleria to see where they’d gone.  They gathered at the far end of the hall and then came back to us in a festive procession which included singing, dancing, tambourine playing, and waving straw fedoras and large pieces of brightly colored fabric above their heads.  The procession was the only piece of the performance that the many men locked in the pods branching off from the main hallway could watch.  Unlike the Teatro na Prisão group which goes into the women’s prison, these UniRio students and Professor Narvaes rehearse and perform with the men in the workshop, rather than directing and observing without taking roles in the improvised play.

When the procession ended back in the workshop room, we visitors took our seats again, and the workshop participants, including the UniRio folks, formed a circle like the one in which they had done warm ups.  They produced about a dozen rubber balls about the size of tennis balls and in a variety of bright colors.  They tossed the balls to one another across the circle, making rhythmic noises as they did so.  When a new color of ball was introduced, they made new sounds, and the patterns of ball tossing grew more complex.  One UniRio student held up signs periodically during the game.  One sign told us in the audience that we would see a performance of Maxim Gorky’s play Ralé (commonly translated in English as The Lower Depths).  Subsequent signs stated that the performance would include rhythm, music, hip hop, and beat boxing.  Each sign set off the introduction of a new sound or rhythm amongst the performers who were now tossing the rubber balls to one another quite rapidly and making an assortment of interesting beats as they did so.  Some of them also began to sing the song they’d sung during the procession.  My meager Portuguese was not serving me well that day, but I did understand the word feliz, meaning “joy” or “happiness,” as it was repeated frequently in the rather festive song.

As a chorus of the song ended, the ball tossing and rhythms ceased suddenly.  The circle disbanded, and all participants became a tightly packed group in the middle of the room.  One UniRio student jumped out of the crowd and told us that we would be introduced to some of the characters in the play.  He struck a military-looking pose and made a loud grunt.  The other members of the group repeated both the gesture and the sound.  Another male student jumped out of the group, leaned back, crossed his arms, threw his head back, and laughed maniacally.  The others did the same.  A female student struck a flirtatious pose and giggled.  Everyone else did, too.  Then the group broke apart and scattered.  They used the hats and colored fabric from their earlier procession as they positioned themselves in sleeping poses all across one end of the room, many of them lying on, under, or on the floor in front of the enormous table.  They grumbled and poked at each other, stole the fabric from one another to use as blankets, and settled in to sleep for a bit.  Then they all awoke and had a rather comical argument which escalated into a shouting match.  There they ended the performance, and we all sat in a circle on the floor to discuss what we’d seen.

This group is at the beginning of their rehearsal process for this play.  They’ll be improvising scenes based on Gorky’s play in a process similar to what the women at the other prison are doing with Romeo and Juliet.  What we saw was both an introduction to their practice and the first scene of the play.  The musicality and playfulness of the group are remarkable and infectious.  We had a wonderful time watching them and could palpably feel the spirit of fun and joy in the room.  Given their obvious desire to make this space one of celebration, it’s very interesting that the group chose The Lower Depths as the subject of their performance.  Before we entered the prison, I’d asked Prof. Narvaes who had chosen this play as the subject for the group’s latest work.  She told me that she’d offered them a choice between this and Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and the prisoners chose Gorky.

Like most great Russian writers, Gorky is not known for comedy.  A Marxist and advocate for the social-democratic movement in Russia in the early 1900s, Gorky was imprisoned at least twice and penned a number of political plays, most notably The Lower Depths, which is widely considered to be a masterwork of the theatre.  The play describes the lives of a group of men living in a homeless shelter.  The 1902 production of the play launched director Konstantin Stanislavski’s storied career.  One of the major tensions at the heart of the play is whether people living in dire circumstances should confront the painful reality of their lives or create more beautiful fictions to distract them from the brutal conditions under which they live.  It’s a pretty dark play, though a very good one.

We only got to see Teatro na Prisão’s first scene of this play, but I would love to be able to see how the rest of their improvisations on Gorky will develop.  Will the pervasive playfulness of the group somehow alter Gorky’s original plot, as the women in the other prison saved Romeo and Juliet from their once inevitable demise?  Or will the level of engagement and energy that these men bring to the workshop be channeled into grappling with both the tragedy of Gorky’s characters and the prisoners’ actual circumstances?  To the best of my knowledge, whatever performance they create will not be seen by anyone besides the members of the group themselves.  No audience of other prisoners or outsiders will be invited, unless something changes between now and then.

What does the absence of a viewing public do to a play?  All social justice theatre finds meaning in the process of rehearsal and creation, but it usually aims to make its most significant impact in performance for an audience likely to be swayed by its message or encouraged to think critically about the issues at hand.  Inside a prison, captives might choose to participate in a process such as this one for a multitude of reasons: to have a way to pass the time, to engage with one’s peers in a safe and productive way, to have meaningful contact with volunteers from outside the prison, to learn, to hone a skill set, to prove something to one’s self or others.  Whatever their reasoning, the men in the workshop must find value in the doing of the work itself, rather than seeking any outside recognition for their participation in this process or this play.  The upside to this work from a social justice point of view is that guards and prison administration don’t seem to be interfering or censoring the work of Teatro na Prisão, and they apparently have only been observing the workshops when we foreigners come to visit.  This, I’m guessing, is why Teatro na Prisão can do politically charged theatre work that I do not believe could be done in most U.S. prisons, but their freedom to be political, like everything else in prison, is rather narrowly confined because their work does not have an audience.  I don’t believe this in any way diminishes the quality or meaningfulness of the theatre practices we’ve witnessed in Brazilian prisons, but the lack of audience does make for a distinct theatrical experience–one in which only the participants can benefit.

I wonder what Gorky would think of this.  Surely he would be glad that people in prison know his work and can experience it performatively more than 100 years after he wrote it.  Perhaps he would also feel, as I do, that both the privileged and the oppressed among us are poorer for our inability to witness a full length performance of the improvised version of The Lower Depths that this theatre workshop will produce.  I know that my life would be greatly enriched were I to have the chance to see it.

Alas, my trip to Brazil has ended.  I am finishing this post from an airport in the United States as I wait for the connecting flight that will take me home to my beloved husband and my comfortable life in Michigan.  Liz Raynes has already safely arrived back in our native country, and Renee Gross returns very soon.  Hector/Heitor will remain for a few more weeks and continue to study directing, but my lovely trip is over.  Thank you to all the folks we met at UniRio and the places where they conduct their workshops!  Thank you UM Brazil Initiative and LACS!  We look forward to continuing this work next summer.

In Rio with Teatro na Prisaõ, or Romeo and Juliet Live to See Another Day

9 Jul

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

100_1707standing 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.

Shaka Senghor on Prisoners and Technology

11 Jun

My dear friend and Prison Creative Arts Project Associate Shaka Senghor gave a talk about prisoners and their lack of access to technology at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York City last week.  Check out the video of his speech on his website.


%d bloggers like this: