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Theatre for Social Change at UDESC, a post by Eddie Williams

28 May

My name is Eddie Williams and I am currently a student at the University of Michigan studying Acting and Psychology. I have completed four years at the University so far, but I still have one more year to complete because there are many more class requirements that come with having two majors as opposed to just one. After graduation I intend on continuing my education by pursuing a Master’s in Social Work. I figured by doing this I will be able to find a career where I am able use my love for theatre and the arts, not for entertainment per se, but more so as means to deal with social problems in our society today. Throughout my time at the University I have been looking for classes to take that combined both of my interests. I found that intersection when I took the Theatre & Incarceration class, taught by Ashley Lucas who is also the director Prison Creative Arts Project, also known as PCAP. The class and the program overall opened my eyes to the problems that exist in the criminal justice system and incarceration not just in the United States but around the world. I’ve gained so much insight, over the past couple of months, into the harsh realities of the incarcerated population. It is through PCAP that I was able to facilitate a theatre workshop at Milan Federal Correctional Institution. With the use of theatre, I was able to cultivate an environment that enabled the men to express themselves freely and creatively. All around it was a great experience, one that made me feel very fulfilled because it showed that importance of the arts and how they can be used to uplift, heal, connect, and ultimately rehumanize people.

Coming to Brazil was another aspect of PCAP that broadened my horizons and made me think about the issues of incarceration on an international level rather than just nationally. I would have never thought that I’d be able to go to Brazil. I knew going in that this was going to be a life defining experience, one that would further confirm what I want to do with my life. In just the first week in Florianópolis I have been able to see the different ways theatre can be used to express oneself and raise awareness to issues you never thought about before. On day two in the Florianópolis, the class and I had the privilege of watching four black women perform a piece discussing the issues of race in Brazil. They used dancing, singing, and different scenarios to bring to the forefront their black experiences. This specifically included issues of police brutality against blacks, colorism within the black community, lack of positive black representation, and ultimately the issue of slavery and its impact on us today. I was not surprised at all that the experiences that they had shared were exactly like the experiences of black people in the United States. As a black person myself, I resonated with the piece. It was important for people that didn’t identify as black to see it so that they could understand what life is like in our world.

Eddie

The talkback with University of Michigan students after the UDESC students performed the first half their play.

There were also the pieces by presented by Sisi, Alé, and other students of UDESC throughout the week that touched on very important topics. These topics ranged from what’s it like to be a queer black woman to the need for philosophy classes to remain an option as a major on the university level. Each performance was charged with a strong specific social message which forced the audience see things from a different perspective. The performers took our assumptions and pre-conceived notions about specific identities and flipped them on their head. This was reinforced by the very unconventional and Brecht-like presentation of each performance. For example, the UDESC student performance of the first half of their play started with us coming into a dark room and walking around the set, while the students began repeating different sentences, at various points of the stage, and lighting the room up with their phones. Another example was Alé’s performance which had the audience sitting in the round. He started by greeting everyone in a very sensual way either with a kiss or laying on their laps, and at many points throughout the show he talked directly to the audience. I found out later that his purpose for this doing was to make people think about how we often fetishize the LGBTQ community. All the performances made for an overall educational experience. I loved every bit of it as I felt I grew better as a person. It made me want to fully immerse myself in the act of listening to understand rather than assuming and thinking I know all the answers, because I don’t. With all that the class and I learned and was exposed to in the first week, I am excited to see what is in store over the next two weeks.

Guest blogger Violet on doing theatre with teenagers in the U.S. and Brazil

2 Jun

Violet on steps

Hello! I’m Violet, a rising junior majoring in Theatre Arts and minoring in Community Action and Social Change. I was introduced to PCAP through the two classes taught by Ashley Lucas. I found The Atonement Project, the fall semester class, when looking for requirements for both my major and minor. On the first day of class Ashley mentioned that if we had interest in going to Brazil we could take her other class, Theatre and Incarceration, in the winter. Needless to say I was sold from that moment. That semester I co-facilitated a workshop at the Washtenaw Youth Detention Center and this past semester at the Washtenaw Center for Forensic Psychiatry.  

Theatre has always been my way communicating with other people and the world. Theatre itself is a language and way to bring people together. Being in Brazil has added to my list of experiences where this is true. Despite my total inability to speak Portuguese, I was still able to create relationships with people through the games we played, the things we laughed at, and the songs we sang. I had never been to South America prior to this trip but it had always been on my bucket list to come to Rio. The icing on the cake was that I was able to come here do theatre.

I have seen many differences in the theatre of Brazil compared to the theatre in the US. Especially with the current political climate of Brazil, many of the shows we have seen have been addressing those political issues. Not to say politics don’t influence American theatre but Ashley did make a point that political theatre was more openly funded and supported in Brazil. However, I have seen more similarities than anything when going to the workshops. The most incredible workshop was the one in the favela. Six of us, myself included, went into a theatre workshop for teenagers led by UniRio students. I had done a workshop with a group girl teenagers previously before in Michigan and was expecting it to be difficult. With teenage girls it can be like pulling teeth trying to get them to participate. It took a long time to build trust and get everyone to participate in the workshop. However, when we arrived the first Saturday to participate in the workshop, we were immediately greeted and welcomed into the community. From the very start, we all got along very well. One of the games we played involved us dancing around the space to music and as soon as it ended, we all had to run to fit into squares that were taped on the floor. We were running around trying to fit as many people in one square as possible. The game not only got us physically closer but created a supportive atmosphere. Everyone was working to be inclusive and fit every person in the square. This environment would dictate the rest of the time we spent together including when we returned the next Saturday to lead a workshop. That next Saturday we came and we again received with the same positive energy as the week before. We introduced many new games to them all and had a total blast. 

At the end of each workshop there was a debrief session, something that is not common in US. I remember asking them all “Why do you do theatre?” and then through translation I got almost the same answer from everyone; “It is my dream.” This shook my perspective on theatre and opened my eyes to the privilege I held. My ability to study theatre in the US is a privilege. For these teenagers, just being in a theatre workshop meant they were living their dream. I realized I had taken for granted my access to theatre education and the opportunities I had in the US. For the kids in the workshop, this was the only theatre they were given and it made them feel whole. One boy said he liked the new games we had introduced to them “because they fed my soul.” These were maybe 16 year-olds describing the dramatic importance and impact of theatre on their lives. I saw this in my work in Michigan, and again I see it here that these young teenagers are the most thoughtful and honest people. Hearing their voices gave me a reminder of why I continue to do theatre and how fortunate I am to be able to. I cannot wait to return to the US with this renewed perceptive but hope to return again to this amazing place to these amazing people some day. Brazil, thank you for everything. 

Tchau,

Violet

sunset

Guest blogger Meredith on performances from the Theatre of the Oppressed Conference

28 Aug

We arrived in the plaza early (on time) and devoured paper bags full of hot caramel corn doused in sweetened condensed milk from one of the many pipoca carts lining the edge of the city center. As we waited for our program to begin, I tried to take in the parts of the city I might normally overlook – an old woman on a park bench whispering secrets to pigeons, men delivering flowers on bicycles, angry monkeys yelling at one another up high in the trees, beautiful architecture I don’t have the art history knowledge to describe properly, children wearing sweaters despite it being 65 degrees outside (it is currently “winter” in Brazil).

Finally, a number of plastic chairs were set up in a circle and familiar faces from the Theatre of the Oppressed conference began to assemble. Over the next few hours, participants from the conference performed scenes they had workshopped throughout the week. Afterwards, our giant group played theatrical games in the middle of the plaza. As a college theatre student, this public display of artistic expression excited and fascinated me. In all of my experiences with theatre done in public spaces, a true audience is often limited and passerby are usually annoyed, slightly amused, or a vague mixture of the two. In Largo do Machado I stood rapt – half due to the incredible performances and games, and half as a result of the overwhelmingly positive response from onlookers. Old men, women with young children, teenagers, a middle-aged man who looked strangely like my fourth grade teacher – they all stood and watched, applauded with gusto, and even participated in the games. Never in my life have I seen this type of response to theatre. It is clear that in Brazil, art is not seen as something reserved for a certain type of person or group.

The first performance featured three children from the Maré favela. The age and talent of the sole girl in the group of performers caught my eye. She couldn’t have been more than thirteen, but she commanded the attention of the crowd with unabashed enthusiasm and confidence. It’s always refreshing, both as a performer and a human, to see someone exude so much joy while creating art. In a field where it is easy to get caught up and take myself too seriously, I crave these brief moments that remind me what theatre is capable of. It was a deep desire for more of these reminders that led me to PCAP in the first place.

I have always been passionate about theatre and social justice issues, but had difficulty finding mediums where I could merge the two. When I heard about Ashley’s Theatre and Incarceration course, I immediately signed up. I co-facilitated a theatre workshop in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility with a group of lively, opinionated, hysterical women. The class helped me build a bridge between my two ostensibly separate passions, but it also served as a necessary, positive jolt in the way I look at myself and my art. I cannot rave enough about the theatre program at the University of Michigan and the remarkable training I have received, but after three years, I was feeling a little worn down. The competitive nature of the community, the focus on the individual, and the notion of being “good” weighed heavy on my mind, and I found it difficult to enjoy my work. I felt drowned in a world where theatre was regarded as “high art,” meant for a certain type of person, with a certain level of education, and a certain amount of money. Theatre was black and white. It wasn’t until I enrolled in Ashley’s class and began my prison workshop that I rediscovered how powerful art could be, how important it is for theatre to wade through the unexamined grey area. How, if used correctly, theatre has the capability to rearrange power. That, simply put, theatre is for everybody.

The day was filled with laughter, warmth, language barriers, and a true feeling of community. My favorite activity was facilitated by a theatre troupe from UCLA known as the Sex Squad. The squad uses theatre, music, and other types of art to promote sexual health education in high schools around Los Angeles. The participants in the plaza were split into five groups. Each group was assigned a substance that transmits HIV (I was semen) and was told to create a unique movement and way of singing their substance in Portuguese. We created a choir of sorts and soon I was standing in the middle of the city square, in the center of the crowd, conducting the chanting – “VAGINAL FLUID! BLOOD! BREAST MILK!” Arms flailed, people stared, and I went and ate more popcorn afterwards.

Alas, here we are now, at the airport in Rio, preparing to depart. I’ve eaten my weight in churros, red meat, fresh fruit, bacon popcorn, and my fellow peers are ready to roll me onto the plane. I loved spending time in this country where I grapple to understand and communicate and find the bathroom, a foreign land where I grew to love the warmth and the slow pace and the orchids in the trees, a trip I took with nearly perfect strangers who taught me so much. I am extremely grateful to Ashley Lucas, our fearless (and patient) leader, to Anna, our graduate school companion and translator, and to all those at UniRio who kissed us on both cheeks and let us be a part of their beautiful work. Obrigada & boa noite, Brasil!

Guest blogger Elena Khutoretsky on Teatro Renascer

26 Aug
Elena drinking cafezinho

Elena drinking cafezinho

My name is Elena and this trip will be my last experience as a student at the University of Michigan. Although I graduated this past May, I am thankful to still be able to participate in this program. I have facilitated workshops through PCAP with incarcerated men, women, and teenagers since September of last year. I chose to come to Brazil in order to continue this work while immersed in a completely different culture.

Prior to coming to Brazil, my experience was limited to prisons and youth facilities, where there were strict rules and restrictions on the content that we can work with in our workshops. Here in Rio de Janeiro, I have expanded my experience to include theater workshops in hospitals and favelas as well. One such experience was particularly memorable for me.

Michigan and UniRio students and faculty with the folks at Teatro Renascer

Michigan and UniRio students and faculty with the folks at Teatro Renascer

It happened earlier this week, when we paid a visit to Teatro Renascer, which is a group of elders at a nearby hospital who participate in an action-packed workshop every week, led by Carmela, a professor at UniRio. The participants were lively and very welcoming, and I hardly even noticed the language barrier amidst all the hugs and smiles. The workshop started with a Portuguese song and dance, followed by a name game which involved participants inventing creative ways to say their names and teaching it to others. The highlight of my day was when, in the middle of my presentation of my name, everyone in the group started chanting it with me and dancing in a circle, concluding the activity. Most of the activities were very physical in nature, often involving collaboration among small groups of participants. We created depictions of bicycles, peeing dogs, various modes of transportation, many different kinds of animals, and one battleship that required everyone’s participation. I quickly found myself literally bouncing up and down with a level of energy I hadn’t felt in a very long time. The final activity was a very intense rendition of a song about the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire, in relation to our bodies. We stood in a circle, singing fiercely with furled eyebrows and stomping feet, while each one of us took turns performing a dance in the middle of the circle. You haven’t seen an elderly lady bust a move like I have.

Elena is a big fan of the monkeys we've encountered in Rio.

Elena is a big fan of the monkeys we’ve encountered in Rio.

I left the place with delicious snacks in my belly, a broad grin on my face, and a surplus of euphoric invigoration that lasted all day long. It was to this date the most uplifting and energizing workshop I have ever had the pleasure of participating in.

More monkeys!

More monkeys!

When I later reflected on the experience, I came to the realization that we could have done many of these activities in a Brazilian prison (which are relatively lenient when it comes to content), and some even in a US prison, especially if we modified them to avoid touching one another. And yet, I couldn’t imagine having this level of fun if I did the same workshop in a prison. Why? Because the unfortunate reality is that there is no amount of energy or vigor that could ever make me forget the fact that we are always being watched, that some people don’t want me there, or that some people don’t believe that prisoners even deserve to have fun in the first place. I’ve had workshops in prisons where we laughed a lot and had a fantastic time, but that has always been in spite of, not instead of, the constant awareness of the rules we have to follow, and the knowledge that the people I am working with are not given the same respect and autonomy that I enjoy. It wasn’t until my experience with Teatro Renascer that I truly understood how much of a difference it makes just knowing in the back of my mind that the participants and I are treated with the same level of respect by society and that no one in the facility looks down on what we do. It made me reflect on how much extra work it takes in prison to achieve just a fraction of the result I would achieve elsewhere. For this reason, this experience highlighted for me the importance of doing theater in prisons. Because there’s not enough of it, because it takes a lot of work, and because everyone deserves it equally.

Thanks for reading,

Elena

Guest blogger Laurel Cerier on doing a workshop at a Brazilian hospital

25 Aug
Laurel on Corvocado Mountain

Laurel at the Botanical Garden

Hello readers! I´m Laurel, a rising senior at the University of Michigan dual majoring in International Studies and Psychology with a minor in Community Action and Social Justice. I joined UM´s Prison Creative Arts Program (PCAP) through Ashley´s first Theatre and Incarceration class two years ago and have since facilitated (with a partner) a theatre workshop at Women´s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Michigan´s sole women´s prison, as well as a visual arts workshop at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility. In addition, I worked on the Prison Art Show Committee for the 19th annual show exhibiting donated art and items for sale by prisoners from the majority of Michigan´s prisons. This fall, I plan to join PCAP´s Literary Review Committee, which compiles selected writing pieces from Michigan prisoners each year into its Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

When people asked me why I had decided to go to Brazil to work in prisons, as if this was some insane longing for extra thrill in my life, I always had a hard time answering. It is difficult to articulate my understanding that coming here would undoubtedly teach me more about what it means to be human. After my previous experiences working in Michigan prisons (another “crazy” notion) brought me more in touch with the relationship between policy and people, it is clear to me that a person can read and learn all they want to in a classroom, but until something is before them, being understood in some physical capacity, it remains in the imagination ready for the mind´s interference. As a result, when friends returned from the trip last year with newfound enlightenment and even more questions about how the world works, I could not say no to Ashley´s invitation.

Although I came to Rio most interested in attending the theatre workshops run by UniRio students in local Brazilian prisons, the program led by Miguel, a retiring UniRio professor, at a local hospital ultimately became my favorite. It is not a workshop, per se, as the students did not interact regularly with the same group of people throughout their hours at the hospital on any given day, but this in no way diminishes the work they do there. When I arrived at the facilitators´ office with a few of my UM companions, we were each handed a brightly colored apron and given a brief explanation of what we were about to partake in: fun! Moments later, we lined up behind the bubbly facilitators and were off!

Laurel & Joe feijoada

Joe & Laurel get ready to eat their first feijoada–the Brazilian national dish

The group sang a samba song while playing guitars and a tambourine as we all danced our way through the gray halls of the hospital up to a sunlit lobby, out to the front of the building, and right up to a woman leaving the hospital. The singing continued until one of the UniRio students asked her if she would like a happiness checkup, to which she agreed with a mile-long smile across her face. He put his ear near her chest, listening to her “samba heartbeat,” created by the deep ka-thunk of the his classmate´s tambourine. It seems that her happiness was in full health! He then opened up an emergency aid kit box filled with small slips of paper, pulled one out, and read to her what I believe was some sort of sweet proverb about love and happiness. The woman was absolutely delighted, leaving in joyful laughter.

We continued these checkups periodically with patients, family members, and various hospital staff members alike as we rhythmically wandered our way through the hospital until we reached a pediatric waiting room. After asking a few small children their names, each troubadour pulled simple props our of their apron pockets and commenced their silly skit about a frog, played by the sole male member of the group, who must overcome his fear of jumping high into the sky in order to go to a party he so longingly wants to attend. Although I couldn´t understand a word of the Portuguese, the students moved so fluidly, making such dramatic expressions and absurd sounds, that no one could miss the amazingly executed humor.

Laurel Jardim Botanico

Next, we worked our way to the chemotherapy ward, turning a room that previously had a dull and sterile atmosphere into a small, soft parade! While these adult patients were visibly exhausted and uncomfortable, many lit up at our entrance, and it was here that us foreigners were finally able to articulately join in on the singing with “Stand by Me.” While we sang, one woman´s grown daughter snuck into the room to video our short performance and her mother´s response of pure gratitude and delight. Although this particular patient expressed more enthusiasm than the others, her reaction will forever change the meaning of this song in my life. After that, each patient in that room and the next was offered a happiness checkup and a slip of paper, and then we continued on once more.

All throughout our trips in the hallways, I was overwhelmed by the bodies we had to work through as waiting patients and their family members continued to accumulate in surprising numbers. Ashley explained to me that because Brazil has a socialized healthcare system, with very few privatized facilities, the hospitals are constantly overwhelmed, and patients often suffer for months or years before receiving non-priority treatments, such as elective surgeries like knee-replacements. As I gazed at the mild chaos around me, I couldn`t help notice that in many ways, these jammed narrow spaces resemble a packed United States emergency room, making me wonder how much worse the crowds must be in Brazilian hospitals. Even so, the UniRio students continued their singing and games, forcing out grins and giggles from the people around them. We continued dancing and singing from ward to ward, and by the end of the workshop, I found myself ready to collapse into bed. Amazingly enough, the UniRio students didn´t seem at all exhausted, and when we finally made our way back to their office, they seemed reluctant to lock everything up in the cabinet. It is rare to find so much energy, compassion, and humor in five different people all at once, and in a place so filled with sadness and pain, I felt truly privileged to see and partake in even the momentary goofiness and delight that they brought so many individuals.

Guest blogger on visiting a Brazilian prison

24 Aug

This student guest blogger wishes to remain anonymous.

The first thing I notice about Gabriel is his sharp hair cut, brilliant smile and the soccer ball in his hands, shuffling from one to the other. He’s full of charm and he knows it. Roughly a dozen men, all of them of various ages wear a white T-shirt, blue pants and white Havainas, and they move about on the stage inside this hollowed out church talking with the workshop facilitators. On the wall behind them is a large mural of a bible verse from Psalms. Gabriel asks me where I’m from and I spend 10 minutes trying to explain Detroit through the default references of “Ford,” “Motown,” and “Eminem.” Everyone knows Eminem. After a while he has an idea of where I’m talking about and asks if it’s near Chicago. I tell him it is and he asks, “You know Chicago Bulls?”

“Yeah,” I respond. “Derek Rose.”

“Michael Jordan,” he says now using the ball to mime Michael’s iconic pose.

I keep trying to tell him about Detroit, even though I’m from Pontiac. Gabriel is the first Brazilian I’ve met who knows anything at all about American sports. He’s a fan of Lebron James and knows how the game of football works, which is a big surprise. I tell my team is the Detroit Lions, and we make loud growling sounds. When I ask him where he is from, he drops the soccer ball, points to the ground beneath his feet and says, “I’m from Rio de Janeiro.”

Street scene in Rio

Street scene in Rio

I’ve just recently graduated from the University of Michigan, and for the past two years I’ve been involved with the Prison Creative Arts Project, an organization founded on the basis of building a better community by creating art and theater with incarcerated adults and juveniles. I first found out about this program when I enrolled in Professor Ashley Lucas’ Theatre and Incarceration class the start of my Junior Year, and after my first workshop, a theatre production with Incarcerated young men at Maurice Spear Campus in Adrian, Michigan, I wanted to do more. I took another class in PCAP with Professor Lucas and Shaka Senghor called the Atonement Project, and from that class I learned about the exchange with the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro when professors Marina, Viviane, and Natália came to visit Michigan and see the work we do in the winter of 2014.

This is my second trip to Brazil. Last year’s encounter with this work at the University and with the Center for the Theater of the Oppressed as well as the community work in Maré inspired my return. Since I’ve been in Brazil, the only landmark I have visited more than once is Pedro do Sal, the Birthplace of Samba. In the early 1900’s many gatherings of minority communities were repressed and criminalized in Brazil. People would gather in residential places to express their religion, their dance, their history and culture. Pedro do Sal is one of these places, and I like to think that our work within prisons and marginalized communities is like a revival of this tradition of building community by creating art.

Outside, in the churchyard, Professor Natália explains to us that the prison isn’t segregated by crime but by faction. So every man within the walls of the prison is part of the same gang. It helps us understand the need to control violence and also the ease at which the men in the workshop work together, not to mention the prohibition on wearing colors affiliated with gangs. I don’t want the guards to think I’m affiliated with their gang, and I most certainly don’t want the men in prison to think I’m affiliated with their rivals.

As the men in the workshop perform their production on stage, I think about Gabriel and the American influences that he’s encountered. I think about the hip-hop and rap music they must have been exposed to (One of the sketches in their play is a rap), and I wonder if they know about the Bloods and Crips tennis shoes sponsored by Kendrick Lamar to promote unity, to promote community.  Off the top of my head I can’t remember what Michael Jordan’s shoes promoted. With my time in Rio coming to an end, I still ponder the meaning of liberty, freedom, and history in connection to art and theater. On the bus ride home one of the facilitators still sings one of the songs from the performance and asks me how to say these words in English.  My Portuguese not being very good I tell her, roughly, that “Art is my reason” is all I can come up with.

Guest blogger Joe Ambrose on theatre with incarcerated mothers and babies in Rio

21 Aug
Joe at the Top of the Cristo

Joe at the Top of the Cristo

Ola! I’m Joe, and I am a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Public Policy with a minor in Intergroup Relations. I have been involved with PCAP since enrolling in Dr. Lucas’s Theatre and Incarceration course last January. Through this course, I co-facilitated a theatre and improv workshop at Cooper Street Correctional Facility in Jackson, MI. I will also have the privilege of taking Dr. Lucas and Shaka Senghor´s course, The Atonement Project, this fall, which will allow me to facilitate another wonderful workshop!

While I have traveled outside of the United States before, this abroad trip to Rio de Janeiro is my first immersive experience in another country. I started the application just hours after a friend told me about her experiences with PCAP and said she would be going to Brazil to do theatre for social change in collaboration with other university students. Surprisingly, my friends and family did not share the same excitement when I told them that I would be participating in creative arts workshops in Brazilian prisons, as well as hospitals and favelas. I have learned a lot about the stigmas and stereotypes placed on prisons and the people in which they attempt to hide from the rest of society, but I had never considered that these stereotypes are amplified when referring to foreign prisons in particular. I don’t know if this is a result of the media, or T.V. shows like “Locked Up Abroad,” but what I do know is that I have never felt more free and able to openly engage in theatre than when in these Brazilian facilities. My experiences inside of U.S. correctional facilities have involved strict policies and guards that will go to extreme lengths to make sure that the guys in my workshop aren’t “having too much fun.” Although I recognize that there is not a single prison in the world that is perfect, I have had the great honor in participating in some great programs here in Rio.

Last Tuesday, I was able to visit a facility called Materno Infantil. Materno Infantil serves as a temporary place for incarcerated mothers to continue their sentences alongside their newborns until their babies are six months at most. Having heard about past students’ experiences visiting this facility and the abundance of baby holding, I was overly excited to visit these heart-warming people. While Materno Infantil still felt like a prison (barbed wire, locked gates, armed guards, etc.), I have never seen a brighter and more beautiful landscape within the walls of a correctional facility. The staff, which was composed of almost all women, was dressed casually; there were colorful gardens, not to mention the dozens of strollers with the cutest babies scattered all over. It wasn’t more than five minutes after we entered, before I had a one-month old named Jennifer, fast asleep in my arms. As an uncle myself, it’s needless to say that I was in my happy place. Despite the language barrier, I could sense the immense amount of joy in this workshop through the wide smiles and rich laughter of the women. After singing and dancing around a circle of seven strollers, a few of my classmates, and I participated in some familiar improv games with the mothers. I had the chance to lead one call-and-response dance activity that I have previously done in other workshops. Although the women had a hard time learning the English version (as I do with games in Portuguese), we still had a ton of fun, and the women busted out some great moves nonetheless. I’ve come to learn how important theatre is because it serves as a single language and allows people to understand and relate to each other on a common ground.

The Man Himself

The Man Himself

After two hours of games and our stomachs hurt from laughing, the workshop started to come to a close. I was able to have a verbal conversation with three of the women, thanks to our translator and friend João, who is a student at UniRio and co-facilitates this workshop. The women asked us some questions about the U.S. correctional system, including curiosity about capital punishment. But then one of the women asked us a question that I will never forget. “They want to know if you are scared of them because they are in jail,”João translated to us. I had completely forgotten that we were interacting with women who would soon most likely be separated from their children and who transferred back to another prison. Our workshop was filled with so much laughter and joy that, for a brief period of time, I had forgotten that we were in prison. I can only hope that these women felt the same way. This woman’s question proves that too many people are socialized to be afraid of people inside of prisons and that we isolate them from the rest of society rather than addressing the larger problem at hand. I will be forever grateful for the experiences I’ve had in Rio, and I look forward to continuing this not only important but necessary work in the United States.

Tchau for now,

Joe Ambrose

Joe's beach acrobatics

Joe’s beach acrobatics

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