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Theatre in a Prison with Mothers and Babies: A post by Alex Bayer

17 Jun

My name is Alex Bayer, and I am entering my senior year at the University of Michigan. I am a psychology major and ultimately hope to be a therapist who works with youth. I’ve always had passion for the arts—I was a dancer for 15 years, participated in theatre throughout middle school and high school, and discovered how much I love creative writing during college. I heard about the Prison Creative Arts Project (PCAP) during my freshman year of college and was instantly intrigued by the idea of bringing different art forms (creative writing, theatre, and fine arts) into a prison, where people are constantly denied of their humanity and self expression. Although I was intrigued, I was also slightly hesitant. I was well aware of the stigma attached to incarcerated people and didn’t know enough about the prison system to justify why I wanted to involve myself in this type of work. After taking a study abroad course in Copenhagen, Denmark, called the Psychology of Criminal Behavior and visiting various rehabilitation programs, my frustration with the prison system in the U.S. escalated. By my junior year at the university, I made the incredible decision to join PCAP.

water

Alex on the dock behind a restaurant where we ate in Florianópolis.

It’s safe to say that PCAP has changed my life. Compared to all other classes I have taken at U of M, I have never been surrounded by a group of such intelligent, open-minded yet skeptical, and passionate individuals. I facilitated a workshop at a youth facility in Detroit with Adelia and Kaitlin, who are now two of my closest friends. We went to Lincoln every Sunday at 5 PM and led a group of 10 boys in various theatre games. It didn’t take long for us to fall in love with these boys, and going into that facility soon became the highlight of my week. We continued our workshop into the summer, and only stopped because we were all going to Brazil, where we would have the opportunity to visit prisons and hospitals and exchange our knowledge and excitement for the work we do with Brazilian students who engage in similar work.

We are now in our third and final week of our experience in Brazil. Today I went into a prison with two students from UniRio (a university in Rio) and four students from the PCAP program. We went into a facility with mothers and babies, made for incarcerated women who are pregnant during their sentencing and can keep their babies for the first six months of their lives. After six months, these women are forced to find someone else to take care of their baby or hand that baby over to the government.

view from the mountain

Before arriving to Rio, I had never visited a women’s prison, only the juvenile facility I worked in during the winter. Going into the women’s facility was much different than what I had experienced in the past. I never went inside this facility; we played theatre games with the women right outside of their rooms on a deck. As we walked up to this deck, we passed a church built for the women in the prison. We then approached a group of women on the deck, and they were all holding their babies or gently rocking them in their strollers. At first, I was so distracted by the cuteness of the babies. The women welcomed us and seemed happy for us to play with their kids; many of them even handed us their babies to hold for a little bit. We began the workshop with a name game, but at this point, a lot of women left. Many of them were preoccupied with other tasks, such as breastfeeding or changing diapers. After the name game, we played a couple of games that involved dancing/singing/hugging, and we got much more comfortable with one another. During these games, we had a rotating group of about 3-4 women, depending on who could participate in each moment.

Following the games, one of the women suggested having a group discussion instead of playing more games—a suggestion I would have never heard when I worked in a facility with teenage boys. The woman began by asking Asma, one of our group members, about the hijab she was wearing. The woman was curious as to why Asma wanted to cover up her hair, and explained that Brazilian women are often very comfortable with displaying their bodies in more revealing clothing. Although Asma was put on the spot a little bit, she handled the pressure really well, and the woman was thankful for her willingness to answer the questions. The woman admitted that she has never really talked to anyone from the United States and does not see many people wearing a hijab, so she wanted to educate herself. These questions sparked openness among the whole group, and a lot more women came to the deck to join the discussion and ask more questions to all of us.

In class in Floripa

Our PCAP group in class with Prof. Vicente Concilio’s theatre students in Florianópolis.

The discussion was just like it would be with any group of women I met in Brazil—our group shared experiences with these women, and they did the same in return. It felt natural, and I quickly forgot I was in a prison. At the end of the discussion, we hugged and kissed the women goodbye. It wasn’t until exiting the prison that I was reminded of where I was. Right in front of the prison, a police car was parked with a giant rifle sticking out of the window. My heart immediately sank. I knew that it was used for intimidation and that I wasn’t in any personal danger, but it reminded me of the intimidation tactics that are constantly used against the women I just talked to for the past two hours. I was reminded of the fact that these women aren’t free; the fact that these women will have to say goodbye to their babies soon; the fact that one mistake a person makes could lead to being incarcerated and put in inhumane conditions.

Thinking about these facts cause a lot of frustration, but I then remind myself of the people I am surrounded by and become hopeful again. Such strong, resilient people who also recognize the problems with the prison system surround me. Of all aspects of this trip, the people are why I am most grateful—not just the PCAP group, but everyone I have met on this journey. I am beyond grateful for the various professors and students from Brazil who not only include us in their work but also welcome us with wide arms and make us feel at home. The Brazilian students who speak English continuously translate for us during conferences and classes. All of the students we met have taken a huge interest in us, asking us questions about our lives, showing us around, and teaching us about their culture. Although I knew I would have an amazing experience with the entire PCAP group and our fearless, nurturing leader Ashley, I had no idea how much I would connect with the Brazilian students here. I am looking forward to the rest of my week in Brazil and will always carry the love I have received from all of the people here.

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The City Behind Bars: A post by Renisha Bishop

16 Jun

Why are the darker skinned people and indigenous people treated the worst in every country? Why are the rumors, stereotypes, misconceptions so standard across the board for these people? They are poor. They are dangerous. They are uneducated. They are criminals. WHY? Is it that the people in control are afraid of their potential? Their strength? Afraid that they would actually be smarter, more creative, intuitive, in fact more powerful? So powerful that they would actually be on the top and not the bottom.

It really saddens me to think about the mistreatment, discrimination, abuse that people face globally. For some reason, I only believed that racism existed in the United States but I was so wrong. My friends here in Brazil quickly dispelled this myth for me. I thought I wouldn’t have much in common with them, but we share much more in common than I ever imagined.

Renisha mural

Prior to coming to Rio de Janeiro, I was told that it was very dangerous, that I shouldn’t walk around by myself. I really feared for my life. I was paranoid for the first couple of days. I thought there would be people just waiting to rob me for the little I had. Once I got adjusted and saw more of the city, it seemed just like any other major city in the US. Rio really reminds me of Los Angeles for some reason.

I’ve been to two different prisons here in Rio; both are facilities for women, but one had a wing for women with infants. During our workshop with the mothers, I was able to hold a two-month-old for almost the entire workshop. It was a different experience, being inside of a jail with babies. Babies are a source of innocence and pure joy, but the reality of their futures is dark and unfathomable. The women are able to keep their babies for up to two years legally, but since the facility is over-crowded, they are only able to keep them until they turn six months. Then the babies go with their mother’s family or are given to foster homes. Most of the women don’t have any family to raise their children until they’re out of prison, so the babies are given to the foster homes. It’s a hard process for women to give their babies away. I felt the pain of uncertainty while being inside of the prison with them. It was such a stark contrast. The happiness and innocence of the babies but the heaviness of the women. I was glad that we were there to take their minds off of their realities for a brief moment with theater games. But it’s always sad leaving workshops knowing that once we leave it’s back to reality for them.

The other women’s prison I went to was very different than the first. As soon as we got there, it was a small room near the gate with a small opening where the sun could barely peak through. These two women came to the small hole to speak to us. I was very disturbed that two women were in that small room, and we were told to not speak to them. Once we got into the prison, the other incarcerated women warmly welcomed us affectionately with hugs and kisses. We all sat through my professor’s performance about families who had loved ones incarcerated. We were all deeply moved by the various monologues in Spanish, English, and Portuguese. I left the prisons and returned to a chic neighborhood that had bars around the houses and apartments. It’s a crazy dichotomy. Everyone is behind bars for various reasons. Who are the real criminals here?

Renisha Bishop is a recent graduate of The University of Michigan. 

UDESC Prison Arts and Education International Conference: A post by Christa Shelmon

5 Jun

Olá! My name is Christa Shelmon, and I just graduated from Michigan with a Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology (woot!). This past semester was my first semester being involved with PCAP, and I wish I hadn’t waited until the last semester of my senior year to join.

I facilitated a theater workshop every Saturday morning from 8:30-10:30 am with Brittani Chew at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV) in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Waking up that early on a Saturday was not ideal. However, we had an awesome time every week. Our experience was unique in the sense that we concluded our semester with only woman in our workshop—a PCAP first!

I was really interested in coming on this trip, especially after finding out that theater and arts programming was actually a thing in prisons, and the fact that we could do such a thing in a totally different country struck gold for me. I have been learning so much already during this first week in Florianópolis, particularly at the first annual Seminário International de Arte e Educaçao Prisional, hosted by the Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina (UDESC). This two-day conference featured guest speakers from all across Brazil who spoke about the challenging, yet rewarding work they do in prisons, as well as a concluding presentation by our very own Ashley who explained what PCAP is and what us students do in our weekly workshops. The conference was not catered to us—it was entirely in Portuguese. So, you can imagine how difficult it was for us to follow along. But, with the help of our Brazilian friends, Ashley, and Silvina (the graduate assistant for this trip), we were able to receive translations along the way in order to be present and attentive throughout the conference.

UDESC conf group pic

Michigan students pose with the panelists.

The second day of the conference particular was meaningful to me, for it highlighted many challenges and triumphs that I experienced with the workshop I was a part of this past semester. Day two of the conference consisted of various presentations on the work that was being done in prisons across Brazil. Most, if not all, of the presenters worked in women’s prisons, as I did, so I was that much more curious to listen to the type of workshops and classes they facilitate or teach. Carinie, one of the presenters, had a very interesting presentation that stood out to Brittani and me. Her first experience almost paralleled our workshop at WHV, and we immediately began making connections and comparisons. Initially, Carinie was a student who just wanted to make art and do theater, and did not think too deeply into the prison institution itself. She reflected on how she did not realize the effects of the prison institution until after two years of facilitating workshops. I found this to be relevant for me as well, and it is very hard to know how things are going to go each time you visit the prison. Some days are better than others—it’s so situational. This has been frustrating for many of us at PCAP.

Later, Carinie talked about how at times she found it hard to connect with the women, especially as a twenty-one year old college student who didn’t have as much life experience as some of the women she worked with. She also discussed how many women were experiencing depression, which obviously hindered them from participating in the workshop at their best ability, or how the prison staff failed to communicate to the women about her absence, leaving her in a tangled web of angry women and careless workers.

Finally, Carinie mentioned how the women opted out of a final performance at the end of the semester, and instead vied for sharing out their experiences with others instead of putting on a show. Listening to Carinie’s story allowed us to reflect on things we could have done differently in workshop. Brittani and I were so inspired, that we went to speak with her one-on-one during the break, just to get some feedback and let her know how similar our situations were. Carinie could understand English, but could not speak it very well, and therefore Silvina helped translate during our conversation. She was very insightful and appreciative of us going up to her and sharing out our feelings. After talking with her for a few minutes, she revealed that she, too, finished her semester with one woman in her workshop. This was heartwarming, and made that moment even more special. She left us with some really good advice of focusing on the work and not the grade—it is important to always consider the needs of our workshop group. She also reminded us that persistence is key, and although we may not be able to see the impact we had on the group, do not let that deter you. “Just one, that’s all it takes to make a difference!”

After the other five presentations, the presenters formed a panel for a question and answer discussion. The final question asked what inspired or motivated each individual to continue doing the work that they do, despite the trials and challenges they face daily. The entire panel gave beautiful answers, closing out the forum portion of the conference. It was an amazing opportunity to hear from individuals who are striving to be the change they want to see in the world, and served as motivation to never give up, despite how tough it may be to crack the system.

UDESC conf Q&A

Question and answer time after the panel.

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.

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.

Radio story about Illinois performance of Doin’ Time

4 Oct

Readers,
I sincerely apologize for not yet finding a moment to write about the incredible experiences I had performing Doin’ Time last month at Illinois State University and at Lincoln Correctional Center, but I promise to provide an update soon.  In the mean time, here is a link to a radio interview I did with the local NPR station in Bloomington just prior to my performances there.
Please note that at the end of the radio interview I stated the wrong name of the activist organization I was describing.  The organization I’m actually describing at this moment in the interview is Our Children’s Place, which is an amazing group of folks in North Carolina who provide support for the children of prisoners.  The organization I named instead is another great activist organization called All of Us or None, which serves prisoners and reentrants nationwide.  Both groups are doing vital and difficult work, and I am proud to support their efforts.

More soon. . .

Performing at Illinois State Univ. and Lincoln Correctional for Women Sept. 19 and 21

15 Sep

About a year ago, a woman named Sherrin Fitzer contacted me out of the blue, asking if she could get a copy of the script of my play Doin’ Time to share with a group of women in an Illinois prison.  Sherrin works at Lincoln Correctional Center for Women and leads a theatre troupe comprised of incarcerated women; they call their ensemble Acting Out.  Sherrin and I exchanged many emails and conjured up a plan to collaborate.  Janet Wilson, director of the School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University in Bloomington, has collaborated with Sherrin and the women of Acting Out for many years, and Janet extended an invitation to me to perform Doin’ Time on her campus.  With support from many corners of the university, including the School of Theatre and Dance, Latino Studies, Crossroad’s Project, Honor’s Program, School of Social Work and the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences, Janet and Sherrin arranged a week-long residency for me:

My time at Illinois State will be very exciting, but what will happen at Lincoln Correctional later that week is the most amazing opportunity I’ve had in eight years of touring with this play.  The women in the Acting Out troupe have read my script and written their own monologues about visitation and families.  Sherrin has been emailing me drafts of their monologues, and in this manner the women and I have been able to respond to one another’s work.  They have written some very powerful pieces, which they’ve been rehearsing with Sherrin.  Doin’ Time‘s director, the incomparable Joseph Megel, will travel to Illinois with me, and we’ll spend all day on Thursday, September 20th in rehearsals inside the prison with the women of Acting Out.  We’ll weave their eleven monologues into my play, and we’ll all perform together on the afternoon of Friday, September 21st for an audience of 150 to 200 incarcerated women.  Two more incarcerated women will run the tech cues for the show.
I have performed in a handful of prisons now in the U.S., Ireland, and Canada, and I’ve seen prisoners perform plays of their own in Michigan, North Carolina, and Louisiana.  I’ve also conducted and participated in improvisational theatre workshops in quite a few prisons, but this will be the first time that I’ve actually performed in a play with incarcerated theatre makers and the first time that anyone ever wrote or performed new material in response to my play Doin’ Time.  I have never performed Doin’ Time with other actors, and though I haven’t yet met any of the women of Acting Out, I am already deeply moved by their words and their willingness to enter into this adventure with me.
If you are going to be near Bloomington this week, please come to the show!  I’ll be posting more about my time in Illinois after my trip there.

 

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