My student Hannah Agnew and I left the hotel at 5 a.m. with Prof. Vicente and his student Caroline. A driver named Vaudimar from UDESC took us in a university van to a city three hours from Florianópolis to visit another prison. In the city of Joinville (the odd name comes from the German colonists who arrived there a long time ago), the women’s prison is next door to a men’s facility. The incarcerated women and men never mix with one another, but the building where they hold educational programs sits between the two prisons and is used by the men on three days of the week and by the women on others. We learned that groups of men receive literacy classes three days a week, but there are no classes offered to women who want to learn to read.
We were there to visit two theatre workshops for the women, taught by Prof. Dayani who teaches on the theatre faculty with Vicente at UDESC and another woman named Samyra. I’m not sure where Samyra lives, but Prof. Dayani drives the three hours from Floripa (as the locals call Florianópolis) to Joinville once a week to do these workshops. She has family in Joinville and spends the weekends with them before returning to Floripa to teach at UDESC during the week. In my research on prison theatre in ten different countries around the world, I’ve encountered quite a few very dedicated souls like Dayani who travel extraordinary distances with great frequency to get to teach in prisons. When PCAP first got started in 1990, our organization’s founder Prof. Buzz Alexander was driving two hours each way with his students from Ann Arbor to Coldwater, Michigan, to begin the Sisters Within theatre workshop with the women at Florence Crane Correctional. When people realize how meaningful this work can be, many are inspired to endure significant inconveniences and even extraordinary hardships to provide regular arts programming in prisons.
Dayani and Samyra give two theatre workshops each Friday to two distinct groups of women. Some of the women in this facility are awaiting trial, and others have been convicted and are serving their sentences. The prisons in Brazil for both men and women are also divided to keep members of rival gangs apart from one another. I’m not sure of exactly which set of logic keeps the women in the two theatre groups separated from one another, but they are not allowed to have any interaction between the groups.
The most devastating barrier for us in the prison was a literal wall with iron bars separating the women in the workshops from those of us who are volunteering in the prison. This means that both we and the women were in what felt like adjoining cages. Our side was particularly small and had seven people in it: the two regular instructors, the four of us who drove from Floripa this morning, and a photographer who was documenting our visit to the prison. This workshop is partially supported by a government grant which requires that the workshops be photographed. At the end of the semester of weekly workshops, ten images taken from the sessions that the photographer Jessica visited will be displayed in a local art exhibition. Jessica took a group shot of the women in the afternoon workshop and showed it to them on the screen on her digital camera. The women gasped and exclaimed and begged for copies of the photo. Dayani is asking the prison authorities if she can give them each a hard copy of the photo. The women were so eager to see themselves because they are not allowed mirrors in prison, which means that some folks in Brazilian prisons might go years without knowing what their own faces look like. We had heard about this in a talk that we heard a professor give at UDESC a few days ago, but as much as that fact has haunted me since I heard it, it was another thing entirely to see a group of nine women squeezing together around the tiny screen on the back of a camera, which was held out to them through the iron bars. What are we doing to people when we take away their ability to see themselves? What does that do to a person’s sense of her place in the world?
As soon as I saw the incredibly small and awkward space in which we’d be doing these workshops, I wondered how Dayani and Samyra and the women manage this each week. We are very challenged in our theatre work in Michigan prisons by the fact that we are not allowed to touch people other than to offer handshakes at the start and end of workshops. Here, oddly enough, we are allowed to touch incarcerated people with almost no restrictions, yet in this prison we had to do so by holding our arms through the bars, which is precisely what we did.
All theatre workshops are conducted with the participants standing in a circle, and this one was no exception. We just held hands through the bars to make the circle and reached through whenever we needed to. We did our best to pretend the awful wall was not there, and as in all of our workshops, we had a beautiful experience. The facilitators were very creative about continuing their work through the bars. We did an exercise at the start of each of the two workshops in which all of us were paired up to do some stretches that involved pulling on one another’s arms, massaging each other’s shoulders, and holding hands and leaning backwards to stretch our backs.
Dayani and Samyra asked me and Hannah to teach a few games that we use in U.S. prisons, and I was so proud of Hannah. She is a sociology major, but you’d never know she not an actor when you watch her in a theatre workshop. She gives her whole body and voice to each movement and game, and the women thought she was utterly delightful, which she is. We taught the women to play Whoosh! and also a game called Gibberish Rap and a dancing game called the Funky Chicken, which is a PCAP staple because people of all ages have fun with it in any setting or language. The women were hilarious dancing, and we had a wonderful time together.
At the end of the workshop we did a brief check out where each of us in the circle said one word about how we were feeling. The women all chose positive words, including satisfied, happy, light, and thankful, which are all things that can be hard to feel while standing in a cage that passes for a classroom inside a prison. They also talked a little about their frustrations with the current government and prison system in Brazil. One was half joking when she said they should take to the streets to protest, and another said something to the effect of, “Yeah, like we could do that.” Vicente jumped in and told them that their theatre can be a form of protest that could reach the outside world. He explained that the women in his theatre workshop in the prison in Floripa have gotten permission in the past to do a performance for an audience outside of the prison and that the men at the prison next door in Joinville have a rock band that is allowed to travel out of their prison regularly to perform for different government events. Vicente encouraged the women to get serious about their theatre work and create something that represents what they want people in the outside world to know about them.
When it was time to leave, we shook each woman’s hands through the bars and thanked her. We had to leave before a guard would come along to remove the padlock on the bars that kept the women in their side of the classroom.
Hannah, Vicente, Caroline, and I will carry those women in our hearts, as we do the faces and voices of the Sisters Within Theatre Troupe with which Hannah and Liv (who are both on this trip) work each week in Michigan. Tonight I ask you to remember the women in this prison in Joinville: Chris, Bruna, Sandra, and many others—those with whom we did theatre and the rest of the 65 women in the facility whom we did not meet. I promised them that I would tell you about them.