This morning we were up early again. We took the city bus to meet the UniRio bus which then drove us for about 40 minutes to reach the favelas where our colleagues do theatre workshops every Saturday morning.

There’s really not a good translation for the word favela in English, though people usually say slum. In truth, favelas are far more complicated than this (as, in truth, are the neighborhoods we call slums in the U.S.). A favela is a neighborhood where the people living inside are not quite full citizens of the city or nation in which they live. Favelas tend to have walls around them, and many are in very remote areas. In Rio, this means that most of them are on hilltops that are difficult to reach. Most cannot be entered using a car or bus, but many are so large that you still need a motorized form of transportation to get around them, which has led to a system of motorcycle ride shares that folks here call “favela taxis.” Streets inside the favelas do not have names. Houses don’t have numbers. There is no mail delivery, no trash pick up, no city services whatsoever. Many city maps just have blank spaces where the favelas are.

The Maré favela where we went today is considered the largest in Latin America. It has a population greater than the size of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Its inhabitants have been abandoned by their government, yet they lead rich, full, and complex lives, as people all over the world do. A wonderful program called Teatro em Comunidades takes university students and faculty to Maré each Saturday for the past nine years to facilitate theatre workshops. Most of the workshops are for children and teenagers, but one of the workshops has an intergenerational population, with participants from ages 11 to 83.  

UniRio’s Teatro em Comunidades program, under the direction of the wonderful Prof. Marina Henriques, has made a lasting commitment to the people of Maré. In the six years I’ve been visiting here with our exchange program, I’ve gotten to see some of these children grow up. We were in the workshop on my birthday last year, and the children taught me to samba. It was one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever gotten.

We Michigan folks split into four different groups to go to the workshops today with the various groups of UniRio facilitators. My group and one other were at the Centro das Artes with two different groups of children, and two other groups went to two other community centers in other parts of the favela. José and Lio went with the 8 to 12 year-old group at the Centro, while Kym, Hannah, Naguissa, and Lisa were with me and a group of teenagers. We started with what they called a warm up but felt like an advanced dance class to me. This group amazes me every year with their ability to dance. We Michigan folks do our best but really can’t even pretend to keep up, especially when they start doing a form of Brazilian hip hop dance called baile funk. We went on to play a series of theatre games that included one where we broke up into groups of nine people and had to create an improv scene in a place that was assigned to us by the facilitators. My group had to create a scene in a museum, so some of the kids in our group played a work of art, while Hannah and I created a frame with our arms, and the other kids acted like they were visitors in the museum. The other groups watching us had to guess where we were.

Other groups created scenes in other locations. Kym was in a group of kids who got the word school as their location, and they decided to create a very brief scene where Kym was the teacher giving a lesson at the blackboard. As Kym was explaining something, one of the kids banged on the stage with his hand and yelled that it was a gunshot. All the children in the scene dropped to the floor and then pulled on Kym to get her to get down on the floor with them. The scene ended. Some of the children in this scene were laughing as they dropped to the floor, and as we discussed the scene after they performed it, Christian (one of the UniRio students facilitating the workshop) asked the kids to talk about why they were laughing. He was careful to say that he wasn’t asking the question to single them out or make them feel bad for laughing but said it was important for us to unpack what this meant. Then the children started talking about how ordinary it was for them to experience this in school. They laughed because it was such a familiar scenario, because it was so immediately recognizable as a thing that happens in school, because these experiences make them really nervous and anxious. Their laughter meant a lot of different things—all of them sad. These kids are experiencing school shootings not as we do in the U.S. where a lone gunman walks into a school and starts killing people; these beautiful children are caught in the crossfire of the escalating cycle of violence between the drug lords who control most of Maré and the militarized police. The university student facilitator Christian, like many of the students who lead the workshops for Teatro em Comunidades, was born and raised in this neighborhood and lives there still. 

Prof. Marina talked about how the theatre gives us all a way to present these realities to a larger public and invite more people to have the conversation we were having.

One of the tiniest girls in the room, who could not be more than twelve, was seated next to me during this conversation and kept leaning into me so that I would put my arm around her. I am so disgusted with the world that we live in, that children in two countries in different hemispheres know how to hide from shooters while at school. What has become of us?  What will become of these remarkable young people?

After this sobering conversation, we jumped right back into the serious work of playing with one another, and after a while, the group of smaller children, with whom José and Lio had been working, joined our group for a very funny final game in a giant circle. Then we all took pictures together and hugged. We will return to these same groups next week, and I feel so blessed to know that I will see these beautiful young folks again so soon.

Boa noite!