We had a really full day.
This morning we went to the Hospital Gafre Guinle to meet up with two of our favorite projects: Teatro Renascer (the group that works with the elders) and Enfermaria do Riso (the clowns who entertain folks at the hospital—not to be confused with O Hospital Como Universo Cenico, which we also call the Singing Hospital workshop). Usually we have clowning class at the university once on this trip and visit our friends at Teatro Renascer twice. This year the clowning workshop and Teatro Renascer joined forces, and we and the lovely folks at Teatro Renascer got to experience a clown performance and a clowning workshop together at the hospital.
Enfermaria do Riso, which literally translates to the Nursing of Laughter, is an extension project of the theatre department at UniRio. Prof. Ana Achar started this program twenty years ago, and her students go in pairs to the hospital on Mondays and Wednesdays to interact as clowns with the children, families, patients, doctors, administrators, and cleaning folks at the hospital. Clowning is a very ancient and serious art form, and it’s one of the most difficult theatre skills to learn or to do well. We got to follow two clowns, played by UniRio students, moving through the hospitals narrow hallways, which serve as rather uncomfortable waiting rooms for the patients. The clowns sang songs, interacted with folks, and brought huge smiles to the faces of those around them. After they did their work in the hospital, we followed them into the space that Teatro Renascer uses for their theatre workshops, and Ana and her students led our Michigan group and the Teatro Renascer folks in a clowning workshop. They both taught us games and explained the philosophy behind clowning. It was a fascinating and rich adventure, made all the more special by the fact that we got to share it with our beloved friends at Teatro Renascer—who unsurprisingly turned out to be wonderful clowns.
We took the Metro from the hospital to the university and participated in Prof. Natalia Fiche’s Voice and Pedagogy class, which was the most physical voice class I’ve ever attended. Natalia got us to use our whole bodies to help produce a variety of sounds and to connect with one another in the class.
When that ended we attended a second performance by the theatre group of men from the open prison. This production was directed by Prof. Viviane Narvaes, who also works with Teatro na Prisão. Sodré, the playwright who lives in the open prison, had done an adaptation of a little-known Tennessee Williams play called Escape, which was translated into Portuguese as Fuga. The original script is for a ten-minute play, and this adaptation was about forty minutes long. The script that Williams wrote is about three men in a prison somewhere in the Southern U.S. who are talking about another man in the prison who plans to escape that night. They discuss the injustice of their lives, and watch for the other man to make a run for it. At the end of the play we hear gunshots, and the three characters witness the offstage killing of their friend as he is shot down while trying to escape. One of the three men closes the play by saying that at least their friend is finally free.
In this adaptation, two UniRio students and Sodré play the three men in prison, but they also play themselves. They jump in and out of the Williams text to comment on many different kinds of injustice in Brazil: police shootings, institutionalized racism in prisons and universities, and sexual tourism, among others. The most moving moment of the play was the final tableau. After the character with the last line says that their compatriot died free, all of the lights go out, and I thought the play had ended. Instead of a quick return of the lights for a curtain call, we heard a lot of plastic rustling on stage. When the lights came up again, the three men were wearing plastic body bags and were arranged in a striking tableau with one man lying across a small table and the other two standing at odd angles. It was as if the imprisoned men were already dead or as if the dead had stood up to show that they were finally free. I couldn’t stop crying because the force of the loss of the people I have known who died in prison and those who I know today who are likely never to see freedom again while they live. I had never seen such a striking image to convey this kind of loss.
I felt bad for my students because a very moving and very long post-show discussion ensued, all in Portuguese without translation. In the beginning of the discussion, I was too distraught to translate myself or advocate for someone else to do the job, and then it seemed important not to interrupt what was happening. I struggle on this trip to both include my students and help them understand as much as possible and also to disrupt the beautiful work that is happening all around us as little as possible. It’s a hard balance to strike, and tonight I felt like we just needed to let these actors and this audience have the conversation they needed to have.
Sodré talked about the fact that he’s spent the last thirty years in prison and is still serving his sentence of 108 years. Profs. Viviane and Natalia have used this theatre company that Sodré now anchors as a way to help keep him out of prison more. I don’t fully understand how this works, but the professors petitioned the court to be able to use Sodré’s talents more in the theatre company, and in doing so he’s been allowed to spend weekends and holidays away from the prison without having to go back there to sleep, as he does on regular weekdays. It’s kind of like parole but more restrictive and, at least in Sodré’s case, very very long.
Much more was said in the post-show discussion that I’m too exhausted to recount, but it was a very heavy way to end the day. We ran out into the pouring rain afterwards and grabbed Ubers and taxis back to the hostel instead of waiting for the bus.