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My father served twenty years in a Texas prison, and as a consequence, I spent the latter part of my adolescence going inside the walls to visit him and channeling much of my creative energy into community theatre. My habits of visiting prisons and making theatre stuck, and eventually I became a theatre scholar, college professor, actor, playwright, and director of a large prison arts program called the Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan. Between 2013 and 2019, I traveled to ten different countries to see as much theatre in prisons as I could so that I could write a book about why incarcerated people make theatre. This essay describes one encounter my collaborators and I had with incarcerated women who performed their way to a more hopeful future.
A group of women I met in a prison in Brazil used the theatre to insist that they would survive in spite of all that they suffered. On July 9, 2013 my colleague Andy Martínez, several of my University of Michigan students, and I made our first trip to a Brazilian prison with Professor Natália Fiche and her students from the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UniRio). Fiche and the Teatro na Prisaõ program have been doing theatre work in prisons since 1997, and I had come to Brazil to begin building an exchange program in which Fiche and I would bring our students to each other’s countries and prisons to share best practices.
The room in which Teatro na Prisaõ was meeting at Penetenciária Talavera Bruce (a women’s prison) 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, Fiche, and even us visitors with smiles and hugs. Those of us who had done work in US prisons were surprised to see that even with a guard in the room, male volunteers and incarcerated women 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 the workshop. We gathered from the UniRio students that this is not usually the case. Because we were from another country, the workshop was also visited by the warden. Fiche had previously received approval over email to video record that day’s workshop, and she had set up a tripod with a camera when we entered. The warden came in shortly thereafter 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. At the time of our visit, Fiche was working to try to gain permission from the authorities to allow the women to perform twice each semester: once for their families and once for the other women in the prison. They were 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 of us visitors, and they put a small partition up stage 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, which were 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 had died. Of the remaining three, two lived with her mother. In my limited Portuguese, I did not 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. She had people who loved her and hopes for a future reunited with them.
This workshop was using the story of Romeo and Juliet but not Shakespeare’s text—even in Portuguese translation. The UniRio facilitators had given the women a basic outline of the scenes, and the women improvised using Shakespeare’s characters and plot—or at least as much of it as they liked. This particular adaptation of Romeo and Juliet began on the streets of Verona where the Montagues and Capulets were 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 (a government official in Verona) appeared and stopped 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 attended the masquerade ball at the Capulet residence. Everyone appeared in sequined mardi gras masks and danced to funk carioca music—a kind of Brazilian hip hop that comes from the favelas—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 had played more classical dance music, and the women in the workshop found it boring and refused to do much dancing. With funk carioca as their inspiration, the dance party became a whole lot of fun for the cast and audience alike.
Romeo and Juliet fell in love at the dance, and when Romeo left the party, he was so overjoyed that his happiness was positively contagious. He ran to his friends to sing Juliet’s praises and then collapsed in a lovelorn heap downstage center to contemplate the many virtues of his love. Juliet’s head popped up over the partition in the back of the stage, and she began a soliloquy about Romeo’s virtues. He quickly leapt to his feet and ran to stand beneath her balcony. They had an enthusiastic exchange and ran 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 US.
At this point in the story, we encountered 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 took over for Juliet just after the marriage scene. An UniRio student named Paulo de Melo 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 saw the short-haired Juliet, she was helping Romeo to sneak into her bedroom so that they could consummate their wedding night. She darted out from behind the upstage right partition, grabbed Romeo by the arm, and drug 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 emerged from the wedding night all aglow with his love for Juliet and stumbled into the street fight that killed both Tybalt (Juliet’s cousin) and Mercutio (Romeo’s dear friend). Then Juliet distraught by this news took a sleeping potion to fake her death. Romeo found her, believed her to be dead, and then—in the first major break from the Shakespearian plot—proceeded to get falling down drunk. (The women unanimously disliked Shakespeare’s ending to the tragedy and decided to change it.) Romeo passed out, and Juliet first worried that Romeo was dead, then became very irritated at Romeo for having gotten drunk. She shook him awake and forced him to his feet where he stumbled around still drunk and trying to explain himself, yet overjoyed by Juliet’s unexpected recovery. The families reconciled. Another funk carioca dance party ensued. Curtain call.
The UniRio facilitators later explained to me that they had been introducing the play to the women in sequential order, starting from the beginning, and when they reached the point when the lovers commit suicide, the women revolted. They had no attachment to the sanctity of Shakespeare and thought he had been terribly wrong to kill off Romeo and Juliet in the bloom of their youth and love. These women live in a prison every day, and they insisted on—they needed—a happy ending. How could they, after months of rehearsal and investment in these characters, let them become little more than collateral damage in a turf war that might never end? These actors would play people who lived, survivors of the unceasing violence that surrounded them all of their lives and divided neighbors from one another. Most prisons in the world have seen more than their share of suicides, and this company of incarcerated actors had no desire to act out something they knew all too well and had likely witnessed firsthand. The Teatro na Prisão adaptation of Romeo and Juliet became a roadmap to hope for women who wake up in prison every morning and decide once more not to kill themselves.
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 with him and then exited to rejoin the circle so that the woman could have the spotlight to herself. We danced this way for quite a while, each person in the middle bringing in a new person before rejoining the group. Then we held hands again, and Fiche talked to the women about how important their weekly attendance at the workshop is. She made sure that each of them understood that the community they had formed relied on their presence in order to continue. 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 refreshments 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.
In the years since I watched Romeo and Juliet live to see another day, their joy and hopefulness have stayed with me. Unexpected happy endings in prison shine like beacons of resistance. When one cannot secure one’s own freedom from incarceration or an oppressive government, then perhaps imagining a world in which Romeo and Juliet can overcome their previously inevitable tragedies gives performers and audiences alike a sense of hope. Perhaps the kinds of devastation that we predict for women, the poor, the uneducated, the oppressed, and the imprisoned are neither logical nor inescapable. If in this one instance, incarcerated women have more authority than Shakespeare to decide the ending of the play, what else might be possible? The women imprisoned at Talavera Bruce refused to die, and instead they danced to funk carioca towards the futures they would like to have.
 Seena Fazel, Martin Grann, Boo Kling, and Keith Hawton, “Prison Suicide in 12 Countries: An Ecological Study of 861 Suicides during 2003-2007,” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 46.3 (March 2011): 191-5.
This essay is from the forthcoming book Prison Theatre and the Global Crisis of Incarceration (Bloomsbury, September 2020).
Ashley E. Lucas is Associate Professor of Theatre & Drama, the Residential College, the Penny Stamps School of Art & Design, and English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, where she also serves as the Former Director of the Prison Creative Arts Project. She and Jodie Lawston co-edited the book Razor Wire Women: Prisoners, Scholars, Artists, and Activists (2011), and they co-founded a blog by the same name. Lucas wrote the play Doin’ Time: Through the Visiting Glass, which she has performed as a one-woman show since 2004.