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THEATRE-BRAZIL: Bringing Dreams to Life in the Favela

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 6 2008 (IPS) - In La Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, Romeo and Juliet’s love story is impossible because they live on hills controlled by rival gangs of drug traffickers.

"Shakespeare no morro vivo" (Shakespeare Live on the Hill) is put on in the heights of the favelas (shantytowns) every time the author and director of this theatrical adaptation, Joana Medeiros, obtains a donation to finance at least the costs of transportation and food for the cast.

The sponsorship barely pays for the basic expenses of the actors, most of whom are from La Rocinha, but she knowingly chose one of the toughest challenges in theatre: putting on Shakespeare with next to no resources.

"Live theatre, to me, is about the everyday issues, the issues of identity," said Medeiros in an interview with IPS, referring to the kind of social theatre she took her first steps in when she lived in France for 10 years, doing theatre in prisons.

"It means reconstructing a sense of belonging in poor communities, in order to reinforce self-esteem and identity," said Medeiros, who is also an actress and has worked on internationally known soap operas of the Globo television network, such as "Laços de familia" (Family Ties).

Medeiros does this through the participation of actors from the community itself. Juliet is played by Nicole Feliciun, who told IPS that "Everything Shakespeare wrote so long ago is real for me today."

"It’s very common for young people to be unable to maintain a relationship because they’re from different gang territories in the hills," where the favelas are located, said Feliciun, who added that her involvement in theatre has renewed her interest in studying again.

"Theatre has an important function in promoting social inclusion. It opens doors," said Renato Correia, the young man who plays Romeo and divides his time between acting and working as a waiter.

Social inclusion does not only mean recruiting actors from the favelas, who work with professional actors, which gives them training and experience, but also putting on the plays in these communities in mobile cultural tents.

Rehearsals, which usually take place in a government building, were being held in the open air in the favela when IPS visited.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, an audience of men, women, children, elderly people, workers on their day off, unemployed people and students watched from the bars and narrow streets of the community as Othello and Desdemona quarrelled.

An old man laughed out loud at the shouts of the jealous Othello, who in the favela version is a black man who faces the prejudice of his white wife’s family.

A woman took fright and instinctively covered her face. The children, eating "picolé" (icecream lollies), watched a scene that is all too familiar to many of them.

A woman selling "churrasquinho" (a popular Brazilian version of brochettes) offered one to Analu Oliveira, the actress playing Ophelia, in Hamlet, to help her recover when her inert body was carried off by other actors from the improvised stage.

"The play must go to where the people are," said Josué Romao, playing Iago.

"I’m not as jealous as Othello, but plenty of people around here are. And my character is ambitious for power. People like that are found all over the world, as well as here in the community," said Romao, who in addition to acting works as a section head in a supermarket.

In contrast to what most people think, Shakespeare wrote plays that any audience can identify with, Medeiros said. For example, her adaptation of Hamlet was inspired by a news item about the discovery of a clandestine cemetery in Rio de Janeiro, containing hundreds of skeletons.

"People shout, take sides with the characters, go out to eat and come back again. It’s a live audience, identifying itself with the reality portrayed by Shakespeare, and with the tragedy and pain that is also a part of their lives," she said, linking the story of Othello and Desdemona with the common situation of women who are beaten by jealous husbands in Brazil.

"The problems of La Rocinha are so enormous that only Shakespeare could tackle them," she mused. Luiza Fontoura, an actress and artisan in La Rocinha who played Emilia in Othello, said about her relationship with the character: "She is as humble as I am, her feelings are very similar to mine because she fights for what she wants, just as I do," she told IPS.

That fight is Medeiros’, too. She and her actors build, carry and set up the scenery, create the costumes, make themselves up and change during the play, and during the breaks they eat sandwiches made for them by the director.

Medeiros’ idea to find patrons is to propose to culture lovers that they "adopt a live theatre," that is, they donate what they can to a good cause.

According to the actress and director, "live theatre" has to be born, like a baby. "The rehearsals lasted nine months, and I remembered the births of my own children," she said.

"I give birth to my projects, I bring them into the world, I am a part of each one of the actors, I support them until they’re ready to launch out into the world and say what they came to say. I’m a midwife," she said. Her dream is to extend her project to many communities like La Rocinha, so that it will be reborn in any community where it is needed.

And, as any mother would, she asked us not to forget to mention any of the sons and daughters in her artistic family who also participated in the Shakespearean trilogy: Bruno Zukoff and Lucas Valentim in Hamlet, Marco Amaral as Claudius, Jardiel Gomes as Othello and Bruna Barros as Desdemona.

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