Saturday, May 21, 2016

QUEEN JESUS is about to open in Brazil...

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN opens in Belo Horizonte tomorrow. Saturday.

I write this tonight, Friday, just before the beginning of the final run through.

As I leave the rehearsal to put the bread in the oven I can hear the shouts of the anti government demonstration in the near by city square. "Temer fora!" they're shouting. And behind the cries of Temer out! Temer Out! I can hear the drumming of the samba.

One of Dilma Rousseff's last actions before she was ousted as president and replaced in a constitutional coup by the right was to sign a decree allowing trans public service employees the right  to carry their real names on their work identification documents. The right to put their own name on their lanyard.

This gave some of us the very limited right to our own identity in our place of work.

But I read in the paper today that a determined group of Congress members are working to reverse the decree.

The spiteful contemptible vindictiveness of their actions enrages me.

Particularly because it is being carried out in the name of Christ.

I have a press interview in the afternoon, while I'm kneading the bread, and I use it to express my outrage.

It is beyond extraordinary to be here in Brazil, now, with our play in which a trans Jesus blesses everyone: no matter what their colour or gender or sexual orientation.

Astonishing to be able to stand up on stage and remind everyone that Jesus did not at any time condemn us.

That he never condemned us for being gay or being trans and urged us never to judge  each other.

But instead to love each other and treat each other as we would like to be treated ourselves.

There is nothing controversial in my play, I tell the interviewer. It just says what it says in the Bible.

And I'm proud to be saying it. Proud of the interest the play has generated. I have been (respectfully) interviewed by every major newspaper in Brasil. And today I see myself on the front cover of the cultural section of O Globo, which is perhaps the biggest Brazilian newspaper of them all.

Proud that all our shows sold out almost immediately tickets were put on sale and that we are putting on two more.

Proud of the amazing smell of freshly baked bread coming out of the oven.

Police helicopters are circling over head as I open the over door, take out the bread, and take it down to rehearsal.

Tomorrow it will feed its first audience.....

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The fragile seeds of hope in a dark time.

The last time I met Brenda she looked proud but frail. She had been denied her right to education, her family had thrown her out onto the street, she’d had to leave her home in the north of Brazil and travel to Sao Paulo, she’d been heavily involved in prostitution and drugs. 

She was the most astonishingly courageous survivor of the profoundest abuse. And through it all had become empowered by a scheme run by a Sao Paulo drama school to find work as a receptionist.

On Wednesday I went back to the drama school on Roosevelt Square and there she was and it was such a joy to see her.

Overflowing with health and energy and vigour, feet strongly planted on the ground, radiant in her whole presence.
The day before we had met Ariel in the office of Transcidania (trans citizenship) a scheme run by the city of Sao Paulo, open to trans women to offer them the opportunity to attend high school and prepare themselves for regular employment. And which pays them the minimum wage while they do so.

Drop out rates on the course are minimal; schools the young trans women attend show a marked reduction in violent behaviour, and it’s obvious they are transforming not just their own lives but the atmosphere in the institutions they attend.

And Ariel was about to begin post-graduate study in anthropology. She was going to research and understand the origins of the hostility we trans women face.

On Thursday a participant in my writing course told the group, in a very matter of fact way, “my sister is trans”. And he told the story of how when she came out she was faced with the choice between working in the beauty business or working as a prostitute. 

She had chosen to train as a hairdresser; but in her heart had always wanted to become a vet.

And that now, approaching 40, she had decided to go back to university to make her dream come true.

They are so beautiful, these little fragile signs of hope.

They are under such threat.

Riot police in full military gear had blocked our entering the building that night. We had been forced to enter through the basement garage at the back. An entrance also blocked by heavy steel doors; and we had had to explain who we were to the guards before they let us in.

The building housing the workshop was managed by a politician in favour of the president’s impeachment, and that night it was the target of the demonstrator’s fury.

For that was the night Dilma Rousseff had been forced to step down as president. That was the night her multi racial and gender balanced government had been replaced by one consisting entirely of white heterosexual men.

That was the night that government, which is unelected and represents nobody but the wealthy elite, abolished the ministry of culture.

Together with the ministries for women, for racial equality, and for human rights.

Democracy has just been abolished in Brazil. It happened openly. But bit by bit it is covertly being destroyed in so many other countries of the world.

Including the UK.

A tiny group of the obscenely rich are doing everything in their power to hold on to their stolen property and accumulate still more wealth if they possibly can.

And in doing so destroy all hope for justice and a better world.

I barely speak the language here and I barely understand a fraction of what is going on. But I know the struggle the people are living through here is an incredibly powerful and important part of the struggle for the soul and future of the whole world.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A day in the City Of God

I’m on the roof of my hotel just beside Copacabana beach and I cannot begin to describe the beauty of what I see.

The curve of the bay, the gold of the sands, the intense green of the forest clinging to the slopes of the hills. The gentle warmth of the dawn of an early autumn day…

There’s such a contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the ugliness of the human constructions all around. The apartment blocks that look shabby and faded, the slums in the distance clinging precariously to the slopes of the hills. The massive road tunnel just beside us through which the traffic roars day and night.

And I try to make sense of the previous day’s journey 

A journey through the darkness of tunnels and the blinding light of day. The journey that began in the wealth of the hotel hobby, took its way past the football stadium and the sambadrome, these amazing monuments to popular creativity, briefly into the massive slum of Rocinha, and then immediately afterwards past the wealth of the golf club and the jockey club and the beach side and lagoon side apartments. Past the biggest shopping centre in Latin America and the Olympic Village, which both seem like grotesque misappropriations of public resources in the context of the traffic clogged highway and the potholes of the side roads.

It feels like a journey through the vilest extremes of extremes of wealth and poverty, a journey that encapsulates the grotesque injustices of our world, the misuse of its resources, its ecological damages and utter unsustainability.

And then eventually we reach the City of God.

This community that began with such good intentions, such hope, to rescue victims of a catastrophic landslide and flood, and which then so quickly became a symbol of drug dealing, squalor and brutal violence.

That became so notorious in the novel, and even more notorious in the film. 

But none of this is at all in evidence in the community centre where we are taken. Where there is such a good feeling of relaxation and well being. Of people coming together to eat together, and talk, and gossip and simply take pleasure in being together.

I meet my translator, who is fielding a phone call from his mother-in-law who is anxious at his being in such an infamous and violent district, and all around me is visible evidence of a community doing all it can to reinvent itself. To explore its own history, create its own art, and overcome the legacy of a time of capitalism at its most brutal and shocking in its lawless injustice.

Meantime a samba group begins drumming. A group of all ages, young and old, and I can’t take my eyes off a beautiful old lady drumming, drumming with all her strength, drumming with the profoundest intensity of joyful concentration. And behind her, keeping perfect time, a dignified and beautiful old gentleman in his moustache.

And we’re all eating feijoada, and I so wish I could describe it better, and a rapper begins his performance with a luminous presence and virtuosity. And then group of poets take the stage, and among them a fierce a beautiful young woman who is passionately telling us that in this world which men have always dominated it is time women’s stories were told.

And then it’s my turn, and everyone goes inside, and the room is full to bursting, and it’s my turn. My turn to speak. And I don’t quite understand why there should be such an interest in me, it all moves me so profoundly, but here I am, and this is maybe something of what I say:

“I’m so moved you have invited me here to tell something of my story, my story as a trans woman and a writer.

It’s true my story matters, and so does yours. I feel I am in a room full of stories. Stories of inviduals, stories of a community struggling against injustice to create a fully human life.

We all have a story to tell. A story made up of the genetic inheritance from our parents and grandparents, from what happened to us when were children and what happened to us as we grew up and what happens to us now as we struggle to live in this unjust and suffering world.

We are the only ones who can tell our story, us and no-one else, and we have a duty to tell it because the world needs to hear it.

And perhaps like me we tell it through words, but there are so many other ways that matter as much. That we tell it through samba, tell it through the drums or through our dancing. Tell it through song or cooking feijoada or cleaning the floor. Through the way we bring up our children and how we look and smile at one another.

It has been hard for me, as a trans woman, to learn to tell my story because it felt as if the whole weight and power of the world was against me, the world was trying to prevent me telling it with all its force and strength. Prevent me through imbuing me with the profoundest fear and shame.

And so I am proud to be able to stand here before you.

And now as I get older I begin to understand that this is not just my struggle but a struggle that all of us must face. Because all of us have been denied access to our true selves.

All of us have been denied access to our stories and the power of our voice and it matters that we find it because that is the way we will change the world.”

And then I performed some of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN, the blessing and the story that ends with the words:

“We all have a light inside us and sometimes it’s the very thing we’ve been taught to be most ashamed of.

And if you have a light, do you hide it in a closet?

No. You bring it out into the open where everyone can see it and be glad it exists to shine in the world.”

And I have to say I have never had so attentive or respectful an audience.

Renata Carvalho was there, the beautiful trans actress who will play Queen Jesus in the Brazilian production of the play. And she spoke with passion and eloquence of the misunderstandings we face, and I heard her identify me as a “mulher lesbica”, a Lesbian woman, and that made me feel proud.

And then there were more speeches, and a raffle where the prizes were books. Because, among so much else, this event was about a community reinventing itself through writing.

And then there bread rolls and coffee and cakes and I did an interview, and everyone seemed to want to have their photo taken with me, and embrace after embrace after embrace, and then the bus back to the hotel and me so tired I could not even begin to speak. And Renata holding my hand with such gentle kind tenderness.

And then we were back in the hotel lobby whose wealth seemed even more than usually obscene.

Later that night we went out for a mediocre and overpriced meal. We were just by the beach, just by Copacabana beach, and we wanted to walk on it.

But Renata said no, it was too dangerous. Renata the survivor, Renata the warrior… and we looked around and suddenly saw that the entrance to all the apartment buildings was guarded by thick metal bars.

Bars excluding the poor, and bars imprisoning the apartments’ inhabitants.

And the pavement was ugly and cracked and grey and covered with plastic bags and rubbish and there was a woman hoarsely and furiously screaming abuse at a man who walked past us trying to keep his face closed to it.

And we walked on, like everyone else trying to pretend we were seeing nothing and hearing nothing.

And then the police appeared with their guns and their clubs.

And we walked on.

And now as I think of all this the sun is just rising. And high on the hill above us stands Christ the Redeemer with his arms outstretched. Helpless in the face of such injustice. Helpless in his failure.

But in the end we cannot blame Him because it is us. Us struggling to create a better world; but us everywhere who have made hell out of paradise.

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