Saturday, December 03, 2016

Singing with just one voice

We met in the library.

Me and Elizabeth Miguel, who used to be a ballet dancer, and who still shows flashes of her former artistry in the way she stands and sits.

Me and Marcelino Oliveira, a man of immense dignity and charm who gave me a beautiful pendant he had made. 

Me and Ana Rosa, whose misfortunes were so overpowering she could not speak. But whose blank, closed in face would sometimes break into the most dazzling smiles.

Me and Adressa Sampaio, a beautiful young trans woman who looked out with defiant and wary eyes at the dangerous world she inhabits.

Me and Valéria Viera Coelho, who always insisted on helping me up the steps to the stage.

Me and José Martin who dressed like a Robin Hood bandit from the arid northeast in his magnificent cangaceiro hat.

Me and Ivan Marik who came from the United States and had fallen on intolerably hard times.

Me and Palmira Vasconcelos Xavier, who always look a bit angry, and whose alcoholism meant it was very hard for her to stop shaking, but who insisted, absolutely, on being in a photo with me, smiling broadly the way she did throughout the whole day we were performing together.

And Vera Lúcia da Silva, who prefers to be called Lúcia, a tiny white hair old lady with such elegance in her demeanour.

And Suzete, with the figure and joyful smile of an impossibly fragile child.

And Anderson, who could not read or write and who in his illness and deep suffering seemed to have lost all his other names. A big, shambling man who when he sang lit up like a beacon.

And who, when I said "The first shall be last and the last, first" knew exactly what I meant.

And so many more besides.

Not forgetting Rico Branco, the beautiful, compassionate and charismatic choir leader who somehow managed to induce all these fragile people into one voice with so beautiful a song.

And I say the names because the names matter. The names of these remarkable individuals so profoundly hurt by so callous a society who still somehow, are able to raise their voices in song.

I don't know enough about how they survive in the homeless shelter and in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. I know that when they sing they touch the wellsprings of my heart.

And I am so proud of the event we created together.

The beautiful library in which they rehearse is threatened with closure, and so is the meagre safety net which sustains them. Capitalism here in Brazil and elsewhere is at its most cruel and inhumane.


“Bless you who persecute us, too”, Queen Jesus said, “because hatred is the only thing they have.

And it doesn’t amount to much. And they will lose it in the end.

Because no matter what they say or what they do they cannot stop the change that is coming.

And one day we will all be free”.

“Freedom”, the choir sing, in spite of everything, “Freedom” with open hearts….

And freedom becomes a palpable presence with all of us here in the City Of God.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Empathy Machine

Last week I experienced an empathy machine. The Machine To Be Another uses virtual reality techniques to enable you to begin to see the world through another person's eyes.

At FLUPP, the literary festival that was this year in the City Of God, we were invited to experience the world through the eyes of the parents of young black men who had been murdered by the police.

When I put on the head set listening to a mother's voice in my head; and when I looked down I saw her legs instead of mine. Her hands instead of mine.

So when she held the photograph of her dead son, i held it too.

He was such a gifted child, I heard myself saying, he loved life and he loved his family.

Ho loved football.

And I hand back the photograph to the young woman who is in the room with me and, as she hands me a football, a performer in the 'real' room with me hands me a football and I find myself holding it.

Football was his passion, football was his life. And i find myself in another room in front of a display cabinet of all the trophies he had won.

And for his birthday he loved chocolate cake.

And now I'm holding a piece of the cake, and I'm eating it, and it feels sticky and it tastes sweet.

And if I understand her correctly, she was sure he wasn't involved in drugs, he loved football too much....

And I find myself standing in one of the alleyways of the favela, looking at a memorial to him and to his friends, all killed on the same day.

But even if he was, even if he was involved in drugs, he had the right to be tried, we all have that right, and the police had no right to kill him.

And then it was over, and someone took the ead set off, and there i was, blinking a little in disbelief, back in the tent of the City Of God schoolyard, and smiling at the kind faces of the performer and technician who had been there with me.

The sound track was created from interviews with the mother concerned, using her voice, and the images were filmed in her own home.

It's a remarkable and beautiful idea, developed by an idealistic group dedicated to using technology to develop human empathy on a world wide scale.

it's been developed in an extraordinary arts/techno lab in Barcelona

And this November alone ahs been travelling to Bogota and Delhi as well as Rio de Janeiro.

It seems obvious this has huge potential as a tool for conflict resolution.

And how would it be, I wonder, if it allowed government ministers to understand the experienc of those whose lives have been destroyed by benefit curbs...

Or what would happen if those victims were able to see the world through the eyes of the individuals who are implementing them?

Or if the parents of the murdered children were able to see the world through the eyes of the frightened and damaged human who did the killing?

Would that be possible?

And - of course - I find myself longing to write scripts for it....

The young man who developed the project in Rio attended one of the rehearsals  of Queen Jesus with the homeless choir came away with tears in his eyes...

And his machine is so needed everywhere just now.

So needed in the USA, as more and more anguished voices in that hate-filled nation are beginning to understand

Everywhere in this increasingly hate-filled world.

I have been so dismayed to the reactions to the death of Fidel Castro.

Those who were praising his achievements as a revolutionary leader hating and being hated by who who want to condemn him as a vicious homophobe who imprisoned LGBT people in internment camps.

But it should be possible, it really should, to understand Castro as a complex, flawed human being who, like all of us, did good and evil in the world.

And it should be possible for us to respect the fact that we will all have different views about him.

We need to be able to empathise with each other even in these small things.

Never mind the really big ones.

As for me, I had to leave the machine to go on stage to do what I could to promote empathy and fellow feeling and compassion.

In a much older empathy machine called the theatre....

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

trying to keep the light shining

Terrible things are happening in the City of God.

There was a police raid on the favela last Saturday which led to a firefight.

Later that morning, a police helicopter crashed nearby, killing all the crew.

Following that, police intensified what are euphemistically known as their ‘operations’.

As a result of that, young men started to disappear from their homes on Saturday night.

And then on Sunday morning, distraught families searching the overgrown areas of wasteland in and around the community recovered the bodies of 7 young men, some bearing signs of torture, which they placed in the town square.

Following that, the Police sealed off all access to the favela, preventing people going to and from their work.

Following that, the local clinic closed, depriving people of crucial medical care.

And following that, the police announced that their ‘operation’ would continue indefinitely.

Only the week before, I had been a judge at the World Slam competition, and the Brazilian poet won, and the whole amazing and unique Book Festival that is FLUPP closed with music and dancing and with joy and hope and celebration.

And the day before that, I’d been performing QUEEN JESUS there.

But the hope and the possibility for a better world that all that represented…. feels as if it has been snuffed out.

So I’m left, like so many of us, feeling helpless.

Asking myself what is the point of putting on a white dress and climbing up onto a stage and pretending to be Queen Jesus.

It does feel a little as if it's a waste of time.

But then it’s not as if this blatant cruelty and injustice has just been invented.

It’s not as if it’s a new thing for our economic and political structures to be breaking down; or for those who benefit from them to be resorting to brute force to defend their interests.

We began to see all this coming way back in 1968.

This madness, this violence, this self-destructive folly and injustice has been present all my life.

It’s just that the self-protective bubble I used to protect myself has burst; and now, with wide open eyes, I have to look out at the state of the world.

And my fear, my anger and my disgust will not make it go away.

So if I ask myself what I should do the answer is actually still the same.

However ridiculous or futile or absurd it seems, I have to go on speaking the truth as I see it.

Trump and the Brexiters may go on deluding themselves with their talk of walls but no matter what they say or what they do they cannot stop the change that is coming.

They and we have no choice but to acknowledge that we all belong to the one world and we are all in this together.

And we have to act on this knowledge.

So it’s important to dedicate the work to those young men who died so horribly in the wasteland, and also, hard as it is, to those military policemen who died in the helicopter.

For one day we will come to know we are all one people in the end.

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