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.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Writng from Sao Paulo: the first steps in South America

“This is the time.
This is the place…”

….And this is how the play begins.

And this time, this place, early in the morning on the twelfth floor balcony of this huge and amazing city of Sao Paulo.

The towers are all around us, reaching up like plants growing in darkness, desperate for the light of the sky.  And I can hear the voices of boys playing football on the basketball court far far below us, and dogs barking and the shrill cry of unknown birds.

And all above the monstrous, endless roar of the traffic in this, the largest city of the whole of South America.

And me and my beautiful companions look at each other in wonder.

“This is where we met each other…”

And the meeting began days and weeks ago, before we ever left Scotland. Electronic meetings with the extraordinary women in Brazil who are organising our visit, and our physical meetings with each other as we try, a little ineffectually, to prepare ourselves for it.

But how can you prepare yourself for this….

The other electronic meeting was with Luiz Felipe Reis, an arts journalist from O Globo, that Wikipedia describes as one of the longest established and most widely read newspapers in Brazil.

I answer his questions as best I can not quite believing they will be published.

But now I’m looking with amazement at a copy of the newspaper with the headline


and discovering I am “one of the most important Scottish women dramatists and an icon of transgendered art” followed by translations of his questions and my answers:

"I am writing an article on plays that are inspired by Nora character, written by Ibsen, and about plays that focus on woman issues as abortion, patriarchal society, salary equity and others. So I have three questions for you:

1) Why could we consider Nora a feminism icon? Why she still important as a symbol today?

I think of my daughters. The elder is a structural engineer and the younger the features editor of a woman’s magazine. Both chose their professions and are happy and fulfilled in them.

But their grandmother was forced to leave school at 14 and her father found her a job working in a shop. He never thought to ask her what she wanted to do with her life and she never thought to insist. In those days, that was the way things were.

And of course she was expected to leave her job as soon as she got married. She was then expected to devote her life to the welfare of her husband.

To her dying day she regretted the fact she had not been able to become a nurse. I know she would have made a very good nurse; and so what happened to her was not just her loss, but society’s loss as well.

The story of my daughters and their grandmother shows just how much society has changed. How profoundly and how rapidly things have changed since the days of Ibsen.

And everyone would agree that this change has been good for everybody.

And yet my eldest daughter suffers because her male colleagues are paid more than her; and my younger daughter is continually having to write stories of rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence and all the crimes against women that are happening all over the world today.

Because almost everywhere in the world women are still treated as second class citizens.

When I first started living as a woman people would often shout abuse at me in the street.

The assumption behind these insults was that having been born a man (and so a Lord Of The Universe) I had abused and degraded myself by living as a woman.

So Nora’s story - the story of a woman who insists on her own value as a human being and her right to live her own life - is as important as ever.

2) Nora's departure from her house, her gesture of closing the door and going to the outside world, can be equated to which transgressive gestures of today?

My daughters call me “dad” because I am their dad and always will be.

My grandson calls me “grandma” because I am his grandma and always will be.

I think we are all  living through the profoundest change imaginable - a change in the way we understand  what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man.

And we are beginning to understand that sexual and gender identity is all far more complex than we ever imagined.

Recent scientific research shows that humans are not just ‘male’ and ‘female’ but that there are at least six different sexes!

Ibsen was completely remarkable because he did not stifle the woman inside him but instead explored and expressed her in his work and created such compassionate and fully human female portraits.

Such a thing was unheard of in his day and is still pretty transgressive. Think how few films there are - especially Hollywood films! - which have a woman as their central character….

In my own life, like Nora, I had to leave behind a male controlled identity which did not suit me and was not true to myself.

That’s what happened when I started to live as a woman. I had to leave my male self behind - and slam the door behind me.

And then walk out into the unknown…

I think we all do that to a greater or a lesser degree as we move away from the constraints imposed on us by our society and our upbringing and start to live out the truth of our authentic selves.

3) To what extent her piece ( "The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven") converses or relates to contemporary issues of feminism?

I have a written a lot of plays - about 80 which have been performed! - and they are all very different from each other.

But a common thread that runs through them all is an exploration of what it means to truly respect the feminine in our world and in our selves.

“The Gospel According To Jesus Queen Of Heaven” is perhaps the most radical in that I portray so sacred a character and ask what would happen if we really believed what Jesus says and lived out His truths in our own lives.

He tells us not to judge each other. So what would happen if we really did stop judging one another because of the colour of their skin, or their gender identity, or their sexual orientation?

What would happen if we really obeyed His command to love one another?

And how would that change the world?"

And of course I have my anxieties and my fears but no real idea of the context in which these words are being published, except to know that “O Globo’s” politics are generally right wing…

Or any knowledge of how they will be received.

No idea whether it will cause ripples or waves or whether it all might just apparently sink without trace.

But that is how it is so often with these encounters. And I am so glad I am with my beloved companions.

So we can walk, hand in hand, into this unknown world.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Jesus Queen of Heaven on a pilgrimage to Brazil

Brazil pilgrimage May - June 2016

JESUS QUEEN OF HEAVEN is about to set off on a new stage in her world pilgrimage.

Her creator, Jo Clifford, and her production team are spending May in Brazil, presenting the show at the International Theatre Festival of Belo Horizonte (FIT) and the Literary Festival of the Peripheries in the favela City of God (Cidade de Deus) in Rio d Janeiro (FLUPP).

They will also be leading workshops in Sao Paulo and participating in a series of encounters with theologians, theatre practitioners, transgender support groups and the general public. And all under the auspices of ‘Transform’ programme of the British Council.

Jo Clifford, who wrote and performs the play, said:

“It is a great honour to be invited back to Brazil and incredibly exciting to be presenting our performance there.

Brazil has the highest rate of transgender murders in the world - a trans woman is killed there every 22 hours - and in that country we have a life expectancy of only 35. But the country also has groups of incredibly courageous and dedicated trans people working to improve our situation.

It is very much part of our aim as a theatre company to show solidarity with our trans sisters and brothers throughout the world and I hope our performance will play its part in changing the transphobic attitudes and values that cause our suffering.”

Annabel Cooper, the show’s producer, said:

“This invitation came about through the Creative Scotland ‘Made In Scotland’ scheme which enabled us to mount the show at Summerhall during the 2015 Edinburgh fringe.

The curator of FIT, Diego Bagagalwas one of the international producers who saw the show, fell in love with it, and decided to invite us across to the Festival.

It also enabled us deepen our collaboration with Liliane Rebelo and Paula Sousa Lopes of the British Council in Sao Paulo, and also with Natalia Mallo, who has translated the script into Portuguese and who, along with the trans actress Renata Carvalho, is mounting the forthcoming Brazilian production.”

Annabel Cooper will be accompanying the tour to film its progress; other members of the company are Susan Worsfold, the show’s director and voice coach, who will be leading a voice workshop for trans women in Sao Paulo, and Jak Soroka, a performance artist and recent graduate of the RCS, who will be acting as stage manager, lighting operator and scenic artist.

Jo Clifford explained:

“Our work is site specific. The show is tailored to whatever space it is we are to perform in. We work collectively as a team to devise the ways in which we can exploit its possibilities. It is a particular pleasure and honour to be performing in the Hall of Columns of MuseuMineiro in Bel Horizonte. It is such a beautiful space.”

“We are also delighted to welcome Jak to the company. Their expertise will be invaluable; and it is a very important part of our aim to encourage and support and collaborate queer theatre artists at the start of their careers.”

True to their principles, the Company will be travelling light. One item is essential: the tin of yeast Jo will use to make the communion bread with…


For further information, interview requests or images please contact Annabel Cooper

Notes to Editors

Written and performed by Jo Clifford.
Directed by Susan Worsfold.
Produced by Annabel Cooper.
For further details
Follow Queen Jesus on Twitter @jesusthequeen

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