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The Art of Citizenship in Rio de Janeiro's Talavera Bruce Prison

1. The Incident

Two women sit huddled together on a bench, holding hands and chatting intimately. Suddenly, two policemen enter the scene and start interrogating them. "What, we're just talking, we're not doing anything wrong!" one woman protests as the two officials forcibly separate the couple and start beating them.

The performers froze in the grim tableau, pausing for a moment before rejoining the group sitting before them. It was June 2005, and the twelve prisoners had reached a crucial phase in the workshop process.

Since April 2005, the female inmates of Rio de Janeiro's Talavera Bruce Penitentiary had been performing, writing, and directing their work in the prison's sparse auditorium. Under the leadership of Dr. Marcos Pinheiro, Talavera Bruce has become one of the most reformed institutions of its kind in Rio. At times, the place can feel more like a boarding school than a prison, until some detail—the slamming of the gate, a recalcitrant guard, a fight between inmates—reminds visitors that they are at Rio's only maximum security penitentiary for women.

Prisoners and criminal suspects remain regular victims of appalling human rights violations in Brazil. Detailing incidents of torture, extrajudicial executions, and subhuman treatment of prisoners and detainees, recent international reports paint a disarming portrait of Brazilian prison life.[1] Despite the severity of these public denouncements, little has changed within a system built upon decades of corruption and complicity.

Within Brazilian society, moreover, the prevailing interpretation of "human rights for prisoners" remains "privilêgios para bandidos"—privileges for bandits. Having witnessed the outright failures of the Brazilian justice system, many ask why "bandits" should have their rights respected when the majority of Brazilians are not afforded these protections (Caldeira 2000: 359). While human rights violations are hardly unique to Brazil, it is the opposition to human rights within a political democracy that is distinctive.

I was first introduced to Talavera Bruce—and to Rio's prisons—by People's Palace Projects, a British non-governmental organization conducting arts initiatives within and beyond the Brazilian penitentiary system. Originally from New York, I have worked intensively in Brazil as an educator, researcher, and artist since 2003. Collaborating with Raphael Soifer, another American artist, I developed performance workshops specifically targeted to the women of Talavera Bruce, a hybrid form of image theatre, writing, improvisations, and storytelling. Drawing upon both Brazilian performance traditions and experimental theatre techniques,[2] the Talavera workshops aimed to enable the women to become generative artists, rather than merely expressive ones—to become the authors, directors, and witnesses to themselves, possessors of both artistic and political agency.

The pilot 2003 run of Talavera workshops was brief but well received by both inmates and staff. Encouraged by the reception of the work, I envisioned a broader social context and political agenda for the workshops. I eventually received a grant to support the Vontade Project, a program of performance-based initiatives for women prisoners in Brazil. Needless to say, I had great expectations for my return to Talavera Bruce in April 2005.

2. The Argument

The police beating was the most explicit display of abuse that the women had dramatized in our two months together. "How do you all imagine that this scene will fit into your performance?" I asked. The group immediately shouted in protest. "It would be extremely dangerous for us to show this," one woman exclaimed. "We should stop with all this heavy stuff," another woman remarked. "We can't show it to the others, and it makes me feel bad. I come to the workshops because I can forget about my problems."

If Augusto Boal repudiates Aristotelian catharsis for purging the harmatia and political responsibilities of spectators (1985: 37), I tend to bristle against a purely cathartic experience for performers—that is, a psychologically cleansing trip that encourages "behavioral reform" and normalization. But what happens when catharsis seems to be what the participants themselves are seeking—in this case, entertainment and release from the harsh, monotonous reality of prison life?

The 2005 workshops at Talavera Bruce pushed me to reconsider what kind of political stances and institutional challenges are, in fact, possible within a place as volatile and violent as the Brazilian penitentiary system. I had assumed that the relative liberty the inmates at Talavera enjoyed would allow them to address more contentious issues and affirm the human rights that Brazilian prisoners are still denied. However, the crisis that emerged that day at Talavera made me question my very own motives for coming to work with these prisoners. I began wondering whether I was, in fact, obliging the women of Talavera to take on a responsibility that they neither desired nor could effectively assume.

As the debate died down, I asked the prisoners what they truly wanted to address and experience in the remaining workshops. Escape, they told me. The memories of things that made them happy. Their children. Their grandchildren. Places outside of prison. Their prospects for the future.

I decided to take the women's suggestions at face value. That day, we began to create "Dentro De Mim, Fora Daqui" ("Inside of Myself, Outside of Here"), a 30-minute performance that the group ultimately presented at the prison in July 2005. A composite of character-driven scenes, personal declarations, imagistic snapshots, and choreopoems, "Dentro De Mim" expressed the women's struggle to escape the daily reality of imprisonment through their own consciousness.[3] Depicting the mental journeys away from and harsh returns to prison life, the piece spoke to "the imprisonment of our bodies and the liberty of our souls," as one participant described.[4]

In her analysis of citizenship under contested conditions,[5] Seyla Benhabib notes that "privileges of political membership are only one aspect of citizenship; collective identity and the entitlement to social rights and benefits are others" (2002: 161). Through creating, presenting, and witnessing "Dentro de Mim," the participating prisoners implemented their own form of citizenship, one that created new identities and social relationships that neither conformed to institutional mandates nor to pre-existing, organized social groups.

The final performance at Talavera revealed how such "artistic citizenship" can lead to a re-politicization of the participating community. While "Dentro De Mim" was initially conceived as a portrait of escape, the participants themselves brought it back to their own reality. Rather than feel pressured to denounce their oppressors outright, the women vocalized their concerns for themselves and for their peers, instigating an internal act of community building that affirming their concerns and rights as prisoners.

3. The Escape

Backs turned and wrists secured behind them, the women line-up for confére, the mandatory prison-wide inspection.[6] "You can be imprisoned only in the body. Because if you close your eyes, you can transport yourself to whatever place you want," an unseen voice announces.[7] The entire cast breaks out to form an animated beach tableau. A television reporter comes on the scene and is elated to discover an ex-prisoner working as a snack vendor. The other prisoners rush behind the woman being interviewed, leaping and waving to be filmed.

"What message do you have for our television audience?" the reporter asks. The ex-prisoner looks straight out to the crowd. "No one should give up. Whoever's watching, pay attention. Because you can help out those who need it. Honest work will turn people around, and they won't end up going back to prison." The reporter picks up the beat: "Even though society didn't give her any opportunities, she didn't continue taking the wrong path—she didn't go back to prison again."

The beach, a constant theme during our improvisations, initially seemed like the perfect form of escapism—a natural fit for the kind of piece the group had set out to create. Nevertheless, the obstacles to such total "escape" were obvious, even within the workshops themselves. Nearly every meeting brought a new interruption to our work—a prison guard strike, a sudden staff shortage, an altercation between prisoners. Such is the nature of working in any Brazilian prison: total control is a myth; circumstances are always unpredictable; rule of law is perpetually in doubt.[8]

Within this context, what began as a simple representation of beachside liberdade developed into a dynamic, politicized act of collective self-examination. When the initial beach scene fell flat, the women improvised and brought the television news reporter on the scene,[9] ultimately framing, interrogating, and staging themselves—and their real condition—as prisoners.

Following the early controversy over the police scene, the women seldom staged extended scenes within the prison itself, which immediately evoked subjects that were too pesado—too heavy and depressing. However, the television broadcast gave the prisoners the impetus to define themselves and project these identities to a specific audience—principally, the other prisoners. The woman playing the snack seller did not propose being an ex-prisoner until she had the chance to be on "television." She was not simply "performing" the reformed prisoner for some higher-up authority; she sought to address, motivate, and entertain her own peers.

This sense of camaraderie is particularly notable in an institution where divisions run deep and rivalries can prove fatal.[10] During the performance concluding the 2003 workshops, the prisoners enacted the graphic depiction of a murder of a female inmate, based on the true story of a woman who had died at the hands of another prisoner.

At the same time, there remain significant commonalities between the prisoners, which this scene in "Dentro De Mim" underscores. As my collaborator describes, a Brazilian prison is a "non-favela (shantytown) site populated almost entirely by favela residents," a place in which "interwoven racial, cultural, and socio-economic identities serve, to some extent, to unite prisoners across prison spaces" (Soifer 2004: 84).

The television broadcast spoke directly to these commonalities, addressing the lack of opportunities that prisoners face earlier in life—implicitly due to their impoverished status—and the obstacles they will face upon release. Such commonalities suggest that the basis for a more inclusive and democratic "prison community" does exist.[11] In the process of finalizing "Dentro De Mim," the women hinted at liberating potential of such a community, generating a scene for the show that flew in the face of my own expectations.

4. The Return

A woman stands in the prison hospital, clutching her stomach. "I'm hungry," she complains aloud. "I'm so hungry." Suddenly, a menacing figure enters. "You were drug trafficking and drug trafficking—and now you're hungry?" the police officer shouts. She grabs the complaining woman roughly and pulls her out of the hospital. As they leave the stage, the officer jokingly shoots a kick toward the prisoner.

What made this scenario so different from the workshop scene with the policemen? While the earlier scene contained a more explicit display of violence, the hospital scene was equally polemical. What happened between that controversial workshop and the rehearsal that generated the scene above, that the group would wholeheartedly accept the one scene and react so vehemently against the other?

The first clue, I think, lies in the very last moment of the scene: the joking, off-stage kick that sends the prisoner out of the hospital. For a conventional audience member, the single gesture could be easy to miss, had it not been for the grin on the officer's face as she delivers it. Tatiana[12] later cited the scene as her favorite moment in the show, as she "was certain that it was me everyone was watching."[13] Tatiana felt empowered through representing a force of personal oppression, yet only gestured toward what her character would do to the offending woman.

Rather than trivializing or concealing the oppression at hand (or foot, as it were), Tatiana's kick implies that the audience possesses a form of "insider" knowledge. Delivered with a grin, in a liminal, off-stage space, the kick implies that the viewers needn't be told what they already know to be the case. While Tatiana displays a hostile, aggressive attitude in the hospital itself, the end of this scene suggests that there is a distinction between a denúncia and a complaint. While the former is typically directed toward the offending authorities, the latter can be used to generate solidarity amongst those similarly oppressed.

While anxious about and conscientious of their internal "public",[14] the prisoners progressed to make even more explicit claims to their identities and, ultimately, to their rights as prisoners. In the final performance, what followed the hospital scene was the saco cheio ("being fed up") transition, when each woman crossed the stage to complain about imprisonment. "It's so horrible to be in prison!" one woman exclaims. "I want to get out of here!" says another. Outside of here—fora daqui—an audience might have assumed this was a scene of seriousness—or aggressive protest. But within the prison, the audience roared in laughter at each complaint they heard: it was the laughter of recognition.

5. The Verdict

"Our greatest fear was that no one was going to understand, but everyone understood everything," one participant said during our post-performance discussion. "They said, 'We live our day-to-day lives, but we never thought our day-to-day life was so funny,' " another woman remarked. "That day we weren't here—we were in a place outside of here."

"Dentro De Mim, Fora Daqui" was, as they say, a hit. Participants, prison staff, administrators, and even prisoners who had not seen the performance expressed how unanimously the inmates had praised the piece.[15] What the participants received was more than simply approval from their peers and the pride of having created a compelling artistic work. Both the inmates participating in and those witnessing "Dentro De Mim" became confirmed members of a community that had the right to articulate its hopes, frustrations, ideas, and concerns.[16]

Benhabib emphasizes the importance of "the practice, not the acquisition of democratic citizenship," which would be contingent upon one's "membership[s] and association[s], an individual's ability to negotiate conflicting perspectives and loyalties" (Benhabib 1994 in Benhabib 2002: 171). As a process-based, collectively authored work, "Dentro De Mim" was the realization of such citizenship-in-practice, creating a participatory social body born out of the interests of the members themselves.

Both participants and audience members noted that other prisoners were inspired to continue with future performance initiatives;[17] even the women exiting the prison were adamant about having the work continue, as "there will always be someone who wants to learn."[18] Altogether, the workshops contributed to the formation of what my colleague has dubbed a "performance-based community," a group based "not on common space or identical background, but rather through a common ambition and shared commitment" to valuing artistic talent, self-esteem, and non-violence (Soifer 2004: 116).

Such a community must continuously be re-imagined, reconstructed, and reenacted. For if any form of prison "citizenry" is possible, it must be one whose membership is open and renewable, as much committed to affirming its members' rights as prisoners as it is to their life upon release—their right not to be prisoners any longer. As Heritage notes,[19] it is the continuity of what is essentially temporary that is the great contradiction and the strength of this work. Having witnessed the growing number of performance activities at Talavera, I am optimistic that these initiatives will continue to gain momentum.

"That day we weren't here—we were in a place outside of here," one prisoner noted, only moments after commenting that she had lived out "the same scene" she'd seen on stage. The contradiction is striking. Did the performance place the inmate "here" in prison or bring her "outside of here"—or was she somewhere between the two?

Perhaps it is only in such a liminal space that a new social body—a real community of prisoners—can truly reside. If prison, as the performance recounts, entraps the body while freeing the mind, then the conscientious prisoner must be both dentro and fora, fully acknowledging their internal, institutional reality while affirming the right to a future beyond it. To claim citizenship as a prisoner, one must work from the inside out.

Suzy Khimm is a freelance writer, producer, and performing artist from New York. She received her BA in Literature from Yale University. Her interests include inter-American politics, participatory culture, Butoh dance, and the recovery of public spaces. She can be reached at Esta dirección de correo electrónico está siendo protegida contra los robots de spam. Necesita tener JavaScript habilitado para poder verlo..

Works cited

Benhabib, Seyla. 2002. The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Boal, Augusto. 1979. Theatre of the Oppressed. Translated by Charles A. and Maria-Odilia Leal-McBride. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985.

Caldeira, Teresa P.R. 2000. City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Heritage, Paul. 2000. "Stealing Kisses." In Mudança De Cena II: Theatre Building Citizenship. Translated by Roberta Kacowicz, Beatriz Brenner, and Paula Cordiero. Special Edition. Recife, Pernambuco: Companhia Editora de Pernambuco.

Soifer, Raphael. 2004. "A Nossa Guerra É Outra: Performance, Violence, and Constructions of Community in Rio de Janeiro." Unpublished manuscript. Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.

End Notes

 [1] Recent human rights documentation includes: "In the Dark: Hidden Abuses Against Detained Youths in Rio de Janeiro," issued by Human Rights Watch in 2005 (; "No One Sleeps Here Safely: Human Rights Violations Against Detainees in Brazil," a 1999 report by Amnesty International (23 June 1999, AI index: AMR 19/009/1999); and a 2001 report issued by the UN that lists 348 denunciations involving torture and extra-judicial executions against police and prison officers.

 [2] Rio de Janeiro's vibrant history of popular performance has inspired the growth of new grassroots arts groups. Among them are Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed; the Grupo Cultural Afro-Reggae, a favela-based, Afro-Brazilian arts organization; and Nós do Morro, a favela theatre school. In designing the workshops, Raphael and I also drew heavily upon our shared background in avant-garde performance—the SITI Company, the Wooster Group, and Deb Margolin's Theatre of Desire, among others.

 [3] I served as a dramaturg of sorts, taking the lead from the themes, words, and actions that emerged during the workshops to create an overarching structure for the piece. "Dentro De Mim" was born out of a participatory dynamic: the women acted as co-authors and co-directors, shaping the material they had generated in the workshops.

 [4] The comment comes from a post-performance evaluation form, which I distributed to the group in addition to holding a feedback session in early August 2005.

 [5] In this chapter of her book, Benhabib focuses on the dilemma of citizenship and immigration in contemporary Europe.

 [6] Conféres are also opportunities for inmates to be singled out at random for abuse and humiliation, which the prisoners themselves highlighted in a performance concluding the 2003 workshops.

 [7] One of the most active participants was unable to participate in the final performance because she had already designated her body to be elsewhere. She had a parlatório, an "intimate visit" with her husband, who was also imprisoned. Her recorded voice was used throughout "Dentro de Mim."

 [8] Paul Heritage, founder of People's Palace Projects, writes, "The rule of law supposedly superior to the law of force. In the favelas, this cannot be assumed…The culture of the prison reflects and further exaggerates the lawlessness that with associate with all borderlands. They are meant to be the place where the law is most rigorously in force, but this is rarely the case" (Heritage: 287 in Soifer 2004: 84).

 [9] The news reporter was a structural device the women themselves proposed as a means of dynamizing the scene.

 [10] Atomized and anonymized, a prisoner must redefine, necessarily adjust to new hierarchies of status, value, and power. While the drug facções (factions) do not figure into the prison as prominently as they do in the boys and men's institutions, violence between inmates is still a serious problem.

 [11] The prison-wide spectacles and special performance events at Talavera are a continual source of camaraderie and solidarity. But unlike the "Miss Talavera" beauty pageant, singing competition, or evangelical prison choir, these performance workshops were not contingent upon any previous skills, experience, or status. Their sole criterion for inclusion was to be a prisoner.

 [12] Names of all participants have been changed to protect their identities and ensure their privacy.

 [13] As noted on an evaluation form.

 [14] The group was extremely tense and anxious about the reception of the final performance in the prison by their peers. "The public here is very difficult," a participant expressed in the feedback session. "Because it is a 'public' inside of a prison—they don't like theatre, they don't like any of this, they like to criticize. And so, I felt that what I do could affect the rest of my stay here in prison."

 [15] As one woman described in the feedback session: "I didn't attend the piece, but on Saturday, when I woke up in the morning and went out to the patio, there was a huge group of people talking, commenting on the piece, just on the piece. Everyone was praising it—'the piece was beautiful, it was cool.'" Another woman noted, "Everything changed when we did it in front of everyone."

 [16] i.e., the "right to have rights," as Hannah Arendt describes (in Benhabib 176).

 [17] This conclusion is based both on quantitative and qualitative evaluations of the workshops, as well as more anecdotal evidence. Two-thirds of participants noted that they felt "more disposed to continuing with art, performance and/or theatre"; seven of nine wanted to continue with these particular kinds of workshops.

 [18] As noted by a participant in the feedback session.

 [19] "The survival of performance in prisons has for me become a form of resistance and negation of the system itself" (Heritage 2000: 26).



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