Friday, July 30, 2010

Boal and Black Beans (English)

In 1991, I was a teacher at a public school and along with the other female teachers in my group, we received the theatre master for a workshop. He wanted to get to know our work and collaborate with us. It was unforgettable. It was such an enjoyable experience that it seemed like a party! Once the workshop was over, it was “merenda” time.

Merenda means time to eat meal or a chance to eat a little something. In public schools in Brazil kids get a daily meal to supplement their caloric intake. These meals are simple and nutritious. At schools like the ones we were at, meals were delicious!

Our dilemma: How to invite this international theatre master that we barely knew to eat rice and beans, at a public school merenda? Black beans and rice is not just simple and basic, but it’s the most typical food in Rio. Eva, the star of the show and the school director, was the one who finally bit the bullet and asked: Boal, would you like to have some black beans, my friend? He answered with a huge smile, a childish disposition and with the gleaming eyes of a hungry boy: homemade beans? Who would dare refuse?

Eating black beans at a public school, I met this guy who’s dynamic, sensitive, funny, reasonable, simple and complex. I had the pleasure of working with him for almost two decades at the Centre for the Theatre of the Oppressed, where he was artistic director, political leader and ideological reference for 23 years.

A guy who knew how to appreciate every moment’s riches, he never gave into power, money, luxury or comfort, even though he knew how to make the most of them. He could teach with the same intensity and passion at an international festival as he would at a workshop in a public school on the suburbs of Rio. He would value a prize from “Luta pela Terra” which he won from MST the landless peasant’s movement, as much as he valued a nomination to world theatre ambassador, offered by the UNESCO.

He was someone capable of appreciating a good cachaça as much as a pure Scottish malte, a fresh brewed coffee on a street corner in Lapa as much as a good red wine at home, a ham and cheese sandwich with the CTO team as much as gourmet French cooking. A guy who knew to appreciate differences between things, who knew the necessity to recognise that everything was relative in order to see the bigger picture and to live life fully. He knew that differences hold riches and are the right road for the understanding.

He was insisting: the infinite expands beyond the universe outward and further beyond the body inward. It’s necessary to know about the macro as well as the micro, and about the relationship between both.

A guy who knew about the impossibility of the knowledge and appreciated constantly seeking knowledge, always open to learning. He could learn from a baby, observing how he was discovering the world. He could learn from Hamilton, a musician and mental health patient, trying to understand how music was the best medicine for his mind. And with Maria, a housemaid, how theatre made her feel like a woman. He learned in insatiable ways: listening, studying, observing.

And when he spoke, he would always ask: Are you guys understanding me? Is it clear, what I’m trying to say? He never asked just for the sake of asking, he asked to further understand.

What made this guy go to some school out in the suburbs, to work with those teachers who couldn’t even pay his taxi ride over? Perhaps it was the fact that they were critical of the education system with its archaic principals which feeds an oppressive pedagogy. He wanted to help because they were looking for a transformation; to change an unjust and oppressive reality.

He left his house and went to this public school for the same reason he went to the settlement from the landless peasants, to the urban occupation, to the union, to the homeowner association, the favelas, the universities, the prisons, the psyquiatric hospitals and many other places where people were determined to fight ethically and aesthetically.

He wasn’t about charity. His beliefs were based on solidarity. He wanted to cooperate with whom was prepared to fight and not complacent and ready to wait for some divine grace. To cooperate with whom understood that the key doesn’t open the door on its own- that it’s necessary to work hard. He wanted to cooperate with whom was open to change, learn, teach, exchange and multiply the knowledge and strategies as a community.

He was vain, he loved being admired, yet never idolized. Being accompanied, but never followed. He loved convincing, but not imposing. He appreciated comprehensive voices, but he never had the patience to hear ecos. He was demanding, disciplined, genius, brilliant, sweet, emotional, coherent and committed. Simple and complex. Old and modern. Simultaneously, from a time where the spoken word was considered a contract and from a time where everything that was solid could disappear into thin air. He was contemporary, up until the last wire on his huge head of hair!

To pay homage to this man we should use it’s legacy to humanize humanity; for the rebellion of the oppressed and not just an adaptation; for the appropriation of the production means of culture and not the imprisonment of consumption; to reveal the structure of the conflict and not just to pacify it in ignorance; to stimulate the action that demands and builds change and not just wait for a favor, to help open people’s eyes and not blind them with camouflaged solutions.

Paying homage to Augusto Boal is to understand that the Theatre of the Oppressed is of the oppressed and must be done by the oppressed and for the oppressed. And cannot be done to serve, benefit or support the oppressive system that exploits controls and manipulates, providing for few people at the cost of many more.

Paying homage to Boal is a simple task, yet at the same time, so complex.


  1. Thank you for the thoughts, Barbara. Your post reminded me of a saying that we like to use in TopLab. It comes from an Aboriginal women's collective in Australia.
    It says, "If you have come here to help me,
    you are wasting your time.
    If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine,
    then let us work together."

  2. Great! Exactly that. We should fell ourselves inside. Thanks for the feedback.