Shakespeare in the Favelas of São Paulo, Brazil
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Among other things, I’m an English teacher. I don’t teach literature, but rather English as a foreign language to teenagers in two of São Paulo’s largest slum or low-income areas. As a result, we don’t have much chance for fictional drama in our classrooms beyond the occasional pregnancy, broken arm, or puppy found under a car. Drama in our textbooks happens when the verb to be meets up with question forms. It isn’t thrilling, but it’s something. “Did you see that? When you form questions, the subject and verb change places. You don’t do that in Portuguese!”
São Paulo's Campo Limpo neighborhood
Several years ago I started working with a group of five bright but very underprivileged teenagers who had left their precarious public schools and were given scholarships at a private school. I volunteered to teach English once a week. And as I got to know them better, I discovered that most of my students had never been to a symphony, to an airport, to famous landmarks in our city, or even to a movie theater. And so I, together with a couple of friends, decided to remedy it. We gathered our meager funds and took them downtown, to a circus, to museums, on a train ride and yes, even to a movie. We had a blast.
One day, poking around on the Internet, I saw that Globe-SP, an acting school in town, was putting on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I poked around some more: it would only cost a few dollars per person, it wasn’t across town (in a city the size of the state of Rhode Island, this matters), and it was coming up in a few weeks. I decided we had to go.
As our next class started, I told them that we were going to see a play. Had they ever heard of Shakespeare? Some shook their heads, but Marcos knew that Shakespeare had written Hamlet, a play he’d never read and certainly never seen, but hoped to someday. “What’s Hamlet about?” I asked. He wasn’t sure. “Have you guys heard of Romeo and Juliet?” Most had heard the names. “Romeu e Julieta” is a popular dessert in Brazil: you get a slice of white cheese and a slice of guava paste, put one on top of the other, and eat it up. It’s good.
And so we began talking about the play because we only had three weeks to get ready. We started by doing research. Their job was to hit Google and come back the next week ready to answer one question for the group. There was to be no reading off a prepared script, no mumbling, and no missing class. I tore a sheet of paper into five parts and wrote one question on each: Who was Shakespeare? What kinds of things did he write? What are his most famous plays? Why do some people think that Shakespeare didn’t write all that stuff? And to Jessica, the most enthused student: Why is Shakespeare important in the history of English literature?
They came back with answers. Some mumbled, some tried to read off of prepared scripts, but no one missed class. We discussed the answers in detail, in Portuguese, and then started the next week’s homework: “Everyone! Read everything you can about the plot and be ready to talk about it.” And they did. The overwhelming feeling as we sat down the next week was one of discouragement. They looked sad and bewildered. “Wait a sec,” Fernanda started. “Romeo and Juliet die at the end! They kill themselves. That’s crazy. Did I understand that right? Really?”
The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet by Leighton, Lord Frederick. 1855
So we spent our entire English class calming down. We discussed two households, ancient grudges, new mutinies, piteous overthrows, and star-cross’d lovers. Basically, we tried to sort out what the plot was.
With the story under our belts, the real fun began. I invited them all to a movie night at my place that weekend and we watched a favorite DVD, Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie version of the play. We stopped near the beginning so that I could point out one of my early crushes. The two boys snickered as the girls analyzed Michael York in his tight Tybalt tights. I was disappointed when they concluded that he was OK, but not their idea of anything to have a crush on. They were on the edge of their seats for the street fighting, embarrassed by the balcony scene (see video below), happy to fast-forward through the wedding night scene, anxious as Romeo is banished, and joking with me as I wiped my tears at the end. Then Jessica admitted that she wanted to cry too.
For our final class before our excursion to Globe-SP, my friend Laurie, who was also my daughters’ English teacher at school, brought a group of students to act out the play for us. Several of my students’ mothers and siblings showed up so we moved out to the garage. It was a fast and furious performance by female high school seniors, in Portuguese, but it was another important chance to see the story and different ways it could be interpreted. We had to shush a couple of the little brothers and sisters who laughed as first Romeo and then Juliet collapsed on the cold garage floor. My students had the good sense to know that this was serious business. (And they looked to see if I was crying.)
Finally our big night arrived. I picked them up and we got to Globe-SP with plenty of time to spare. Laurie met us there and as we stood in the lobby, a little nervous, she described iambic pentameter, the poetic form that some of the play was written in. The play would be in Portuguese, but we were told to be on the lookout. The doors to the theater opened and to our astonishment, instead of a stage, there was a row of chairs along either side of a dark corridor. Several seats were taken by costumed actors, sitting in dim lamplight, looking down somberly. We found our seats among them, whispering and wondering. Jessica was worried about the dark.
The cast of Globe-SP's production
The play was amazing. We knew the story, but we weren’t prepared to be part of only 20 spectators, with actors swishing among us, modern music pumping from the sound system, and Juliet so close we could touch her. Mercutio was a female, Tybalt’s clothes were dirty, and the balcony scene took place on a common stepladder. And at the end, Juliet collapsed at my student Marcos’ feet. He looked down at her in sympathy. It was over and we drove home in silence.
I first read Romeo and Juliet as a tenth grader. I lived in the suburbs of southeast Denver and my reaction to the play – perhaps because I was a tenth grader in the suburbs of southeast Denver or perhaps because I simply was who I was – was to believe in the romance of Romeo and his Juliet, torn apart by the cruel actions of others. Our teacher told us that their relationship never would have worked. Romeo and Juliet would spend a few months happily together but eventually, some day sitting in a cart in the hot sun, the bickering would start, and it would all unravel. My classmates and I were shocked. It couldn’t be. This was true love.
My students, most of whom have no relationship with their fathers, can’t afford new socks, and live in homes smaller than my living room, had no such reaction. They were realists. They wanted to discuss who was to blame and most of them thought that Romeo caused a lot of his own misery. “He should’ve calmed down. What a hothead.” Would the relationship have made it long term? Most laughed and said no. They’d seen a lot of the love affairs around them fizzle out. Were they glad they’d studied Shakespeare? Yes. It was the best, if the only, play they’d ever seen.
Susan Banman Sileci