Maria and the Theatre of the Oppressed*
Maryknoll Lay Missioners
By Julie Rattey
*Based on the story of “Maria,” a young woman whose name has been changed for privacy. Information for this feature was provided by Maria and by Flávio Rocha, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner.
Photos by Kathleen Bond, Maryknoll Lay Missioner
Please tell me this isn’t happening again.
Maria had been up since 4 a.m. and in line since before 6, waiting for her local health clinic in Brazil to open. She was hoping to be early enough to get a ticket for her children to see the doctor the following day. Now at 7:30, when everyone was inside awaiting a turn, a friend of the receptionist had breezed in, ignored the line, and walked right up to the desk like she owned the place.
With a cry of welcome, the receptionist rose from her chair and greeted the woman, who looked to be in her 50s, with a warm hug. While everyone else waited, the two carried on a personal conversation for a full five minutes. Then, as Maria craned her neck, she saw the receptionist slip her friend a ticket for the doctor.
Maria’s cheeks felt hot with anger. Already exhausted from her long hours of working the day before, she was in no mood for this. We’ve all been here for over an hour, and the receptionist’s friends and family just waltz in anytime they please. This isn’t fair!
From the grumbling around her, she knew she wasn’t the only one who was frustrated. But in this culture, you didn’t tell older people they were wrong. Still, Maria had to admit that even when the offender was younger than herself (Maria was 22), she had a hard time speaking up. And not just to the receptionist. To the doctor, for one, who left the door open during her visit and spoke so loudly that everyone else could hear her business. And, more importantly, to her husband, who had started seeing another woman and had become abusive. Her married life was starting to feel uncomfortably like her childhood, when her dad would hit her mom. It had been hard to speak up then, too. The times that she had, she had felt proud for standing up for what was right. Why can’t I do that now?
Living around here, Maria admitted, it was easy to give up trying to change things. Violence, drugs, and high unemployment were daily challenges. Her neighborhood still didn’t have a sewerage system. Things were bad enough without drawing attention to yourself with complaints. You learned to keep your head down and your mouth shut.
Still, Maria felt anxious to do something as she watched the woman with the ticket move to exit.
Maria opened her mouth, then shut it.
Same old, same old.
“Maria? You need to speak up this time,” said Flávio gently.
The situation was familiar — someone cutting the line at the clinic — except this time, it was playacting, an exercise by the Theatre of the Oppressed. A church friend had suggested she join the theater group, which was run by Flávio Rocha, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner. The group of nine met every week for about two hours in the community chapel to have discussions and do theater games and exercises that helped them understand power dynamics and how to cope with oppression in their community. When Flávio had asked everyone to share stories of oppression from their lives, Maria had shared the health clinic story. Noises of sympathy had risen from the rest of the group.
They’d been there before.
“This is clearly something everyone is dealing with,” Flávio had said. “I think this would be a good topic for the skit we’ll be performing for the community next month.”
He had then organized the attendees to re-create the health clinic scene Maria described, so she could practice speaking up. But even in this safe environment, her courage had failed her twice already.
“Let’s try it one more time,” said Flávio. “Remember, Maria. You’re among friends.”
Once again, the line-cutter breezed in and began chatting with the receptionist. All the other actors started to grumble. Maria struggled with herself.
If this were happening to my kids, she thought, wouldn’t I want them to speak up? How can I teach them to stand up for themselves if I won’t do it myself?
Maria took a deep breath. She didn’t know where to start, so she just blurted what came to mind. “This isn’t fair!”
Everyone turned to look at her. She felt her cheeks grow warm.
This is embarrassing!
Maria flashed Flávio an anxious look.
“Good, Maria!” he said encouragingly. “Go on.”
Go on, Maria told herself. You can do this.
A few months later, Maria was back in the health clinic, and the same woman was trying to cut the line. This time Maria was determined to speak up. Her experience in the theater group, especially performing the skit for the community, had really motivated her. It had been inspiring to see people in the audience, young and old, volunteer when asked to step into the scene and present their solutions to the problem of people cutting the line. “Call the receptionist’s supervisor to complain,” said one. “Call a radio station to tell them what’s going on!” said another. Being part of this project where actors and audience worked together to find solutions to a common problem had made Maria feel more hopeful about life in her community, and about her place in it. It had also given her some much-needed self-esteem.
So today, when the receptionist prepared to hand a ticket to her friend, Maria stood. Her palms were sweating and her legs felt like jelly, but she managed to approach the desk.
“Excuse me,” she said quietly.
The two women turned to her.
“I see that you’re giving your friend here a ticket,” Maria said, her voice gaining strength. “We’ve all been waiting for more than an hour for our turn. Perhaps,” she added politely to the other woman, “you didn’t realize that there are many people ahead of you in line.”
The woman stiffened, but had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. Every eye in the clinic was turned on her.
“Fine,” she said, a little huffily. She flashed a grimace at her friend and took a seat to wait.
“Thank you for saying something,” a woman whispered to Maria gratefully when she reclaimed her seat. “I wish I’d had the courage. Maybe now things will change around here.”
Maria flushed with pleasure. “Thanks,” she said. “I hope so.”
Help people like Maria
THE THEATRE OF THE OPPRESSED, which began in 1971 in Brazil and is now present in more than 70 countries, helps citizens use theater to combat oppression and transform society. To learn more, visit theatreoftheoppressed.org.
MARYKNOLL LAY MISSIONERS is a Catholic organization of people living and serving in economically poor communities in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, where they respond to basic needs and help create a more just and compassionate world. To learn more, visit mklm.org or call 800-867-2980.
Support for Flávio Rocha’s Theatre of the Oppressed program may be sent to:
Maryknoll Lay Missioners
P.O. BOX 307
MARYKNOLL, NY 10545-0307
Indicate “Mission account — Flávio Rocha” on the check memo line. Or, to help keep Rocha and his family in mission overseas, indicate “General fund — support Bond Rocha.”
The situation at the health clinic has improved, with people asking where the back of the line is to avoid cutting others. Maria’s newfound confidence has also helped her remove herself and her children from her abusive marriage.