Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Teaching creativity to a group of ex-prostitutes in Berea, Johannesburg

This morning I rushed off to Steve's Spar in Cresta, grabbed a basket full of brown wrapping paper, some glue, and some wax crayons, and sped through Hillbrow to Berea to the New Life Centre. There I met Linda-Michael, one of the dudes who works at the Hillbrow Community Theatre in Edith Cavell Street.

We met on the Augusto Boal FORUM THEATRE training workshop I participated in last year, and again when a group of us decided to take the training forward. He asked me if I'd like to volunteer to do some work on a project he's involved in, and I said yeah.

So we enter a block of flats, and the security dude eyes us suspicioulsy. What's the white dude doing parking a sports car out on the street in the Bronx? What's he doing entering this building??

Linda says to him, 'New Life Centre, my bra,' and we get nodded through. Some of the buildings in Berea and Hillbrow are having their foyers refurbished to make it impossible for overcrowding to take place. This is one of those places. So we have to be individually scanned through the single-person-only turnstile. Then we're trotting up the stairs carrying the stuff I bought, and a kitbag filled with magazines.

We're in. A huge space with massive windows. Bright. A view of the vast block of flats across the road. And if I crane my neck, I can just see the tail light of my car. The room is filled with laughter. And women. About 35 of them. And three or four children. On one end is the kitchen. The other has five computers and some couches. In the middle, comfie chairs filled with ex- and current-prostitutes.

Babalwa greets us. She's one of the ladies who runs the place. We sit down cross legged on the floor to have a quick briefing session. She says, 'This project helps to rehabilitate women and children who have become involved in selling sex in the human trafficking trade.' The ladies come voluntarily becaue they want out, and the project provides counselling and safe houses for them to live while they rehabilitate. Babalwa says many of the ladies present no longer work as prostitutes, but that some of them are forced to carry on in the business.

One of the things the project does for the women is teach them skills that they can use to get out of prostitution, and into more regular jobs. These are NOT high-class prostitutes earning millions and spending it all on cocaine. These are ordinary women from rural areas who can't read or write, lured to the city and enslaved by hectic guys who probably get them hooked on crack.

I outline what I've prepared for the women, and both Linda and Babalwa like what they're hearing. Of course, I'm improvising as I go, cos I couldn't reallllly prep properly without this briefing session.

We stand, and Linda calls for attention. The women gather in a circle, and we all hold hands. Linda says, 'I have brought a guest with today, and he will be doing some exciting work with us. His name is Roy. And I'll leave him to introduce himself.'

Linda teaches the women at this centre drama, and he often invites guests to facilitate workshops.

The ladies are mostly smiling, but one or two of them look like they're having a rough time in the world. About four of them are around 13 years-old.

I introduce myself. 'I'm a writer, director, producer, and actor. I also lead creativity seminars. Today we're going to have some fun, and learn a little bit about ourselves so that we can become better actors and also improve ourselves.'

So we start off with a nice warmup exercise that I learned in Daniel Buckland's class at the Actors' Centre, and soon everyone's engaged. Then we go into an Augusto Boal game in which pairs of people act as person/mirror partners. Then we go into a game where I ask everyone to make a picture of their inner beauty. They attack the magazines enthusiastically, and soon, everyone's making pictures.

We end my two-hour workshop with another Boal game... one at a time, we each leap into the centre of the circle and announce one word describing our emotional space, accompanied by a physical gesture. Everyone in the circle repeats our word and gesture twice, and the next person goes. Most of the women are excited and joyous. Two or them are quite down. This stuff stirs up hectic emotions.

Babalwa comes up to me after and asks me if I'd like to stay for lunch. I've just finished reading ACID ALEX, so I know that it's extremely rude to refuse food, so I accept, timidly looking over at the kitchen to try and work out what the food might be. If it's offal, I'm going to be in trouble deluxe. But I've accepted, so there's no backing out ot this.

Luckily, the food is a delicious lamb curry with pasta.

Linda says, 'I'd like you to come and do another workshop, Roy. This was excellent.'

One of the ladies overhears him. 'I agree,' she says.

And I say, 'I agree too. I've loved being here.'

And I come home and think about the fact that some of those girls are children. And that some sick bastards regularly pay to have sex with them.

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