Monday, May 11, 2009

From the Closet of History

That world! These days its’ all been erased and they’ve rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere. Yes, I can touch it with my fingers. But where is it?

Denis Johnson


Jesus' Son

Last week Democracy Now observed the 39th anniversary of the massacre at Kent State when four students were shot and killed. I was in eighth grade, confused and shocked by what the Ohio National Guard' assault on students that day. Education, I was taught, brought opportunities and lead to a richer fuller life. The startling images of dead students stood as refutations to the lessons I’d learned.

It was a strange time. Protests against Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia thundered across the country and around the world. High schools and middle schools twitched with unrest as the student bodies thereof absorbed the division of the greater society around them. As I walked down the hallway of Otsego Middle School, a discreet black armband on my sleeve, I was grabbed and slammed against the lockers. “Are you with those ass-holes in the streets?” Wild eyes and hot milk breath of blooming adolescence blew in my face. I had no words for a response. Otsego was a small town, and this incident lay between myself and my assailant throughout our high school years. It rode with us together once when he picked me up as I hitchhiked my way home. It was summer after graduation. He was headed off to the Air Force Academy. I later heard he dropped out. I heard he was dismayed that the Academy wanted to remake him, change him; and to his way of thinking he was everything they’d want him to be.

* * *

The great Brazilian theatre pioneer Augusto Boal died last week at the age of 78. Founder of the renowned Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal was serving time in prison when I visited Brazil in the summer of 1973.

At seventeen I was excited to see again Jose’ the exchange student who the year previous had lived with and enriched my family. He introduced us to wine, broadened my appreciation for music, and told me stories of pristine beaches populated with scantily clad, beautiful women. At 17 how could I have not been excited to go to Brazil?

I knew other things of Brazil, a darker history of military coups, imprisonment, and a governing body of generals; the Brazilian flag proclaimed “Order and Progress”, but it was a progress to be done without progressives. Students, union leaders, intellectuals, artists, and actors were rounded up and sent to the gulag or exiled.

In honesty, however, the country’s underside didn’t much impinge on my awareness. I wandered the beaches, slack-jawed at the beauty I saw. In a small beach side village, macumba drumming pounded into the night, and walking the beach the next morning I found bouquets of flowers washed up onto the shore. As I bent over to pick one up, Jose’ warned me off. “Macumba,’ he said as he made the sign of the cross. Yet for all of my blissful absorption in beauty, a darkness of authority and repression was part of the atmosphere. Armed soldiers patrolled the streets, and military bands blared strident, brassy marches. I was counseled to keep my papers with me always.

Walking downtown with Jose one day, we were clowning: a string of puns, wisecracks and one upsmanship. Zinged by a cleaver retort, I affectionately grabbed Jose around his shoulders.

“Stop it,” he said.

Of course, I continued to hold him and started to shake him slightly, laughing and pushing him to and fro on the crowded sidewalk.

“Stop it,” he insisted, looking over my shoulder.

“Stop it,” I mocked him, laughing all the louder and, truth be told, enjoying the ease with which I was physically besting Jose’.

“Greg. Stop it now. We could be arrested by the soldiers for this.”

Augusto Boal was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured before being released into exile. Years later, after the rule of the Generals passed, he was allowed to return. He continued to work with the oppressed, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, to have the experience of oppression speak through him. His work spread around the world, his dream reaching beyond Brazil; a dream of freedom for the world.

Rest in Peace, Augusto Boal!

1 comment:

anno said...

Interesting pairing of personal experiences and political perspectives -- I enjoyed this. Thanks, too, for the introduction to Augusto Boal.