Sunlight streamed through soaring arched windows in a wood-paneled room on the second floor of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York’s South Oxford building in Brooklyn. The room’s warmth was a welcome reprieve from the slightly chilly air on a Thursday afternoon in May. But the atmosphere in the room also evoked another kind of warmth that was less about the temperature in the space and more about the tone Brazilian theatre director Marina Zurita was cultivating in it.
Inside the room, Brazilian actor Josanna Vaz and Bahamian American actor Alecsys Proctor-Turner were delving into a scene from Zurita’s latest play, Riven, created in collaboration with Vaz and another performer, Laila Garroni. The play is a tale derived from research and interviews that focuses on the relationship between two Black women waste pickers, or catadoras, in Brazil.
Within a few minutes of starting the rehearsal for the play—showing for just one night at the Artist Studio at BRIC Arts in Brooklyn on June 3—it was evident that Zurita’s welcoming directorial style allows everyone to participate and help shape the narrative. In a matter of minutes, Vaz and Proctor-Turner, with script in hand, transformed into Melina and Alessandra, respectively, two friends who work together sorting waste in São Paulo, while contemplating their lives’ complexities and navigating the world at large.
Riven also interrogates the intersections of motherhood and the accumulation of waste. The characters endure troubled relationships, abuse, and more, but in their friendship is a level of care that Melina in particular struggles to accept. Melina pushes Alessandra away because she doesn’t think she deserves it, Vaz observed. But it’s obvious the two characters care for one another. As the actors read lines charged as much with sadness as with love, the bespectacled Zurita, quiet and observant, checked in to ask if the dialogue felt right, and, if not, what might be cut.
Riven has been in development for a few years. Zurita wrote an earlier version of the play, Mother Tongue, based on the same research while matriculating at the University of North Carolina, School of the Arts. (UNCSA). The most recent version of the play was workshopped and presented in Northampton, Mass., in April as part of the L.A.B. at Available Potential Enterprises (A.P.E.). The L.A.B. at A.P.E., in collaboration with Serious Play Theatre Ensemble, supports new work “through residency, mentorship, and ongoing conversation with peers.” Zurita connected with A.P.E. through Mollye Maxner, one of the organization’s two co-directors and former theatre professor at UNCSA. Zurita counts Maxner as a mentor.
The sense of community borne out of the journey of this work-in-progress was on full display in the room, and in the narrative itself. Zurita wouldn’t have it any other way. As a theatremaker, she said she aims to master the art of collaboration; it’s the driving force behind her work.
“What I truly love to do is create stories in a collaborative way,” said Zurita. “To do that fully, what I’m finding is that I need to, as a director, figure out ways to create a place where genius can be a collective thing.”
She understands that this is no easy feat, in part because of the systems and structures that dictate who gets and keeps power. The play features three actors of color: Vaz, Proctor-Turner, and Isabelle Bushue, who portrays a child picker.
“It’s hard, because we have so much introjected in us, even just with the role of the director as the person who should be leading. How do you dismantle that?” she wondered. Zurita talked about how walking into a room with a white body has its own implications, but aims to change what she can. “It’s hard, and I fail all the time, but that’s my task—that’s what I’m after,” she said.
Zurita’s research consisted of 35 interviews with catadoras in her native São Paulo in 2021 over a couple of months, from which she began to craft a theatre piece with UNCSA students for the first iteration of the play. Zurita conducted and translated the interviews, but what remained was determined by the feedback from actors with interests in individual interviews or gut feelings about the stories chosen. “Melina and Alessandra were born in that iteration,” Zurita said.
When thinking about moving forward with the piece, Zurita invited Garroni and Vaz, whom she met through mutual friends, to collaborate with her.
COVID turned out to be the container that provided her the space to explore the world of the catadores. While on lockdown, she reread Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, set in wartorn 17th-century Europe, about a woman selling provisions to all sides in the conflict from a wagon, and Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina Maria DeJesus, a memoir by a Black woman detailing life in the favelas in the 1950s, in which the title woman would search for paper and scrap metal to sell to feed her children. The two felt similar, Zurita explained, especially the image of Mother Courage with her wagon and the metal carts of waste pickers. But Mother Courage is fictional yet famous, she pointed out, while Brazil’s 20 million waste pickers are real but nearly invisible.
With Riven, Zurita aims to raise awareness about this marginalized, often Black and brown population, whose important job of picking and sorting waste to be recycled aids in conserving resources but whose world is rife with prejudice, shame, and the lack of proper protections or recognition. That is beginning to change: Zurita said that catadores in Brazil have begun to organize, creating co-ops—she mentioned one called Filadélfia—and making their voices heard.
“Waste picking in Brazil is a social-political movement, so there is a lot of organization there,” Zurita said. “They serve such a big role in Brazil; 90 percent of the waste that gets recycled is sorted by the pickers. So fundamentally they are the basis of the recycling industry, yet they are not remunerated fairly by the government. They don’t have the rights and the benefits that they should have. So people got organized.”
For instance, Zurita noted, two women who make up “the spine of Melina” are in the Filadélfia co-op. One of the members had to be out of work for a year to care for a relative, so other co-op members worked day and night so she would continue to get paid.
Giving voice to a group that’s often overlooked aligns with Proctor-Turner’s ethos. The actor, who was raised in Miami and is currently pursuing an MFA in acting at Columbia University, said she wants to be a vessel for those whose voices aren’t always heard. “And because somebody didn’t listen to them, me, the actor—I’m going to cry out even louder for that person,” she explained.
Vaz, a veteran film, TV, and theatre actress, said she was 10 years old when she stepped up onstage, and it felt like home immediately. Vaz believes that art is our most truthful human expression, and acting is a voyage that Vaz wants to take the audience on.
“I like to look in the audience’s eyes and tell them they can come with me,” said Vaz, a force of an actor who displays a vast range of emotion throughout the rehearsal. “There’s a game that we’re playing together, and through this game, we will discover our next step as humanity together. It’s my way of praying and my way of creating community.”
Community anchors both the narrative and its realization. While much of the story is about the relationship between Melina, whom Zurita called “more of a collage” or composite character, and Alessandra, who is “very much based on an interview with Priscilla Gaudinho,” it’s also about this larger thread of community between a group of people who, when the government doesn’t provide what’s needed, find it in themselves.
That sense of community, and the joy that the catadores expressed in their interviews despite the troubles they share, is something Zurita wants to make sure is present. Otherwise, she said, “We’re just observing, right?”
As Vaz put it, these catadores who are helping to save the planet by sorting through our waste “know us deeply, and we don’t even see them.”
We can certainly see them in Riven. If genius can be collective, maybe political consciousness can be too.
Jacquinn Sinclair (she/her) is freelance writer covering the arts, food, and travel. Her work has appeared in multiple publications include WBUR The Artery, Boston Globe, and Boston Art Review.
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