Human

A healthy dose of theatre

 By Giampaolo Cerri

In the green heart of Italy, a short distance from from Gubbio (PG) where 35 years ago Jacopo Fo founded the Free University of Alcatraz, rehearsals are underway for very special show: a play inspired by the oldest Italian theatrical tradition, that of Giovanni Boccaccio, full of gags, jests and sensuality, written by the Jacopo himself with his father Dario, and played by a group of Mozambican actors. A show that will tour around the north of Mozambique, from village to village, to break down the population’s the old suspicions of white people in white coats and a preference for curanderos, or shamans

For a moment the chatter of a forest in Umbria, at times almost deafening in the July heat, is dominated by a falsetto singing voice. Gentle notes with words in Portuguese. Then, again in Portuguese, two black women start talking intensely, until a voiceover, in an Italian with a marked Milanese accent interrupts them, adding jokes in Spanish: “Stop, un momentito, let’s do it again.”

Welcome to Theatre is Good for You where this little artistic Babel is just a taste of a proposed health communication project promoted in Mozambique by the Eni Foundation through theatre.

In the green heart of Italy, a short distance from from Gubbio (PG), in the most inaccessible part of the estate where 35 years ago Jacopo Fo founded the Free University of Alcatraz, among old oaks and holly oaks and close to an old mill, rehearsals are underway for very special show: a play inspired by the oldest Italian theatrical tradition, that of Giovanni Boccaccio, full of gags, jests and sensuality, written by the Jacopo himself with his father Dario, and played by a group of Mozambican actors.

A show that will tour around the north of Mozambique, from village to village, to break down the population’s the old suspicions of white people in white coats and a preference for curanderos, or shamans. Such a huge and widespread problem that the local government has tried, in a sort of compromise between modernity and ancestral rites, to use “more advanced” witch doctors to provide healthcare for the population.

Sing rehearsals

But coming back to the rehearsals immersed in the woods of Gubbio, the voiceover is that of Mario Pirovano, born in 1950 in Milan, and a actor historic member of Dario Fo’s theatrical ensemble. Moreover, Pirovano is the one who is responsible for translating into English the works of the most recent Italian Nobel laureate and, every year, performing them around Europe: from Mistero Buffo to Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.

Pirovano stops the action, telling Arlete and Ana Bela, the actresses who are rehearsing in that clearing, how to say a line more more effectively. “Ana Bela,” he says, “she is telling you how you can see your lover again. So, you must be surprised! Happy! Entiende? That way, it creates a positive tension in the audience.” In the linguistic sense, the actors are on it, but that’s not what is required. This particular Italo-African company speak the unique and international language of the play, which is as clear and comprehensible as grammelot, the idiom “invented” by Dario Fo himself.

“Ana Bela,” he says, “she is telling you how you can see your lover again. So, you must be surprised! Happy! Entiende? That way, it creates a positive tension in the audience.”

The other five actors, another young woman and four young men, watch attentively, following the script line by line. The engage in the exchange them. “Yes, that is much better, be surprised,” says Felix Bruno in Portuguese, who in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique is the director of the Luarte theatre group. With Arleta, an actress of the same company, he is one of two professionals in the group, selected by the staff of Jacopo Fo, in a casting made in the capital and in Palma, the main city in the district of the same name in the province of Cabo Delgado, close to Tanzania on the Indian Ocean. Palma and its district were in fact identified by the Eni Foundation as the area most in need of action on social and health education. And Simone Canova and Bruno Patierno flew to Palma, the former one of the animators of Alcatraz (where he edits the magazine Cocoa), the latter a long-time manager, to look for other actors: “Because,” explains the product manager of Theatre is Good for You, “the show that will visit the villages of this area must be translated into Swahili, the language spoken by the local Mozambicans.”

All the others come from Palma. Starting with Ana Bela, 34, a bright smile that, in normal life, works at the registry office of, but who, far from public records, acts in the Grupo do Funzionarios. Likewise, Adelino, a 40-year-old teacher of Portuguese, with an identical passion for the theatre, and Safina, 28, who runs a small grocery store, but who during the auditions overturned her apparent shyness, revealing an almost innate predisposition for acting. Another Adelino, the 31-year-old Goncalves, directs the Department of Education in Palma, that everybody knows as “Cuba”, also revealed a surprising and theatrical talent, and immediately after being chosen quickly became the group coordinator. But there is also a third Adelino, whose family name is Geraldo, also 31. In the Mozambican town he writes lyrics and music for a small company called Amodefa. Physically lanky, inseparable from his taqiyah, a Muslim prayer cap, worn with a Moschino-branded shirt, the third Adelino opens the show as an old-time minstrel, announcing the show to the public in a loud voice – “Boatarde a todos!” , good evening everyone – and promises “uma historia que fala sobre amor”, a story about love.

Dancing in the woods

Yes, because, in order to speak to men and women on the other side of the world, Jacopo Fo thought of a plot that speaks the universal language of feelings.

“The protagonist is the game of love,” says Fo. “I imagined a young woman, distressed by an arranged marriage, with a friend who, taking advantage of the absence of the husband, brings together her suitor, in the guise of a doctor.”

In addition to the happy end come positive messages to the audience, “such as the role of the doctor,” Fo underlines. “A figure who can be trusted, able also peer into the minds of people, as well as take care of the body.”

This is a job that required the team form Alcatraz to make a deep study of the reality of Mozambique, both at the traditional and cultural level, an an area of ​​the project’s web site ilteatrofabene.it has collected some ideas from the anthropologist Timi Gaspari. “We also had to conduct a thorough analysis of the Mozambican theatre, which proved to be extremely fruitful,” adds Patierno. “And so when we arrived and after the initial contacts, we discovered that Dario had already been staged there as well.”

Waiting for the show

The course in Italy of the new company – “you choose a name,” said Jacopo in the morning acting class – before rehearsing the final text, also involved working on the stage presence of the group. A task entrusted to the experience of Pirovano. “The important thing,” says the companion of many performances by Fo and Franca Rame, “was to establish a deep relationship with these actors. And I thought of La fame di Zanni, the prologue to Mistero Buffo.” It is the famous monologue in which the very hungry peasant imagines an almost ecstatic ideal, endless eating. “I wanted to make it clear, to these men and women, that also our history, some centuries ago, was a story of hunger and suffering,” he says.

Following him, line by line, through the linguistic contortions of the text, observing posture, rehearsing their own lines and scenes, day after day the seven Mozambicans also prepared the one-act play that will soon be performed in the villages of that strip of Africa.

“A very enriching experience,” said Felix Bruno. “And not only for the welcome of Jacopo and his family, but for what we are learning technically and theatrically. It is a meeting of knowledge, which for us, as actors, but also as a people, is extremely enriching.”

Following him, line by line, through the linguistic contortions of the text, observing posture, rehearsing their own lines and scenes, day after day the seven Mozambicans also prepared the one-act play that will soon be performed in the villages of that strip of Africa

A side effect of what Jacopo Fo has dubbed “the theatre of health”, has been other solidarity initiatives and not only the cooperation of Doctors for Africa, a historical NGO of Cuamm missionaries from Padua, but because every time the show is performed, also a series of sustainable objects, selected by the Free University of Alcatraz will be presented. Simple equipment that can help those people. “Beginning with a small pyrolysis stove, designed by the University of Udine,” he explains, “which can significantly break down the fumes that today saturate the homes of villages and  undermine people’s health.” And he shows what, on the surface, looks like a tin toy rather than a gem of low-cost technology that can change the lives of thousands of people.

As in our old country fairs, also in Cabo Delgado, after the show, there will be a demonstration, in the hope that some cooperation programme can subsequently sustain distribution. A clear demonstration that theatre is, in fact, good for you.

about the author
Giampaolo Cerri