A proposed Musical Theater piece is based on the documentary Waste Land (Lixo Extraordinário)
Back in April of 2011, I became struck with the idea of turning the Academy Award-nominated documentary Waste Land (2010) into a musical. Don’t ask me why, it was one of those mad obsessions I get from time to time.
I had been trying for weeks to get in touch with Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz, who was one of several driving forces behind the documentary, but without success. It was his penchant for taking discarded trash and turning them into extraordinary works of art that first captured my attention. Vik’s peculiar habit of photographing the end result led to unique objets d’arts involving, for example, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper or a snapshot of Jackson Pollack outlined in chocolate syrup.
Other objects were comprised of such everyday household items as a strip of wire, a used light bulb, a roll of toilet paper, a spiral notebook, and similar materials. Muniz would arrange the objects in as artful a manner as possible and simply photograph them. For his series “Pictures of Garbage,” he photographed the residents of the Jardim Gramacho (Garden of Garbage) slum, in Rio de Janeiro, in poses reminiscent of famous paintings, i.e., Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, Gustave Courbet’s The Gleaners, a Renaissance Madonna with children, and various others.
To my mind, a Waste Land – The Musical project would be an extension of Vik’s creative vision. In a 2010 Art in America article, he explained to interviewer Michael Slenske that one is “always dealing with preconceived ideas… of the value of materials, so the point of departure is familiarity.” In the case of the film, Vik “departed from the [preconceived] image” of garbage as foul-smelling and useless rubbish, transforming what others had discarded into images of poignancy and dignity, as well as beauty.
I was so impressed and moved by Vik’s efforts, and by the documentary itself, that I simply had to approach him about my idea. Although I never got to speak with Vik, I did have a lengthy conversation with the film’s producer, Angus Aynsley, who is also the main copyright holder along with O2 Filmes in São Paulo, Brazil.
My thought was to create a musical presentation in the spirit of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, where the personal back stories of the inhabitants of Jardim Gramacho are spotlighted and emphasized. It would be a marvelous way to pay tribute to the wonderful work of Tião, Zumbi, Isis, Irmã, Magna, Suelem and the late and much-lamented Valter.
With Brazil being the focus in 2014, in which ACAMJG (Association of Garbage Pickers of Jardim Gramacho) are the official World Cup recyclers, and especially the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, this would be a great opportunity to bring the story of the catadores of Jardim Gramacho to the world stage.
As well, it would help to focus on their struggles by bringing aid and comfort to those less fortunate than ourselves. What better way to do this than through a musical adaptation that everyone could enjoy and participate in?
I began with a listing of the dramatis personae:
Tião (Sibby) – The leader of the garbage pickers
Irmã (Big Sister)
Carlão (Big Carl)
Suelem (Sue Ellen)
Jô Soares – Brazilian TV personality
Act I: Conflict
The setting is Rio de Janeiro, behind Guanabara Bay. In the background we see the mountains, with Corcovado looming in the distance, far to the right. One can make out the statue of Christ the Redeemer silhouetted from behind.
It is still dark; the time is just before daybreak. As the sun slowly rises, we begin to distinguish the outlines of ramshackle homes and makeshift shantytowns, their lights flickering in the dawn. With the sun’s appearance, the lights in the theater go up as well — slowly, methodically, in time to the music.
What the audience doesn’t realize, but eventually begins to notice, is that the mountains in the foreground are, in reality, huge garbage heaps piled high with refuse, reaching almost to the top of the proscenium. There is ample illumination, with the only shade provided by the massive piles, mounds of trash in the midst of filth and decay. The scene is reminiscent of Peter Brueghel the Elder’s 1563 painting of “The Tower of Babel,” with openings, archways, windows, etc. It is a unit set that serves a multipurpose function.
It becomes clear in the morning mist that Rio (read: Brazil) has turned its back on the impoverished, those downtrodden souls who labor for a living while providing “clean-up duty” to those residing in the lap of luxury, just beyond their reach. These poor folk are spurned, rejected, ostracized by society. Why, even Christ himself has turned away from the garbage pickers (symbolized by our view of His backside).
This is the horrid, sorry realm of people who live on the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder. “Garbage” equates to the type of persons picking it: that is, they are of no value, worthless, suitable only for tossing aside, once they are used up — a metaphor for the pickers themselves.
Number 1: “The Waste Land Song” – The catadores, or “garbage pickers,” who come out from behind the huge mounds, now appear, individually and collectively, in the opening number. They sing of their lot, each one in his or her fashion. This is “The Waste Land Song,” the first few lines of which are:
Seven thousand tons of trash
Work all day for little cash
Robbing Peter, paying Paul
Look, here comes another haul
It’s a Waste Land
We meet them, one by one, as they introduce themselves to us: there is Tião (Sibby), the president of ACAMJG, an acronym for the Association of Garbage Pickers Union; Zumbi (Zombie), Suelem (Sue Ellen), Isis, Irmã (Big Sister), Valter (Walter), the group’s philosopher-poet; Carlão (Big Carl) and his wife, and Magna — the main characters of our story and residents of the Jardim Gramacho (“Garden of Garbage”) neighborhood. They are denizens of this “Waste Land,” one of the world’s largest landfills.
Landfills, by necessity, are dead and lifeless places, akin to a cemetery or graveyard, in that there are dead and rotting things in them. All around, buzzards are seen circling overhead or swooping down onto the piles of refuse, constantly on the lookout in a never-ending search for sustenance.
The analogy of a graveyard is a crucial one, for it will determine the staging in many respects, as well as become instrumental in shaping the personalities of the play’s characters who, in many cases, have spent their entire lives there as pickers. Leoš Janáček’s From the House of the Dead is a good comparison, in particular the late Patrice Chéreau’s staging at the Metropolitan Opera House in 2009.
Although, like the characters in the Janáček opera, their lives are bleak and the work is constant drudgery in the extreme, the catadores somehow manage to keep their sense of humor about it all. Most are a happy, contented lot — unlike the put-upon individuals of Les Misérables who are incapable of masking a lifetime of hurt and suffering. So the landfill is not entirely lifeless; in fact, it’s teeming with vitality.
Number 2: “Valter’s Verse” – Valter, the landfill’s elder statesman and resident philosopher-poet, is the first to come out. He sings a number about his credo in life:
It goes like this:
Here’s wisdom aplenty
Ninety-nine is not a hundred
And nineteen is not twenty
Meaning that if even one object is rescued from the garbage heap and recycled, that’s one less of the total mess. It’s his life’s mission to rescue “that single one” that “will make all the difference.” He might be referring to the garbage pickers, which is, rescuing even one of them from a life of drugs, crime and prostitution, is a life that is itself worth preserving and/or “recycling.” Valter knows what he is talking about, having spent 26 years as a garbage picker, as well as vice president of ACAMJG and representative to over 2,500 pickers. He wears his responsibility with seriousness of purpose along with dignity and pride.
Number 3: “Isis’ Lack of Luck” – She talks about her “boyfriend,” a truck driver, who happens to be married to someone else. They recently broke up, after she had already tattooed his name on her leg. “It’s over,” she blurts out sadly. Five years she’s been working in the landfill. “It’s disgusting,” she muses. “I make $20-25 dollars a day. This isn’t a future. Not for me, it isn’t.”
Number 4: “Tião’s Tale” – He is the president of the association of rag pickers, a natural-born leader, and a person that all the pickers look up to for counsel and advice. He has a different take on his role at the landfill. “I have nothing to complain about in my life,” he declares, “nothing, nothing at all.” Not yet, he doesn’t. Dead bodies are sometimes dumped there, he claims, especially during the drug wars. But for now, things are relatively quiet. He sings about finding a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince and, after reading it, comparing the story in the book to the reality of slum life in Rio: “l learned a lot from it.”
Number 5: Ballet Dream Sequence: “Delivery Truck” – A truck comes along and unloads more garbage onto the heap. The pickers climb all over it, like ants on an enormous mound. This begins a ballet dream sequence, as if the workers are wrapped in a trance, methodically going about their monotonous routine. The pickers find some unused hotel and restaurant food, as they toss it to Irmã (“Big Sister”) for her to work her magic on, which segues into the next number.
Number 6: “Irmã’s Ode” – Irmã, strong, steadfast, full of spunk and good humor, is the camp’s only cook. She recycles the food she finds in the heap, “beef stew,” “rib steak,” whatever she can get her hands on. She turns the unused portions into a gourmet meal for the pickers. “We feel good in here. I don’t let anyone go hungry. I feel very good.”
Number 7: “Magna’s Yarn: The Bus Ride” – Magna talks about being on the bus — again, illustrated, in parallel, almost as if the scene were taking place before our eyes. She is on the bus going home, smelling of garbage as usual, saying to the other passengers, “It’s because I work in the dump. Hey, it’s better than turning tricks on Copacabana Beach. I find it more interesting and more honest. More dignified, but it’s disgusting. Still, we have to pay the bills. And no one ever stops to think: where does all that garbage go? It goes here, my friend. Right here…”
Number 8: “Zumbie’s Story” – Responding to Magna’s complaint, Zumbie finally has his say. He has a stutter: “I don’t want my son to be no garbage pi-pi-picker,” he cries. “A la-la-lawyer, yes… but a pi-pi-picker…? No, no w-w-way!” Suddenly, he shouts to the other pickers. “Watch out for the tra-tra-tractor!” Books are his thing, as he is the landfill’s resident “librarian,” always finding new and used volumes in the heaps to recycle for his expanding collection. His father died, “when I was nine years old. Mom died too.” He tells a sad story of his life, up to that point.
Number 9: “Suelem’s Lot” – Suelem adds her own two cents: “I started at seven, now I’m eighteen. A baby was thrown away — we see some unpleasant things here, you know.” It’s even more unpleasant for her when she tells everyone she’s pregnant with another child. “If the rent is late, it goes up. I have to pay it on time.” She already has a little boy and a girl. Their father is a drug dealer; the rats run along their roof. Suelem dreams of opening a daycare center one day: “I love children.” She takes us on a tour of her house, which is located in the next slum where she and her extended family live — so many people in one tiny place.
Number 10: “Name That Trash” – Next, there is a comic scene wherein the garbage pickers discuss whose trash they find: “This is middle-class trash. Poor is the trash of the poor. It comes in little plastic bags.” They find some discarded Playboy magazines and marvel at its eye-popping contents. “Are there really such women in the world?” They begin to wonder aloud.
Number 11: “Finale” – The finale to Act One is a crisis of immense proportions. A robbery is in progress. A gang of thieves or drug addicts (nobody knows for sure) enters and holds up the office. The gang takes off with whatever money the pickers’ daily toil has gotten them. Left without any means to support and feed their families for the month, the catadores moan their loss. What can they do now? An ensemble closes the act, with the principal themes and melodies of the characters’ songs building, reappearing and intertwining, with each of their individual thoughts, hopes and dreams (as well as failures) restated, in essence converging in one massed chorus.
“Hey, watch out!” somebody screams. All of a sudden, one of the catadores is hurt as a garbage truck empties its contents on top of him, while the others come quickly to his rescue. One of the members announces, “It’s Zumbi.” He has broken his arm and leg, and cracked several ribs. What will happen to them, to their families, their friends, their livelihood?
Indeed, their very existence is threatened by these unforeseen incidents. Who will help them in their hour of need? Who will take them out of their misery? Tião is seen weeping: “I just feel like giving up on all of this. I don’t want to stay here anymore.” He buries his face in his hands and shakes his head from side to side.
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes