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  • Prison Performing Arts


An interview with Jaclyn Oden-Peace, who joined PPA as an intern in September 2018 as part of the XPLORE program.

How were you first introduced to PPA? I ended up at PPA due to being a resident in the XPLOR program. XPLOR is a 10-month social justice residency program sponsored by the National Benevolent Association (NBA) through the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). After applying and being accepted into the program, residents are placed at a nonprofit internship. I was placed at PPA and the rest is history!

What were your first impressions of the organization? Before XPLOR assigns internships, you are told the city, or “house,” you will be going to. Once I was told I would be coming to St. Louis and saw the description for PPA, I immediately told myself, “That’s the one I want.” PPA is so unique. It is not only sought after in the St. Louis house, but in all the other XPLOR houses as well. Everyone hears about PPA’s mission and the one-of-a-kind experience you’ll get working here, and wishes they could play a part as well. After first beginning my work here, I couldn’t believe such powerful, important work was being pulled off by such a small team of people. I realized you don’t need a huge organization to make a big impact on people’s lives. Did your interest in prison reform begin before or after you kicked off the XPLOR internship? From a very young age my interest with prison reform was peaked due to my involvement in a prison radio show. A very close family friend, Jim Parks, was involved in Less Than the Least Prison Ministry and would take me to the radio station that broadcast to the prisons when I was a little girl. I would also help his wife, Glenda, in her efforts to send letters to the inmates. I saw how much they cared, and how hard they worked to make a population who are so often forgotten about feel heard and loved. I’ve carried that with me my whole life. It feels almost symbolic or cyclical in a way that all these years later I have ended up here. Especially now that Jim has passed away, it makes me feel good that I can make him proud by carrying on the work he taught me so long ago. What has been a defining moment so far? Has anything changed (or reinforced) how you understand performance art? Witnessing the hard work and amazing talent of our actors is always something that stands out to me. I am blown away by every performance. Another part that sticks out to me is the audience’s response to these performances. I have been brought to tears multiple times just seeing the look on the actor’s faces when a complete stranger, or even a family member, tells them that they are proud to have witnessed such beautiful art, or even that they’re just proud of them in general. For a demographic of people who are rarely told anything positive, who aren’t even treated as if they are people, it is so powerful to see them congratulated and praised. Not just because people are trying to be nice, but because they truly put on performances worthy of praise. Something that I have been reminded of is how vulnerable you have to be through this whole process. I danced, sang, played piano, acted… basically anything I could do to get on a stage, I signed up! I have no problem baring my soul, but for some people taking that step onto the stage or writing personal narrative for a play is a very vulnerable process. Our actors have even said that PPA is the only place they can be vulnerable. Watching people who have never acted before, or even seasoned performers who work up the confidence to lay it all out there for stranger or their fellow inmates that may give them a hard time really reminds me how important art is. You aren’t just pretending to be a character, you are transforming into something else and sharing it with the world. What was it like moving to St. Louis from Houston? Fitting all the necessities into two suitcases, a duffel bag, and a backpack was a little challenging but the move overall was pretty great. Surprisingly, the only thing I was really nervous about was 1) living with complete strangers and 2) not having my car. Houston is obviously a VERY big city, so I was already accustomed to city life. It has sometimes proved a challenge to get around St. Louis on the bus, but I am making it work.  I was not prepared for the winter and still have not quite grown accustomed to the snow, but after quickly going and buying my very first pair of thermals, things got a tiny bit better. Though I’ve always been a city girl, Houston and St. Louis are very different and I have enjoyed getting to experience all this city has to offer.

The XPLOR program does more than expose you to potential career or vocational paths; what other life lessons have you learned, moving away from home and living on your own in a big city? XPLOR has four cornerstones the program is focused around: Spiritual Deepening and Vocational Discernment, Community Engagement and Justice Work, Leadership Development, and Simple Living in Intentional Community. I have learned so much about each cornerstone through amazing volunteer opportunities through PPA, as well as my two roommate’s internships. Getting involved in the community has tied in all of the social justice work we do and has impacted the lives of the people for whom we are working so hard to provide a better future. XPLOR pays each resident a small monthly stipend that really challenges and pushes you to learn how to live simply and in community with one another. My roommates and I have learned how to budget and to really make a dollar stretch. This cornerstone has really taught me how to live off a limited income, and successfully live in an environment with people who are different than me. Conflicts may arise, but as an adult you have to know how to communicate and work things out. Though we all come from different parts of the country and have lived very different lives, we get along great and try our best to make the most of the ten months we have together. As young adults there is this ever-looming sense that we have to figure it out all right now and everything must happen one right after another. XPLOR has shown me that everyone is on their own journey and timeline. Some people question residents who have graduated college and then decide to do this program. I get questions like, “You’re taking a year off?” or “Why aren’t you getting a job to start your career?” I’m young and can afford to take 10 months to have opportunities I never would have dreamed I would, all while doing important social justice work. This is by no means a year off from anything. This is hard, life changing work that most people don’t ever get to experience. You're rehearsing for "Quick-Brewed Macbeth" in Pacific, MO. What is it like working with the men out there? Being a part of QBM has definitely been the highlight of my time here so far. I look forward to waking up early every Monday to rehearse with the men (which those who know me, can see what a HUGE statement that is as I am NOT a morning person). The camaraderie in this group of guys is so fun to watch. I am constantly cracking up their jokes or comments.  However when it is time to buckle down and be serious, they deliver. I have been so impressed with the level of performance they bring. They are gentlemen to the other guest actress Sophia Brown, and me. They really respect us often ask advice and are eager to learn from our own acting experiences. Some of the guys have even shared with us how much it means that we would volunteer our time to perform a play with them. We’ve shared some truly touching moments and I learn from them just as much as they learn from me.

How has your perception of life inside prison changed since working so directly with PPA? I have been very involved in our Alumni Company (ex-offenders who wish to continue performing after their re-entry) who are writing their own play titled “Kept Away” about parents and their relationships with their children while they are incarcerated. I have always known there is a social justice issue surrounding the incarcerated population, but hearing their personal stories and writings has really shed light on those specific issues. Rehabilitation is a huge issue, which is why PPA is so important. Yes, on paper the actors we work with have been convicted or a crime. However, the punishment is serving their time — not a life of suffering because the system has failed them and not taught them how to re-enter into society. Being stripped away from family, missing your whole child’s life, and having a record are all things that come along with serving that time; that time should also include being prepared for re-entry. How do you expect someone who has served 15-20 years to enter a literal whole new world and be successful? On a more positive end, I had considered that due to their quality of life, some actors may have a downtrodden attitude, but I was proven wrong. No matter what they are dealing with in and outside of those prison walls, they always come to rehearsal with smiling faces, excited to work.

How do you see this experience shaping your future? I never thought my work involving the prisons as a child would ever come back full circle as it has. I am now a certified Volunteer in Corrections and have an I.D. that allows me to volunteer in Missouri prisons for a whole year. This experience has motivated me to want to continue to be involved with PPA, or any program for that matter, that does work with the incarcerated populations.  My time as a whole in the XPLOR program has shown me that the right next step for me is to go back and finish school. Before finding XPLOR and PPA, I would probably still be washing dogs in the grooming department of my old job. I love the people and the work I did there, but it definitely wasn’t my life’s calling. My old co-workers, church, family and friends have been so supportive of what I am doing here with XPLOR and PPA, and I know that whatever next steps I take I will be successful. The skills I have learned from every aspect of my time here in St. Louis have made me a better person and will be with me for the rest of my life.

What are you looking most forward to in your final months of work with PPA? The Quick Brewed Macbeth performance is April 25th, which is only 2 months before I complete my time with PPA. I am so excited for our performance and to see all the hard work paid off when we give the audience a show they won’t soon forget! I also thoroughly enjoy spreading the word about PPA. Whether it be Uber drivers, someone on the bus, or people I meet through mutual friends, I love telling them what I do. I carry our brochures and information cards in my backpack and hand them out whenever I can. More people need to know about the amazing work done by PPA. Everyone I have met and shared the mission of our work is always SO intrigued. There may be some slight apprehension about being scared to go into the prisons, or being around “dangerous” people, but I always assure them that’s not how myself or the wonderful people I work with look at it. They are people like you and me.  I always like to bring up the quote of PPA’s founder Agnes Wilcox, who would always preface every performance to the audience with “These actors are just like us, the only difference is for the worst thing we ever did…we didn’t get caught.” If I can come all the way from Houston and learn and grow from all PPA has to offer for over 20 years now, there is no reason why people in St. Louis shouldn’t know about the heart of this organization that is in their own backyards.

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