.A Look from Behind Bars

Performance Offers Emotional Reflection on Life Before and After Prison

Anthony Michael Jefferson describes himself as a “returned citizen.” The actor, playwright and chef was incarcerated for 23 years in Soledad State Prison for first degree murder and was released in 2015. The Bumpy Road Less Traveled is Jefferson’s powerful one-person play that offers an emotional expression of his journey into prison and back out again.

The Bumpy Road Less Traveled is being performed on Friday at 7:00 PM at the UCSC Institute for the Arts and Sciences Art Gallery at 100 Panetta Avenue, near Natural Bridges State Beach. The event is free but space is limited and registration is required: 831-502-7252 / ias.ucsc.edu.

Jefferson lives in Pleasanton and has participated in Theatre Workers Project (TWP) programs since 2021. He was a lead actor in The Box, a dynamic traveling legislative theater production about solitary confinement, which toured the United States in 2022. Upon his parole, AJ enrolled in the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu, where he graduated with honors. 

INCARCERATION – LIBERATION – RESTORATION

JM: There’s a scene where you go before the parole board and someone says, “Just relax” and you say, “I haven’t relaxed in 23 years.” Tell me about performing and the meaning it holds for you.

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Anthony Jefferson: Theater and performing have brought me a greater sense of emotional awareness, of emotions I repressed while I was in the carceral world. I found the writing process to be therapeutic because in the retelling of the story, I got to work some of the angst and ills that were in me, out. If I can help someone have a small seed of an idea of what it was like being incarcerated, and then that idea blossoms into, “Instead of thinking of these individuals as garbage, maybe we can restore, rebuild, reunite.”

JM: I watched the video of your recent performance at Santa Monica Playhouse. Your level of emotional vulnerability was really touching.

AJ: And then there is my own emotional callousness that caused such a tragedy to occur. I get to work that out, wrestle with that. And I know this will sound almost ludicrous but I’m so thankful I was appropriately sentenced to prison for the heinous crime that I committed. It allowed me to find myself, to find the child within. And then that child began to form an adolescent attitude. That adolescent then became a young man. And then, the blossoming of the young man into a mature man.

I wrote this line five minutes after walking through the doors of Soledad prison and it’s my daily mantra; Looking through the eyes of appreciation, seeing beauty everywhere. That’s what my incarceration is, that’s what my liberation is. I’m glad I’ve gotten over some of the hurdles that incarceration puts on the human spirit. We all go through bumpy roads; mine happened to tragically cause another person their life, and made victims of not only my family, but also the victim’s family for generations.

SOMEONE’S LIFE ISN’T THERE

JM: Would you say more about this situation where you took someone’s life? How do you hold that now?

AJ: Each time I perform, each time I wake up. Each time I have an interview or write something, each time I take a meal – that person is with me. This is why I’m able to look through the eyes of appreciation and see beauty everywhere because at some point each day, someone’s life isn’t there. Someone isn’t able to hear, “We love you.” I’m always mindful of that. I never take a single day for granted.

JM: Have you ever had contact with that person’s family? What do you hope they would experience from your play?

AJ: Direct contact with the family? No. When I was given the privilege of coming back into this society, the Board of Paroles has very stringent policies on what you may or may not do. Would it be fair to make the family relive it if I were in contact? No. If they ever saw this play, I’d hope they’d see that there is honor to the life that was taken. But I can’t say that. In the 12 Steps, it’s a step of reconciliation to write those to whom you’ve done harm but it’s never recommended that you actually send that letter off. It was an exercise I did while I was incarcerated, about annually.

UNDER THREAT OF VIOLENCE

JM: Having spent 23 years in prison, what are your thoughts on abolition of police and prisons?

AJ: The easy answer would be to say that I’m an Abolitionist. To me, that’s superficial and lazy. Let’s go back to 1915 and the sensationalized film Birth of the Nation. This nation has always been divided. But we call it United. This nation has always held many down. The lands which we are on are Ohlone lands. We have a big, big problem other than just incarceration. The have nots have wanted to take from the haves because they don’t understand the psychological breakdown to which they have been broken down. I give no excuse but it is horrific what the Founding Fathers felt they needed to do to create this country. My father serveRE this country. I love and appreciate those who hold civic order. So that’s why I say it’s lazy to just say “abolition and defund.”

One of the lines from the third act of the show is, “Prison existence is one of the greatest and politest existence I’ve ever been in.” I know some people hearing that are thinking “What? You’ve got to be kidding.” But under the threat of violence, men that are of callous mind, body, and spirit will say, “Excuse me,” to the least of a person because of the threat of violence. The show Survivor “outplay, outwit, outlast” became my mantra because I realized that we have a penal system that is based on military regiment. I was raised in a military household and my father was a sergeant. My mother accepted that type of rule, because she loved him. So, I was raised in it.

STOP THE PUNITIVE MINDSET

JM: What about the potential of dealing with harmful actions without punishment?

AJ: Can we stop the punitive mindset at the earliest age? Yes. What if we teach that child who wants attention that we will not be punitive? Instead, what if that parent is evolved and that child now hears grace and mercy given? Then we have a generation growing up in that new way.

In the Black community there is a saying, “crabs in a barrel.” One crab is trying to get out but the other crabs grab it, inflict pain upon it, pull it down. It’s hard to change. It’s a spirit thing and then it becomes a mind thing and then it becomes a global thing.

Can we take some of the (police/prison) models from a place like Norway? A lot of our prison guards have been in the military. They were taught to deface, break-down. We can re-educate those who are holding the keys. If you treat another human being with dignity, courtesy and respect, because you have it within you, then that person’s self-worth, understanding, humility and grace begin to blossom. What if we start with liberation through education?

Jimi Hendrix is my guy. He said, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, then there will be peace.” What if that becomes a curriculum? Right? What if we were all about love? What if we were about dignity? What if the police were, also?

WORDS HAVE POWER

JM: In the play you recall your kindergarten teacher telling you, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never harm you.” This points to the possibility of choice when we react to other’s words.

AJ: Words have power. I’d lost sight of the meaning and power of words prior to my incarceration. For over a decade I fought with every fiber in my being to not allow the system, and those like myself being warehoused within its bowels, to assign certain words to me. Inmates wanted to label me a snitch, a punk or a bitch. Correctional personnel wanted me to be a Crip, a Blood, or BGF (Black Guerilla Family). When I committed the heinous act of murder, I forfeited my name. Then for the next ten years, I fought to regain my given name, Anthony Michael Jefferson. Now, I am looking to leave a legacy of honor, redemption, and joy. I’m still of the opinion that words have magical and harmful effects, which is why I choose mine very carefully. You are absolutely correct that we have the choice on how words land upon us.

JM: Tell me about the role of meditation in your process.

AJ: It was through the healing practice of meditation, mindfulness, and yoga that I came to the conclusion I could dispel, heal, and cast forward positive words. The teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, Yeshua, Mandela, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Nesta Marley, and Aretha Franklin began to remold and shape me. In the later years of my incarceration, I would incorporate bits and pieces of the aforementioned. In doing performances, I hope to find a balance. The balance to share, to evoke emotion, and maybe to be a call to restoration.Listen to this interview with AJ on Thursday at noon on “Transformation Highway” with John Malkin on KZSC 88.1 FM / kzsc.org

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