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Member Profiles- Summer 2014

In the summer 2014 edition we feature Lisa Biggs, Assistant Professor in the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University (biggslis@msu.edu).

LISA BIGGS

How did you become interested in the field of women and/or gender and crime?

From 1999-2001, I worked as a performer and teaching artist at the Living Stage Theatre Company, one of the preeminent theatre for social change programs in the U.S. We offered theatre workshops to a group of women who were enrolled in a comprehensive drug and alcohol detox program in Washington, DC, called Crossing the River. Unlike many other programs, Crossing the River allowed participants to keep their families in tact while they were in treatment, providing housing and comprehensive counseling to the mother and child(ren).

To complement these services, Living Stage offered regular theatre, poetry and creative writing workshops to the women. They were amazing! Women would often come in the early stages of detox, shaky and afraid, really needing a hit. Rebecca Rice, the lead facilitator and my mentor, would welcome them, acknowledge their discomfort, and tell them not to worry because, “Before you leave here, I will make you high – not from any substance like crack or heroin, but from something you find within.” Of course they thought she was crazy, but after a few minutes of reading, writing, singing and dancing, and, of course, scene work, they would find themselves forgetting their physical discomfort. They would be laughing, crying (sometimes both at the same time), and really involved in some serious play. The time would fly by, and before they knew it, they would have dealt with some serious stuff they’d been keeping inside for years through a poem, a character or song. Something that had haunted them or that they had carried for a long time would suddenly feel lighter, or at least, less scary.

Crossing the River participants always would tell us that they learned so much about themselves from our sessions. But as a young African American woman, I learned much, much, more from them, about family, about surviving, about being a woman and a mother, and about cultivating a deep well of self-worth. The personal storytelling processes that underlined the theatre and writing workshops helped me understand how laws and public policies have inhibited far too many people’s ability to live and to thrive in our society. The stories also taught me how other women have nonetheless found ways to live despite being forced into the most marginalized spaces. It was eye opening. I realized that but for a few opportunities here or there and a few key choices, it could have been me on the other side. I had been granted an enormous privilege when I was invited to join the circle and I learned from it. The women’s stories have stayed with me ever since.

When I had the freedom to write about anything I wanted in graduate school, I returned to this community. My work on the impact of arts programs for imprisoned women grew out of these experiences. I continue to investigate theatre for incarcerated women as a site of women’s organizing and mobilization from prison and jail sites across the U.S. and transnationally through collaborations with artist/activists in South Africa. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my teachers at Living Stage, Crossing the River, New York University, Amherst College and Northwestern University for opening my eyes to the ways performance can engage power, encourage participation, and enrich social movements.

How do you define yourself as a scholar/activist/educator?

I consider myself an artist-activist-scholar in that order because I came to academia after working for some 12 years as an actress and teaching artist doing Theatre for Social Change workshops with people of all ages and backgrounds. I have long been interested in telling stories of marginalized communities, including my own as young Black woman and girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago, then entering the Ivy League as an undergrad at Amherst College and later, as a actress trying to manage my own commercialization while keeping my integrity. Now, my work has shifted to other foci, but the underlying drive to break silences that hold people in fixed, static and deadly places continues. The methods I use to so have only expanded over time.

What are your current projects or interests?

My ongoing interest is in the performance of justice, law enforcement and prisoner rehabilitation. It is currently expressed through research on the impact of theatre and dance programs for incarcerated women confined in the US and South Africa, and new collaborations with people whose lives are touched in other ways by criminal legal systems. In January 2014, Michigan State University (MSU) became a host site for the Atonement Project. Developed by Shaka Senghor (a formerly incarcerated Michigan native) and University of Michigan Professor Ashley Lucas, the Atonement Project is an innovative, arts-based approach to addressing issues that many crime victims and people who have committed crimes find difficult to discuss (i.e. forgiveness and reconciliation). Participants work to create spaces, both through an interactive website and through arts workshops in prisons and in communities affected by crime, where the arts and creativity can help us bridge the divides created by crime and incarceration. The long-term goal of the workshops, which I help to administer at MSU, is to bring together people whose lives have been shaped by crime so that we can join our efforts to prevent further harm to our families, loved ones, and communities (http://www.lsa.umich.edu/pcap).

I continue to develop original theatre and dance pieces on a variety of issues, in particular on activism through performance. I’m currently working on a solo that loosely explores the life and work of a 19th century white woman abolitionist, Abby Kelly. Kelly heard famed abolitionist and orator William Lloyd Garrison speak at a Quaker meeting in the early 1800s, and in the tradition of her faith, realized that she could not walk away from what she heard in ignorance. She was compelled to fight for the cause of abolition, propelled -- the story goes-- by the ghost of a once-enslaved Black woman who “rode” (possessed) her. My solo shares Kelly’s story, but also investigates how white women became leaders in the anti-slavery movement at a time when they were banished from the public sphere. I am particularly interested in how they are able to enter the public sphere as experts on the topic by “appropriating” the voice, bodies, mannerisms, and traumatic stories of enslaved Black women. As I devise the piece, I keep coming back to the question, is this just another, more acceptable form of blackface minstrelsy? If we are to believe, as Kelly’s audiences did at the time, that the soul of a formerly enslaved Black woman possessed her, what made Abby Kelly the finest conduit? And, what did the ghost get out of the exchange?

Who is your favorite person (or animal!) to spend time with, and what are your favorite things to do when you are with them?

My closest friends are scattered around the world now, in Chicago, Lansing, DC, Doha, New York, New Orleans, and beyond. When we are together, we often go see theatre or dance shows, or attend fundraisers for causes that we are passionate about like HIV/AIDS. We cook for each other, laugh, dance, play with the kids, and drink wine.

How do you wind down after a stressful day?

In the ideal world, I would find time everyday to get some sunshine, hit the gym or do yoga, and hang out with close friends or family. More often than not a decent meal is about all I can get in before the exhaustion of being a first-year professor sets in.

What obstacles do you feel you have overcome to be where you are today?

I consistently have had to face other people’s limited perceptions and prejudices about what a Black woman can accomplish and contribute. As a teenager, I had an aged white guidance counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools tell me I wasn’t smart enough to go to Amherst College. I ultimately graduated from there with honors. Admittedly, Amherst wasn’t easy. I had to find a way to get an education that did more than train me to read the classics, an education that would help answer my burning questions about the world and prepare me to investigate new ones on my own. This meant finding the courage to move against the tide of other students turning towards more conservative courses in law and investment banking to find those radical and progressive professors who could educate me about politics, movement building, art and activism. As a young working actress, I had to confront overwhelmingly white male directors, casting directors, actors and producers’ limited beliefs about what a Black female body could signify, represent and embody on stage and on screen. Later, inexperience and doubt hampered experiments in devising and presenting my own work. As one who entered academia after having had a career in another field, most recently I have had to play catch up in terms of learning the latest scholarship in my discipline, Performance Studies. Today, as a new professor I am again faced with a steep learning curve and the feelings of insecurity that come with any new job. The biggest obstacle, however, has been the persistent droning barrage of noise emanating implicitly and explicitly from some media, political organizers and popular culture channels that assert time and again that women ain’t shit, people of color ain’t shit, and Black women really ain’t shit. We are all swimming in these polluted waters, whether we know it or not. And they do shape who we are, what we know, how we act, and what we believe and dream.

What would you like to be remembered for?

My sense of humor, artistry, scholarship, organizing, and teaching.

What is one of your lifelong goals?

Aside from creating beautiful and thought-provoking theatre, dance, and scholarship that shifts people’s knowledge about poor, criminalized people of color in the U.S.?  Honestly, I don’t really think in terms of lifelong goals. Not because I don’t think they can be valuable guides, but because living has been so dynamic and unpredictable. Many of the things I wanted to do as a teenager I have largely accomplished, though never in the way I imagined when I was 14.  Challenges I never imagined I would have to tackle years ago – even a couple days or hours ago – have shifted my life course in ways that have rendered old goals obsolete. The unexpected opportunities I have had over the years have transformed my vision of who I am and what I might accomplish. Now, if I could do one thing immediately, I admit I would make readily available effective cures for pediatric cancer, HIV/AIDS, mental illness, greed, poverty, sexism, homophobia, and bigotry.

Is there a website where we can send people for more information about you?

My faculty page at Michigan State is http://rcah.msu.edu/people/faculty-staff/biggs. I maintain my own site that features upcoming projects and publications at http://lisabiggs.org/ and blog at http://drapetomaniacs.wordpress.com/

What are one or two of your publications that you feel best represent your work?

In fall 2013, I published a chapter in the anthology Solo/Black/Woman: Scripts, Interviews, Essays, edited by E. Patrick Johnson and Ramon Rivera-Servera. “In the Space Between Living and Dying: Rhodessa Jones’s Big-Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women” is an analysis of the impact solo theatre performances can have on contemporary discourse about women’s criminality. My chapter focuses on Jones’s seminal piece, Big-Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women, which was inspired by her experiences teaching aerobics and theatre in a women’s jail in San Francisco. My writing situates Jones’s work within a continuum of late 20th century Black solo performance that reveals and dismantles stereotypical representations of African Americans. I argue that through performance Jones is able to deconstruct and de-criminalize women behind bars, creating an opening for more productive activism on public safety, community, and justice.