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'John Leguizamo Live at Rikers' brings laughs and inspiration to 'invisible' young inmates

In the award-winning short documentary, Leguizamo performs his famous one-man show "Ghetto Klown" and shares experiences with the mainly Black and Latino young men at Rikers .
Young men enrolled in an anti-recidivism initiative at Rikers in a discussion led by John Leguizamo.
Young men enrolled in an anti-recidivism initiative at Rikers in a discussion led by John Leguizamo. Azimuth Films

Accompanied by a hulking guard, actor John Leguizamo enters a large, empty auditorium and appears taken aback. “Oh, wow, this is like Radio City Music Hall,” he says. He surveys the venue. “If I can do this, I can do anything.”

This is no typical performance for the acclaimed star of theater, television and film. It's one of the opening scenes from the short documentary “John Leguizamo Live at Rikers,” now on streaming and on demand for the first time after a weeklong Academy Award-qualifying theatrical run.

The award-winning short documentary made its debut Friday, part of the Black Experience collection on Xfinity Channel on Xfinity X1, Flex, Xfinity Stream and Xumo apps. (Xfinity and NBC News are part of Comcast and Comcast NBCUniversal).

In it, Leguizamo performs his one-man Broadway show for an audience of more than 400 inmates, and then leads discussions with young men enrolled in an anti-recidivism initiative.

John Leguizamo.
John Leguizamo during a discussion with inmates in a scene from “John Leguizamo Live at Rikers."Azimuth Films

Rikers Island, a New York City correctional facility, may seem like an unlikely setting for Leguizamo to perform his show, “Ghetto Klown.” Yet many of the show’s themes — from family instability to police profiling to life on the streets — clearly resonate with his audience. Onstage, Leguizamo recalls that he was “mad rebellious” as a young man, and that he had run-ins with the police. “I got arrested,” he says in the film. “I guess you could say it was my first bad review.”

Rikers Island has an inmate population that is predominantly Black and Latino. In recent years, the complex has become infamous for abuse, corruption and mismanagement, with calls from some politicians to shut it down or place it under federal control.  

In this harsh environment, “John Leguizamo Live at Rikers” weaves together scenes from his performance and group discussions with the inmates. One young man realizes that he and Leguizamo grew up in the same housing project in the Queens borough, while another reveals that he is a father. “I gotta change,” he says softly. The inmates voice their dreams and aspirations for life after Rikers: to become a firefighter, to be a psychologist, to help people.

Leguizamo: 'Few individuals more invisible'

These young men are participants in the Harlem-based Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO) program, which helps inmates further their education, secure employment and achieve emotional well-being. According to the film, a majority of men involved in the criminal justice system are reincarcerated within three years of their release. But 86% of participants in the GOSO program do not return to the prison system.

“When I first started acting, I didn’t just want to be an entertainer, I wanted to be an artist,” Leguizamo said in a statement prepared before the current SAG/AFTRA and Writers Guild strikes. “After my performance at Rikers, I realized that there are few individuals more invisible than those who have been through America’s criminal justice system. After performing and talking with these young men, it’s clear how much work still needs to be done to help lift them up.”

“John Leguizamo Live at Rikers” had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last year. It has since been screened at 30 film festivals throughout the world, including Cannes, and received five awards for best short documentary.

Director Elena Engel.
Director Elena Engel.Courtesy Elena Engel

For director and producer Elena Engel of Azimuth Films, “John Leguizamo Live at Rikers” was a deeply personal experience, inspired by an immediate family member who was sentenced to prison for a nonviolent offense. “It basically changed the trajectory of his life and forced me to recognize the lack of human consideration and dignity in the American justice system,” she said. 

Engel is an award-winning filmmaker who has worked with Disney, Warner Bros. and Amblin Entertainment. She hopes that her film will offer a more hopeful, empathetic perspective on behalf of all young people involved in the criminal justice system. “John and I shared a common desire to support the efforts of GOSO participants who basically face a world in which they’re demonized, even after fulfilling their debt to society.”

Amid the confines of Rikers, Engel is proud that she was able to be part of what Leguizamo refers to in the film as “a soul exchange.”

“The guards enjoyed themselves, everyone behaved themselves, and there was a lot of laughter in the audience,” she said, recalling moments of joy, pathos and even sweetness at Rikers. On the last day of shooting, two inmates presented her with a “vase” of flowers — a cutoff Coke can, filled with flowers from a small prison garden plot. 

“I just hope that the personal truths that are voiced by the participants in this film will inspire audiences to look into the emotional and social costs of incarceration and recidivism,” Engel added.

Leguizamo is a longtime advocate of Latino representation in the entertainment industry. “The problem is that we’re all absent all over the media spectrum,” he told Variety earlier this year. “That’s the huge problem ... So that’s what we’re dealing with. We’re trying to change that and get the content to the people who want it.”,

Leguizamo is the co-founder of NGLmitú, a digital media and entertainment company focused on creating content for bilingual and bicultural English-speaking Latinos.

On Friday, Comcast announced the introduction and distribution of the mitúTV streaming app across its entertainment platforms, including Xfinity X1, Xfinity Flex and soon on Xumo TV. This includes original programming, such as the comedy talk show "Three Gs In A Pod" and the talk show "Girl, Let Me Tell You."