Whorl Inside a Loop
Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott pen a smart and challenging new play about mass incarceration in America and the limits of mere awareness.
One in every 110 American adults lives behind bars. This is the highest rate of incarceration of any large country on Earth — higher than that of Russia, China, and Iran. This staggering statistic lurks behind Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott's Whorl Inside a Loop, now making its world premiere at Second Stage Theatre. Following six men in a prison theater program, Whorl is told through heaps of wit and thrillingly inventive staging. More important, it's a powerful reminder of the existence and basic humanity of our incarcerated fellow Americans whom many of us would rather forget.
Regarding this country's out of sight, out of mind approach to incarceration, prison activist Kenny Jackson once remarked, "Those walls were built not only to keep us in but also to keep you out." That's according to David Rothenberg, founder of The Fortune Society, a nonprofit that helps former prisoners integrate back into society (Jackson was one of its first counselors). Rothenberg was also a theatrical producer and publicist who ran The Fortune Society, in its earliest days, out of his Times Square office. In his memoir, Fortune in My Eyes, he recalls how one could often find the Broadway cast of Hair hanging out in that tiny office with counselors and ex-convicts. With Whorl, Scanlan and Scott join a long tradition of thespians shining a light on the plight of prisoners in the United States.
The story is based on their own experience leading a workshop at the Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate NY, though the production is heavily embellished and altered for dramatic effect. Still, Whorl corresponds enough to reality that Andre Kelley, Marvin Lewis, Felix Machado, Richard Norat, and Jeffrey Rivera (all of whom were prisoners when Scott and Scanlan visited Woodbourne) are credited in the program for "additional material."
Scott plays "The Volunteer," a Broadway actress who arrives at a men's maximum-security prison to serve out a period of community service. She's put in charge of a class titled "Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative" (which the real-life Scott would know a lot about having done as much in ''Everyday Rapture," her 2009 collaboration with Scanlan, which also premiered at Second Stage). She hears intensely personal monologues from the men in the class, delivered with gripping authenticity by the six other members of the cast.
Rick (Nicholas Christopher, with the intensity of a protective older brother) saw a prison buddy commit suicide through an attack on prison guards. Bey (strong and silent Donald Webber Jr.) remembers a sheriff handcuffing him as a joke at the age of four. Jeffrey (Chris Myers) tells of how he was incarcerated at the age of 16 following a false confession. "After fourteen years, I am still sixteen years old," he states in one of the show's most moving monologues. "I don't know how to swim, ride a bike, drive a car — but I do know how to smile." One wonders how a man who spends his entire adult life in prison can ever learn to know anything else.
Co-directors Scanlan and Michael Mayer (who also helmed Rapture) stage all of this with a DIY simplicity that is impressive in its efficiency and rigor. Scenic designers Christine Jones and Brett Banakis have laid bare the area behind the plaster line, with the actors sitting in metal folding chairs placed beyond a raised platform center stage. ESosa has costumed them all (with the exception of Scott) in orange prison jumpsuits and drab underclothes, which, in assuming multiple roles, they contort into a variety of makeshift outfits: a preppy knotted sweater for attorney Phillip (Derrick Baskin), a long mane of hair for Valley girl Broadway producer Kimmy (Christopher), an Isadora Duncan-esque scarf for modern dance choreographer Patti (Daniel J. Watts). Again, with the exception of Scott all the actors are African-American men in prison garb, so the effect is very much like watching an actual prison production. There's something almost Brechtian about this transparent theatricality (but without the terrible acting that normally accompanies American productions of Brecht). Everything here is tight, specific, and believable.
The authors seem to be similarly self-aware about the shaky ethical ground they occupy in presenting these stories in front of a paying audience. Breaking the "Vegas rule" (what happens here, stays here) the volunteer establishes in the first class, she luridly relates the men's monologues to her circle of theatrical friends, one of whom (the aforementioned producer) decides to turn them into a play. With the exception of her attorney (who only seems concerned about the legal ramifications), no one sees anything particularly troubling about this. And while Scott's character brushes up against her own privilege — she muses, "I think I've done things that, if I were a black man, I wouldn't have gotten away with" — it's never enough to stop her from trying to use their painful stories as a way to further her career.
The discomfort we feel about this exploitation reflects out onto us. Are we, the audience, culpable by finding amusement in the damaged lives depicted onstage? Critics may argue that this is beyond the pale — that even though the five prisoners on whose work Whorl is based are receiving author credits and a portion of the proceeds, it cannot excuse the appropriation of their stories for entertainment. I would counter-argue that keeping their stories behind "those walls" (as Kenny Jackson would say) is a worse sin than presenting them in front of an audience willing to listen. As for that audience, they are only truly guilty if they leave everything they feel at the theater, blissfully returning to a life of disregarding all those who are locked up in the land of the free. Fortunately, Whorl Inside a Loop will be very hard for many of us to forget.