Prison plays an ambivalent role in the imagination of many white Americans. On the one hand, it’s a scary place full of bad black people. On the other hand, it’s an authentic place (the polar opposite of Broadway’s fun-filled fantasyland) packed with people who need and deserve help because our white-dominated socioeconomic system has treated them poorly.
Whorl Inside a Loop, Sherie Rene Scott and Dick Scanlan’s new play at Second Stage Theatre, is built around the tension between these two stereotypical (but also truthful) attitudes — as well as the tension between reality and fiction. In the play, Scott (the only white actor in the show) plays The Volunteer, a Broadway actress sentenced to teach a class in prison after getting a D.U.I. (with her son in the backseat); in reality, Scott and Scanlan visited Woodbourne Correctional Facility voluntarily in 2011, to lead a one-day workshop on personal narratives. In the play, The Volunteer is persuaded by her disgustingly privileged Broadway friends to try to steal the prisoners’ stories and turn them into a play; in reality, according to the New York Times, “at the end of the day, some of the inmates asked if they would come back and transform these monologues into a show. They did. And then some.”
It is one of those “meta” shows about acting and theater, in the tradition of the Wooster Group’s Poor Theater, Jeff Bown and Hunter Bell’s [title of show], Terence McNally’s It’s Only a Play, and countless others. Shows like that sink or swim based on the caliber of the acting, and the acting here is brilliantly virtuosic. The same performers play both the Broadway crowd and the prison crowd: Donald Webber, Jr. is the stolid prisoner Bey and The Volunteer’s vocally irritated husband; Chris Myers is both someone wrongly convicted of murder and The Volunteer’s toddler. Nicholas Christopher puts in a commanding performance as imprisoned murderer Rick and — a split second later (scene changes happen instantly) — The Volunteer’s rich, vapid, amoral producer girlfriend; he also plays a small Hispanic girl in fellow prisoner Sunnyside’s personal story. Daniel J. Watts plays the hilarious homosexual (a stereotype New York theater just can’t seem to do without) both in the can and in his Broadway — you guessed it — hair salon.
Whorl Inside a Loop is also about teaching. The Volunteer goes to prison nervous, thinking she’ll sing a song from her latest musical and leave as quickly as possible, but the ambitious warden (Donald Webber, Jr. again) has a plan to reinvent rehabilitation through a class awkwardly titled “Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative.” The warden has already had the men write down their stories, and as The Volunteer quickly discovers, they are chomping at the bit to turn them into theater.
The prisoners’ eagerness reminded us of the words of Mali Skotheim (a friend of ours) in a piece about teaching literature in prison: “The students inside are extremely highly motivated. In the upper level English classes especially, they do not just do the reading — they come into class knowing it inside and out.” Prison teaching programs are popular at elite universities in part because privileged people feel a desire to give to those who are not equally privileged, because they know they tend to take what they’re given for granted. Scott seems to have felt this way about Broadway: “She remembered the [imprisoned] men’s passion, unsparing honesty and singular focus on their work. ‘It was manna from heaven,’ she said. She said that she felt more respected by her collaborators — as an artist, as a woman — in that room than in her recent Broadway work.”
If that is where Whorl Inside a Loop is coming from, then it’s notable that Scott radically transformed her own personal narrative, from a story about a serious Broadway actress wanting to teach eager students (or something like that) into a story about a ditzy Broadway actress who got a D.U.I., while leaving the stories of the prisoners she talked to intact, word-for-word. Why the different treatment? Was there a need for some painfully obvious token of white guilt to balance the black prisoners’ legal guilt? Or was humor the rationale? With all due respect to artistic license, we can’t help feeling that if Scott had based her character on an honest account of what brought her to Woodbourne Correctional Facility, Whorl Inside a Loop would be a better play. As it is, by refusing to submit herself to the rigorous self-exposure prison requires of those who enter against their will, the playwright ends up replicating the very privilege her show criticizes.
Whorl Inside a Loop continues at Second Stage Theatre (Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 W 43rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through September 27.