Prisons have been very much in the news these days, with information about our country’s enormous number of the incarcerated, the resulting overcrowding, the length of prison sentences for nonviolent crimes, the behavior of many of the prison staff, the overuse of solitary confinement, the predominance of African-American men in prison and so on. There’s the hit television series, “Orange is the New Black,” which is set inside a women’s prison. Now an off-Broadway play has opened that takes place in a prison as well. But the purpose of the play, called Whorl Inside a Loop, is not to address these important questions directly but rather to present a picture of prisoners’ experiences and sense of self. And it does so quite effectively.
The play is built on the real-life experience of the award-winning actress Sherie Rene Scott, best known among theater fans for her critically acclaimed and glamorous roles in several Broadway hits, like “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Aida.”
In recent years Scott has moved toward dramas based on her own life experiences, for which she serves as writer and leading actress. In 2009 she received considerable attention and awards for her play “Everyday Rapture,” which chronicled her changing attitudes as she moved from her roots in a Mennonite family to pursue a career in New York theater. She next produced a more lighthearted piece about her conversion to vegetarianism with the cute title of “Piece of Meat.” Her co-author of “Everyday Rapture,” Dick Scanlan, a veteran of many Broadway and off-Broadway hits, has returned to serve as co-author of this piece as well.
Performing on a minimalist stage designed by the Tony winner Christine Jones, the actors chosen to play various roles begin with some physical exercises and warm-ups typical of acting workshops. Scott, called “The Volunteer” in the cast listing and wearing minimal make-up and typical rehearsal clothes, based this play on her actual experience with Scanlan at the Woodburne Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in upstate New York, leading a one-day workshop on personal narratives. At the end of the day, some of the inmates asked them to come back; and the idea arose to transform these monologues into a show. The theater piece that emerged was then performed several times in the prison and now arrives at the distinguished off-Broadway house Second Stage Theater. (A percentage of the profits from the show are going to some of the men from the original workshop.)
The cast, Ms. Scott, who is white, and the six actors who played the inmates, all African-American, engage in various conversations and occasional confrontations that are built around the monologues of the inmates. Interestingly, their stories do not serve as an attack on their imprisonment and its abuses. The speeches never include false claims from the men that they are innocent. They are all in prison for murder. Each of them admits that he made a “big mistake” and is now paying the price for it.
If anything, the message seems to be that convicted criminals may not be that different from people outside the prison walls. A couple of times in the play, a convict is described as having done an “unspeakable, unforgivable” act but he is “the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.” A couple of the inmates describe themselves as “someone who died but didn’t die.”
This is all reinforced by the scenes in which the actors play other parts (while still dressed in their prison garb), like the prison officials and especially as The Volunteer’s friends in the outside world. The movements from scenes inside the prison to those in the outside world are accomplished by the moving of chairs and tables in fluid transitions. One of the performers portrays a girlfriend of The Volunteer while wearing a cloth on his head but also sporting a beard. Another one of the six portrays Hillary Clinton, whom Ms. Scott actually met at a hair salon in 2013, where the two women had a discussion about rehabilitation and recidivism.
References to mothers come up often in the play, particularly in a poignant monologue by one of the prisoners about his mother’s smile. The Volunteer herself occasionally mentions her own son and wonders whether he will ever make a “big mistake.”
It is easy to see that, to some extent, The Volunteer becomes their mother-figure, a darker version, perhaps, of Peter Pan’s Wendy, the “mother” to The Lost Boys in Neverland.
But this story is not about the white person who saves or rescues people of color. Their work on their stories may have given the inmates a better sense of their human dignity, but nothing is really resolved at the end of the play. No one gets a parole or a new trial. There is no climactic moment when everyone comes to some great realization. Instead, The Volunteer leaves them to return to her own world, perhaps never to return, and that lack of any sense of finality gives the impression that very little has actually changed in the prison system.
All in all, the play eventually turns into a meta-drama about putting on this play in a real theater instead of a workshop and the struggles involved in the move, giving it a Brechtian character. It offers a powerful example of how telling one’s life story can bring a person some dignity and self-worth. And that in itself can feel like a victory.
One might complain about the title of the show, which describes an unusual—and obscure—type of fingerprint pattern. I found it difficult to see the relevance of the title. Perhaps it simply represents the passport that someone needs to enter this world. Several excellent plays in recent years have had odd titles that seemed to have nothing to do with the story. There is no dog in Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” nor any oral problems in Terence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart.”
Perhaps someone with a keener appreciation of symbolism could explain this play’s title to me. In the meantime, I feel very much like The Volunteer, living in my own secure and happy world but undeniably changed by my visit to this prison.