Whose life is it, anyway? That’s the ethical question that bedevils “Whorl Inside a Loop,” a meta-theater piece by Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott based on the experiences of a Broadway actress (not unlike Scott, only dizzier) who volunteers to teach a 12-week course on “Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative” to six convicted murderers in a maximum security men’s prison. The raw material is … well, raw, but brilliant, and the ensemble of African-American actors is superb. But the inmates’ harrowing stories somehow become hijacked by their teacher for her own professional profit and personal gain.
Andre Kelley, Marvin Lewis, Felix Machado, Richard Norat and Jeffrey Rivera, who are credited with (and compensated for) “additional material,” are the real stars of this show. They were among the inmates of the upstate New York correctional facility where Scott and co-director/co-author Scanlan (who also teamed up with Scott on “Everyday Rapture”) led a workshop roughly resembling the one in the play.
All five men contributed slices of their own lives to the dramatic narrative, and however much editing was done to the original source material, the personal stories that emerge from workshop sessions in the prison classroom (Christine Jones and Brett Banakis designed this sterile environment) are devastating. Without sentimentalizing themselves or pandering for attention, the men admit to their crimes (except for the poor guy who’s innocent) and ask no mercy. They are clear-sighted and willing to take responsibility for the crooked road they took to prison, which they thoughtfully attribute to “one stupid mistake … or a series of bad choices.” One of them, in fact, is afraid that relating his crime might be interpreted as “glorifying it.”
But they also speak bluntly, honestly, and so very painfully of traumatic childhoods and broken homes, of losing family to drugs, illness, and the criminal life, and of how they survived — or didn’t — in this marginalized world of unrelenting poverty and violence.
As co-directed by Michael Mayer, the male actors — Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn, Daniel J. Watts, and Donald Webber, Jr., all wonderful — embrace the storytellers as brothers and soulmates, giving full voice to their passion and pain. Theatrical presentation aside, the autobiographical narratives are so powerfully and beautifully written that you’d expect Scott, as the earnest and eager workshop leader identified as The Volunteer, to get these guys a literary agent.
What she does in the play, however, is gab and gossip about them with her best friends, a shallow bunch played with vengeful low-camp humor by the same actors, who shouldn’t have to answer for it in a court of law. Scott is a warm, personable presence as the Volunteer, who proves to be a prisoner of her own sinful history, and she lightens the show with playful, sort-of funny exchanges with prison staff and administrators, also played (archly) by the same five invaluable actors.
But she loses us when her character turns calculating and, betraying her students by ignoring her Scout’s-Honor promise that “what happens in this room in prison stays in this room in prison,” schemes to turn the material into a commercial production. A few messy scenes near the end of the play (including one howler with Hilary Clinton) would have us believe that the men freely make their own decision to go public. But in performance it comes off as sheer self-serving manipulation — and it ain’t pretty.