Whorl Inside a Loop


"Theatricalizing the personal narrative" is written on the chalkboard. It's something Sherie Rene Scott and Dick Scanlan have done successfully (see Everyday Rapture), and something, mostly on a lark, they ended up teaching to a group of incarcerated men.

In Whorl Inside a Loop (the title refers to your fingerprint), an actress volunteers at a men's prison, and teaches the men, all of whom have been convicted of murder, to express themselves, rehabilitating them through the arts. (Though Scott and Scanlan did teach in a prison, and many of the stories come from actual prisoners, the play is, ultimately, a true work of fiction.)

In doing so, the men express that they are not the worst thing they've done. Indeed, these men—all people, in fact—can be the perfect peacock eye whorl, so much good and so much bad in one person. (As a guard says of Sunnyside (a cunningly charismatic Derrick Baskin), "He's committed the most violent, most unforgivable crime you could ever imagine, and he's the nicest guy you'll ever meet.")

Arts programs are usually at the bottom of the budget priority list for most institutions, prisons included. With Whorl Inside a Loop, Scott (Women on the Verge...) and Scanlan (Thoroughly Modern Millie) make the case for their efficacy as a rehabilitation tool. Some such programs can help make a prisoner feel whole again, feel like a real person. Though people might argue on the side of the victims and victims' families, the truth is that even people convicted of unspeakable crimes do, sometimes, get out of jail. Transitioning back to the real world can be difficult, to put it mildly. Various rehabilitation programs, whether arts-based or something else, are proven to have a positive effect on the transition process, even decreasing the rate of recidivism. (And that translates into a savings for taxpayers.)

Throughout the play, we meet the aforementioned Sunnyside, Rick (Nicholas Christopher), Jeffrey (Chris Myers), Source (Ryan Quinn), Flex (Daniel J. Watts) and Bey (Donald Webber, Jr.). Scott's character is simply called "The Volunteer," driving home the point that, although the construct of the play offers the volunteer's experience, this is about the men.

Co-directors Scanlan and Michael Mayer (American Idiot, Brooklynite) bring out the best in their talented actors, allowing them to play on Christine Jones and Brett Banakis's sparse, utilitarian set. In addition to portraying the prisoners, all the men also play other people in The Volunteer's life. These vignettes are often comical, balancing out the seriousness of what the men reveal in class. Scanlan and Mayer provide a safe space, though, in which the actors can emote when called for. I'm thinking in particular of the moment when Jeffery reads what he's written. Actor Myers recites the speech so that it organically builds and builds, leading to a powerful climax that you won't soon forget.

Of course, there is some hesitation to presenting these stories. In fact, Source continually questions whether or not it's a good idea to be not just repeating a story but fully performing it. "Writing it down," he says, "felt like taking responsibility. Performing it feels like glorifying it." He is now a different person, he asserts, and does not want to seem to condone his past actions. The Volunteer assures him (and the audience) that theatricalizing the personal narrative does not glorify the events. Rather, it can reaffirm that those actions and that person are things of the past, and that the storyteller has grown and learned and evolved since then.

And so we understand that two things can be true at once. We are not the worst thing we've ever done because we have that whorl inside a loop—the good and the bad in one being.

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