When we go to the theater, we tend to believe what we see, or at least to accept that the story onstage, no matter how fantastical, is the only version of events the playwright wants to show us. So it’s refreshing when a writer toys with multiple truths, using theater to reveal the ways real-world stories are constructed — as in the smart, complex Whorl Inside a Loop, written by Sherie Rene Scott and Dick Scanlan and now playing at Second Stage.
Scott also stars in the piece, playing a character called Volunteer: a Broadway actress beginning a teaching stint at a men’s prison, helping inmates tell their stories using theater. (This scenario emerged from Scanlan and Scott’s real-world experience leading a workshop on autobiographical performance at a correctional facility.) The “whorl” in the title refers to a rare fingerprint pattern, much discussed as the Volunteer surrenders her prints to enter the facility. At first Volunteer is scared, awkward, a little ditzy. But her class has things under control: They’ve named the course (“Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative”) and written monologues. They surprise her with blocking and funny accents.
The convicts’ stories (expertly performed by Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn, Daniel J. Watts, and Donald Webber Jr.) are the emotional heart of the play. One inmate recalls how a white sheriff handcuffed him as a racist joke when he was four. (All of the prisoners are African-American.) The scarring memory makes him wonder whether his path toward prison was somehow preordained. Another describes the heart-stopping moment before he shot his victim; a third recalls confessing to a murder he didn’t commit. All testify to the brokenness and bigotry of the American prison system.
If Whorl stopped there, it would be a compelling portrait of our society’s injustices. But Scanlan and Scott are up to something more fascinatingly meta. Volunteer, when not in her high-security classroom, appears in scenes with her lawyer, her producer, her hairdresser — all played on the prison set, by the same performers who portray the prisoners. (They adjust their orange jumpsuits and affect silly accents for their civilian roles.) We learn that Volunteer’s teaching isn’t exactly voluntary: She has been sentenced to community service for a transgression of her own.
We also see her pondering the theatrical possibilities of her students’ tales: They might play well on Broadway (better, at least, than Conquistadores, the Musical, in which she’s currently appearing). Their traumas, she realizes, could give her own career a boost. Soon she’s producing two plays: one inside the prison, with her students, and one outside, with her producer. Do these stories belong to the inmates or to Volunteer? And whose version of events are we watching, anyway? Volunteer’s Broadway hit? The “real” story (whatever that is)? Or could it be the inmates’ dramatization, gamely performed in prison garb beneath fluorescent lights?
Of course, such reality-bending antics are entirely the point. Histories — personal and political — are constructed, but they have real consequences in our lives. A signed confession (true or false), a misleading interpretation of the facts, a creaky tale about homicidal maniacs: These are what keep a broken system in place. Scott and Scanlan honor the stories they encountered in prison, while showing us the shortcomings of our own readiness to believe.
Whorl Inside a Loop
By Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott
Second Stage Theatre
305 West 43rd Street