“Whorl Inside a Loop” is the artsy, far too obscure title of a new play by Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott that opened Thursday at Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre in New York City.
The words “whorl inside a loop” refer to a unique kind of fingerprint, and for reasons too complicated to go into here, fingerprints are important in this drama because the lead character, known only as The Volunteer (Scott), teaches a drama class at her local maximum security prison. Every visit requires her to be fingerprinted.
Actually, she’s not really a volunteer, and to avoid posting a spoiler alert here, let’s just say her being in prison once a week for an hour or two says a lot about the difference between white peoples’ crime and black peoples’ crime in America today. The writers of “Whorl” can be thanked for putting that subject on stage.
For their prison drama class, the convicts write and perform monologues that run the gamut from murder and theft to AIDS and false arrests. In the play’s first scene, those six convicts (Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn, Daniel J. Watts, and Donald Webber Jr.) are introduced; it’s obviously a very talented ensemble of actors under the direction of Michael Mayer and Scanlan. Only Scott seems to be pushing it, overacting her skittishness at being among so many murderers. She asks if she can be seated next to the one convict who has been falsely arrested. Isn’t she cute?
The segue to the second scene takes place in the blink of an eye. The male actors don’t even take off their orange prison uniforms, and suddenly they’re all sitting in The Volunteer’s living room, impersonating her white husband, son, girlfriends, their husbands and her entertainment lawyer. The Volunteer, it turns out, is a Broadway actress, and she has her friends in stitches relating the wild and crazy time she had in prison with all the thugs.
Five years ago, the musical “The Scottsboro Boys” opened on Broadway, and the conceit was that black actors would play white-face, mimicking all the participants in one of the 20th century’s most notorious rape trials. Those broad minstrel performances were subtle compared to what takes place on stage in “Whorl.” On display here are the kind of gross caricatures that cause part of the audience to guffaw and break into applause, while others simply recoil in silence at the spectacle in front of them.
Maybe that’s the desired effect. It’s crass, however, to beg for compassion for some characters and turn others into objects of such ridicule. The actors are at their best when they perform the prisoners’ monologues, which are written with sensitivity by men who are or have been incarcerated. Kudos to those scribes.