Review by Tulis McCall
4 September 2015
A whorl inside a loop is a configuration on a thumb print that makes you alternately the nicest person in the entire world and on the flip side you are one of the most bad-ass folks around. Although The Volunteer (Sherie Rene Scott) wants to claim that title for herself, she is informed that her print does not quite meet the standards. She is also informed that at this men’s prison there is one inmate who possesses such a print. We are never told who, exactly, but by the end of this fascinating piece, we are pretty certain of his identity.
A Whorl Inside A Loop, now at Second Stage Theatre, is a story based on fact. Ms. Scott and her co-writer, Dick Scanlan DID visit a prison to teach the art of personal narrative to the prisoners. The workshop turned into a lot more – as indicated by the writing credits given to five of the prisoners. Because life is not always plotted out like a play, Scott and Scanlan came up with a device. The Volunteer is working off a DUI that almost impacted her son. She is teaching instead of going to jail. And in the process she realizes that what separates her fate from that of her students is the color of her skin.
So there is a prison into which we toss folks, and there is a prison where we send them after we cull them from the herd out here in the “real world”. Either way it is prison, and we white folk have the edge on who goes where and why. This theme is a mighty river that runs through this play. The Volunteer is pulled into a world about which she knows little. Her strengths are her theatrical eye. She can guide a narrative into a controlled explosion that releases the narrator and bowls over the audience.
As the men progress in their refinement and execution, the idea of performing their work surfaces. This is where the play runs off the rails and never gets back on track. The minutia of the logistics – whose work is this; who would see it; would this influence a parole board; what about the female temporary warden looking for a permanent assignment. All these pieces come crashing together as if they were forgotten heretofore and now need a speedy resolution.
The construct of this piece has The Volunteer moving back and forth in her own life. The inmates double as prisoners and the white crowd with whom the Volunteer lives and works. Each of these men: Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn, Daniel J. Watts and Donald Webber, Jr. gives a brilliant performance in both “worlds”.
They are so good that the play reveals, perhaps unintentionally, the double standard for black actors. They are rarely seen in the theatre, on television or in movies unless they are criminals or tech wizards. We pride ourselves on being a multicultural city, but step into a theatre and what we mostly see are white folks. Or in the case of Hamilton we see people of color onstage at a ticket price so high that the audience assumes the mandatory white ingredient.
In spite of a lackluster conclusion to a brave piece of writing, this is still an experience that you will remember for a long long time. The collaboration of exceptional ensemble work and out-of-the box direction trumps.
This is one of those plays that you watch until you discover that it is also watching you.
"A funny and moving new play"
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"It’s captivating and packs a punch. And it’s cartoonish and loses its grip."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"As fine and funny as 'Whorl Inside a Loop' often is, the best thing about it is its cast — there hasn’t been such a dynamite ensemble of African-American actors since 'The Wire.'"
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"As race and law enforcement continue to make headlines, Whorl is a timely reminder of the precarious nature of justice."
Diane Snyder for Time Out New York
"Amid its many virtues, 'Whorl Inside a Loop,' a symbolic reference to a fingerprint term, still needs some work, particularly in the final scenes which are unnecessarily ambiguous. That aside, the play is, pardon the pun, truly captivating."
Roma Torre for NY1
"The real-life prisoners involved deserve better treatment than this self-indulgent, self-consciously artificial exercise."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"The raw material is... well, raw, but brilliant, and the ensemble of African-American actors is superb."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...