By Dontré L. Conerly
If art imitates life, then Whorl Inside A Loop is perfectly positioned to shine a mirror on society’s current conversation around race and (white) privilege from Harlem to Hollywood. The off-Broadway work, put on by Second Stage Theater, is a—seemingly—hyperbolic depiction of the ways in which the country’s justice system tips the scales in favor of some, usually along the lines of race.
In the play, a frenetic blond-haired, blue-eyed Sherie Rene Scott is ostensibly surrounded by six Black male inmates after she’s been tasked with “volunteer” work in a local prison. Scott plays a high-strung theater actress whose volunteer work consists of leading a drama workshop in which each prisoner details personal atrocities of his life that may have led him to a life of crime and prison.
These six stories of poverty, injustice, and cyclical recidivism are a rare attempt to humanize those locked out of sight, and therefore out of mind. Honestly and openly, Whorl brazenly explores many of the pitfalls that await Black men, almost like baited traps, ensnaring one out every three Black males to prison–ensuring that Black is the new orange.
In one of the most poignant moments in the play, one of the inmates contemplates whether his imprisonment was fate. He recounts a heart-stopping tale in which a white Southern sheriff handcuffs his bewildered four-year-old personage without any provocation. When that toddler slays an officer some 12 years or so later, the audience is left to wonder if it was a vicious cycle or karmic retribution.
Despite is weighty subject, Whorl follows a tried and true formula to presenting a heavy societal message: inject some humor . . .if only to help us swallow the choking lump of truth that often gets caught in our throats.
On a sparse stage built solely for utility, Scott and her troupe let their acting do all the work, to an amazing result. Each actor is assigned double duty as he jumps between characters, from inmate to warden with the simple realignment of a hat and the full embodiment of that character’s persona…and gender.
In one of the more hilarious scenes, an inmate is transforms himself into Hilary Clinton, planning a visit to the prison to flesh out the narratives behind prison recidivism rates. And that’s Whorl’s brilliance.
Even amidst the laugh-out-loud moments and knee-slapping humor, the central tension is never lost. Even when Scott’s character attempts to steal the work of her troupe for personal gain, the conversation expands to encompass (white) privilege and entitlement, illuminating a decades-long history of cultural theft that usually explodes into hostility and invective. Even in its silly moments, Whorl holds a firm grip on the conversation, forcing us to have it without the ability to change the subject or sweep it under the rug.
Extended through September 27th, Whorl is a must-see, especially given the current climate of strained race relations. At best, Whorl is a “101” in race relations we should all see; and at worst, it’s really good theatre!