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Theatre in Review: A White Man's Guide to Riker's Island (Producers' Club)

Connor Chase Stewart. Photo: Jacob Goldberg.

Richard L. Roy spent most his early years informed by great expectations. "I grew up with the knowledge that if I worked hard enough, I could be that I ever wanted to be," we are told early on in A White Man's Guide to Riker's Island. "Nothing was holding me back from my American Dream except my desire." Raised in middle-class plenty in New Jersey horse country ("I bought a Camaro when I was seventeen"), he pursued a boxing career, becoming successful enough to spar with Muhammad Ali. (A photo of Roy and Ali, signed by the latter, can be seen onstage at the Producers' Club.) Turning to acting, he landed small roles at Shakespeare in the Park and was thrilled to book a recurring role on the soap opera Guiding Light. He had a girlfriend, an apartment in the Village, and plenty of drinking buddies. As far as he could see, there was nothing in his way -- until the night when, too far gone on booze and coke, he rammed his car into a young man on a motorcycle, killing him.

What happened next forms the basis for this undeniably gripping show. It's not quite a solo piece: Roy, who wrote the script with Eric C. Webb, appears at the beginning and end, but ninety-five percent of the time he is portrayed by the twentysomething actor Connor Chase Stewart; it's a strategy that lends a tense immediacy to this Dante-esque account of one man's progress through the prison system.

Or perhaps that's putting it too strongly. Despite the considerable unpleasantness -- and, at times, mortal peril -- faced by Roy, his account is uncomfortably (and mordantly) framed as the experience of a privileged white man; compared to the others he meets there -- friend and foe alike -- he is something of a day-tripper. This knowledge, plus the awareness of his responsibility for a pointless death, sets the stage for a terrible personal reckoning.

Quite aside from such matters, the vividly written text offers a starkly revealing view of realities from which most of us are protected. Convicted of negligent homicide, Roy is sentenced to a year in prison -- most likely he will be out in six months -- and remanded to Riker's Island. It's a name that appears in the news almost daily, but Roy's description brings it to life in a new way: "These various facilities sprawl across over four hundred acres of land smack dab in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx. Four. Hundred. Acres. Baseline population: about ten thousand inmates. Max population: fifteen. Actual population: eighteen. Average daytime population, including staff; twenty-two thousand people. In both land and population, that is, literally, the largest penal colony in the world." Noting that ninety-two percent of the inmates are black or Hispanic, he adds, "This is no place for Whitey McWhiteWhite from Sussex County."

Perhaps because of his outsider status, he views everything with a writerly eye. Each prison corridor is "like those long shots of hotel hallway in The Shining, except instead of two creepy twins at the end, it's some brick shit-house hombre named Jesus." To be "on the D Train" is a euphemism for detox. "Juggling" is a raw form of capitalism in which goods -- for example, cigarettes -- are lent out; repayment requires interest, giving the lender more goods to trade. (Roy notes that he became a regular Mark Cuban, wheeling and dealing with abandon.) Most of the time, however, the inmates' lives are marked by pervasive boredom and emptiness. Describing the high-decibel disputation and trash-talking going on all around him, he says, "We shout because there is nothing else to do, nobody else to listen, and we have to kill six months, six years, six decades here. We shout because we have to just let. It. Out."

Occasionally, the script treads into lecture territory -- even if the nuggets of information are generally fascinating -- and once in a while Stewart seems to be delivering a TED talk on prison conditions. Most of the time, however, under the direction of Thomas G. Waites, he makes Rich into a plausibly lost young man, in over his head in unimaginable conditions yet haunted by the knowledge that, unlike so many others, he has a ticket out. The actor also skillfully conjures up such characters as Shivon, a pre-op trans woman who serves as Roy's Virgil; the drug-dealing Saddam; and Dillis, an eccentric true believer in Rikers, who says, "That Colorado super max is making us look like chumps. We need to get back to the good old days when Rikers Island was the number one prison in the country!"

It is Dillis who more or less saves Roy, first by getting him to write for the prison newspaper, The Riker's Island Review, where he begins putting down the observations that ultimately led to this play. (I'm guessing you don't know that there is such a thing as a National Penitentiary Press Competition.) Dillis also provides protection when, in a stranger-than-fiction twist, it turns out that the leader of the gang Puerto Rican Express, which dominates at Riker's, has a specific, highly personal reason for wanting Rich dead.

Dillis also urges Roy to seek the forgiveness of Jesus Christ, driving him to a near-breakdown that doesn't end in a feeling of salvation. This may have less to do with a feeling a guilt about his crime than with his understanding of the racism built into the criminal justice system. Reaching his father on the night of the killing, Roy is told, "Stay put, we'll be there as soon as we can. We'll figure this out. We've got a great lawyer. We'll make this go away." Looking at us, Roy adds, "'Make this go away.' Those are the words we white folk love to hear." It's no spoiler to reveal that A White Man's Guide to Riker's Island doesn't culminate in a neatly wrapped-up ending. How could it?

The production at the Producers' Club, a most infelicitous venue, is the very definition of bare-bones: The set design is nonexistent and the lighting isn't really good enough. But I'm betting that you'll hang on every word. You'll also be left with some ugly truths that are impossible to dismiss. Something valuable came out of Rich's terrible misadventure after all. --David Barbour

(29 July 2019)

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