By JK Clarke
Fish-out-of-water incarceration stories are nothing new. From the wrongfully imprisoned (Hugo’s Les Misérables) to the belatedly, unexpectedly indicted (Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”), stories of imprisoned individuals who are, or seem, out of place in the world of convicts, are intriguing, terrifying and, above all, usually downright riveting. They are the reason why in games of “cops and robbers” there is no shortage of children who want to play the robber—the thrill and surge of adrenaline as our worst nightmares are played out is catnip to many. Enter into this pantheon A White Man’s Guide to Riker’s Island, which in name alone already sends a jolt of electric fear through most of us. Riker’s Island’s reputation precedes itself as an overcrowded, dangerous and dirty city jail where any New York City resident could end up in the blink of an eye whether for a legitimate reason or, quite possibly, erroneously. And added to that terror is the factor of racial tension, for Riker’s inmates are, by an order of magnitude, pretty much non-white. All things considered, a “white man’s guide” almost seems necessary
Director Thomas G. Waites takes a unique approach to this “one-man show” by featuring an extra actor. Richard L. Roy, the actual “white man” of A White Man’s Guide to Riker’s Island (and co-writer of the piece, along with Eric C. Webb), a hard-boiled, middle-aged man opens the play telling us about his recurring nightmare, in which he has killed a man. The situation seems to be a DUI accident and the details are precise (“the crimson halo around his head grows”) . . . because this nightly disaster is what actually happened. From here we meet young Rich, impeccably played by Connor Chase Stewart, a curly-haired, bright-eyed, earnest young man with an amazingly promising future ahead of him until the night in question. Young Rich lays it all out for us.
“Guys like me get a DUI when they’re young, then run for Senator,” Rich says. But that’s only if they don’t kill someone in the process. Rich was on his way up. A successful pugilist—a Golden Gloves fighter who was Muhammad Ali’s sparring partner—he permanently stepped out of the ring when he finally took a real beating in a fight. He didn’t want to spend his life punch drunk, and the hits he took that night showed him what it was like. So, naturally, he became an actor.
Stewart describes, in a first person narrative directed to the audience, Roy’s fall from what was starting to feel like a promising career in theater in heartbreaking contrast: out celebrating a number of successes, including having a role in a Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III starring Denzel Washington (in 1990), his world literally comes crashing down because of reckless partying. Drunk, and coked up, he runs a red light and hits and kills a motorcyclist on Eighth Avenue. Despite an excess of white privilege (which ran strong in that era), his case catches the attention of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the resulting political pressure ensures that he’ll do time. Hence his stint, albeit relatively short (less than a year) compared with what he’d get today, in Riker’s Island.
In Riker’s the terrified, inexperienced Rich learns to cope. He makes a few friends, including a transsexual woman inexplicably housed with the men, and puts together a hustle, so that he can make a few bucks and gain a little leverage. He also makes a few enemies. The survival guide is the result of his work on a Riker’s newsletter for which his Corrections Officer encourages him to write. He enumerates hilarious, useful and often perplexing prison slang that should be reserved for adult audiences. Stewart conveys Rich’s experiences with wit and requisite terror, his bright eyes conveying his anxieties. While it may not be the first story of prison life you may have heard, it’s certainly entertaining, intriguing and expertly delivered. A worthwhile and gripping story that holds your attention and leaves you thinking twice about anything that might possibly land you in the clink.
A White Man’s Guide to Riker’s Island. Thursdays through Sundays through August 31 at The Producer’s Club (358 West 44th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). www.producersclub.com
Photos: Jacob Goldberg