Written by Richard Roy & Eric C. Webb
Directed by Thomas G. Waites
Using only a bare stage and a single actor, Richard Roy’s colorful prison dramedy sports a suspenseful plot and a cast of inmates as compelling as those found in Oz and Orange is the New Black. And it clocks in at under two hours, no time-devouring binge watching required.
Derived from an incident in Roy’s real life, A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKERS ISLAND is narrated in energetic first person by Young Rich (Connor Chase Stewart). Growing up in suburban New Jersey, the young man exhibits prodigious talent on the basketball court and the boxing ring, even sparring with Muhammad Ali and contending for the prestigious Golden Gloves. In his early twenties, he trades in his mitts for a new ambition: acting. Here, too, he is successful, scoring parts in Broadway plays and soap operas. His love life is great, too, and he plans to marry his girlfriend as soon as possible. But Rich has a destructive penchant for booze and cocaine, and on one of his wilder benders he loses control of his vehicle and plows into a motorcycle. Sobering up amid a tangle of blood and twisted metal, Rich is arrested and told that the rider of the bike did not survive the crash. His bright future derailed, Rich obtains the services of a good lawyer, but eventually finds his only hope is to cop a plea and prepare himself for a stint in one of America’s most notorious penal colonies.
Now a “fish” (prison jargon for a first-time convict) out of water, Rich finds himself surrounded by a population of mostly black and Hispanic internees from poor or working-class backgrounds. He stands out like a sore thumb, but is thankfully able to find a few allies. Streetwise Saddam shows Rich the ropes, while the charming transgender Shivon develops a crush on the new inmate and keeps a lookout for potential threats. Together with his new associates, Rich quickly masters the art of “juggling”, a form of loansharking in which cigarettes are used as currency. With more economic resources at his disposal than the average prisoner, Rich is able to buy smokes in bulk at the commissary and undercut the price set by rival jugglers. But as his reputation grows, so does his visibility as a target for retaliation. The dominant gang at Rikers is the Latino Express, and its leader, Hector, doesn’t take kindly to the white interloper cutting into his market share. Confrontations follow, and when Hector starts asking questions about Rich, it turns out their histories are intertwined in ways that neither could have predicted. Like characters in a Greek drama, Hector and Rich seem fated to cross paths. After a few close scrapes, Rich becomes more vigilant. He spends most of his time in the relative safety of the offices of the Rikers Review, presided over by the idealistic corrections officer Dillis. The tedium of prison life begins to lift as Rich puts his energy and sense of humor into writing for the paper. But it’s only a matter of time before stark changes take place both inside and outside the walls of Rikers. Reckoning, remorse, catharsis, and redemption beckon. Rich might just come out of this a better man– if he can stay sane.
Tightly constructed and disarmingly tender at times, Roy’s script, co-written with Eric C. Webb, manages to cover a copious amount of narrative ground while never bogging down in extraneous detail. Under Thomas G. Waites’s allegro direction, Stewart rises with creativity and conviction physical and emotional demands of the role. His odyssey is given extra weight by brief appearances, at the prologue and coda to the show, of the real Richard Roy. Weathered but hopeful, Roy seems determined to live a life of purpose, to give his experience meaning by using it to help and inform others. With the controversial Rikers Island yet again in the news today (see below) his voice can only increase in relevance.
A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKERS ISLAND continues through August 31, 2019 at the Producer’s Club 358 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036. Tickets: http://www.brown-papertickets.com/event/4273937