[Note: This is a review of the original production which also starred writer Richard Roy as one of the two actors.]
You get a lot of coulda, woulda, shouldas in life, ya know? And there’s always that point in a good night of drinking where you realize that the tide has turned against ya. There’s that one drink… the switch flips…I always wonder what would’ve happened if I hadn’t taken that last shot.
That last shot instigates the young Richard Roy to drive drunk through Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and to crash into and cause the death of a young motorcyclist. It’s a pivotal portion of the searing drama A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island. Based on Mr. Roy’s own experiences it is written by him and Eric C. Webb.
Weathered, personable, physically solid and with the tough vocal cadences of a film noir hero, Roy appears as himself as the play begins. The contained stage is set with chairs and a white blackboard where illustrative facts and images are drawn.
We learn that he’s from New Jersey and was a boxer. A large black and white photograph of him in his prime with Muhammad Ali is on view. He later became an actor and moved to Manhattan. His up and coming career included a small role in The Public Theater’s 1990 Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III starring Denzel Washington at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. A recurring role on the television soap opera The Guiding Light was to commence before his fatal incident.
Following a night at Rikers Island he is released on bail and after two years of legal wrangling he accepts a plea of one year’s imprisonment and 250 hours of community service. Following his narration of these events, Roy leaves the stage and his younger self is now played by the terrific Connor Chase Stewart.
Wearing a green prison uniform, the tall athletic blonde curly-headed Mr. Stewart who is in his early 20’s delivers an enthralling performance. Speaking in smooth rich tones that convey a youthful sensibility, Stewart powerfully details the grim experiences of life on the inside especially for a privileged white man. Not only is he riveting as Roy, Stewart masterfully portrays a gallery of figures Roy encounters. These precise impersonations include his black trans cellmate, a black Muslim he befriends, a menacing Puerto Rican gang member and an amiable corrections officer. Vocally and physically Stewart is impeccable and truly carries the play to success.
Mr. Webb and Roy’s script is a canny blend of finely sculpted autobiography and documentary facts cohesively shaped into a compelling narrative. We learn the history of Rikers Island and the sad fact that the vast majority of its 92% black and Hispanic population are awaiting trial and are there as they can’t make bail. With an inmate and employee population that can reach to 22,000, it’s the largest penal colony in the world. The concluding segment gets dragged out by didacticism and preachiness but ultimately it’s the play that is satisfying.
Through orchestrating the cast’s expressive movements and strategic stillness, director Thomas G. Waites achieves visual dynamism. This is magnified by the muted lighting that switches to dramatic red hues for emphatic effects. Appropriately recorded somber music is heard throughout. Mr. Waites theatrically realizes this chronicle for the stage.
With its commanding central performance, gripping story and accomplished presentation, A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island is a rewarding experience.
A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island (return engagement March 10 – April 2, 2022)
Without A Net Productions
Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.rikersplay.com
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission