Off-Off-Broadway Review: “A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island” at The Producers

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  • David Roberts, Chief New York Critic

A grizzly and wisened Richard Roy emerges from the darkness at the beginning of “A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island,” currently running at The Producers Club, to introduce his autobiographical “guide” to surviving the prison environment he shared for six months of his young adult life on Rikers Island on a charge of negligent homicide. Roy then steps off the stage, surrendering its stark bareness to the young Richard (Connor Chase Stewart) who brings the audience “up to date” on how the trip to Rikers played out and ended.

The engaging and energetic Mr. Steward rehearses in detail how his character commits the horrible crime that results in the death of a young Latino man, the details of his arrest and experience in the holding cell, how he easily affords bail, and how two years later he is able to cop a deal that reduces his prison time from a minimum of 10 years for manslaughter to a year on Rikers Island. All of these “steps” to the doorstep of Rikers are based on Richard’s white privilege – born to a wealthy white suburban family in Sparta, New Jersey and raised with privilege all his life. The playwright here, as he does throughout the piece, makes no effort to hide how this privilege benefitted him.

All vestiges of his privilege evaporate when Richard finally is assigned to his cell block and he realizes he is in the racial minority. Richard shares that “92% of the population of Rikers Island is Black or Hispanic. Which makes me and you, oh new, melanin deprived, recruits into the System of Corrections a minority. Congratulations!” There is something othering about this affirmation which this review will address later. Our protagonist begins “The Guide” with a short history of Rikers, its population, and describing “a day in the life” at the facility.

With his transgender cellmate Shivon and his block mate Saddam and with the “blessing” of his CO Dillis, Richard establishes a successful juggling business, undercutting the Puerto Rican Express and its leader Hector Lopez. Hector not only does not tolerate being undercut; he discovers that the young man Richard killed is his nephew. Richard is threatened, harassed, and sometimes doubtful he will make it out of Rikers alive.

Roy and Webb never lose site of the significance of the young Richard’s crime. The “Guide” is not about claiming innocence. It is about Richard’s sense of entitlement. His constant refrains, his mantas are: “I don’t belong here.” “I’m not like these guys.” “I’m better than this.” “I just need to get through this.” “What did I do to deserve this?” Remorse and rehabilitation get lost on mere regret and denial. Connor Chase Stewart embodies his character’s struggle with self and other with authenticity and utter believability. Under Thomas G. Waites His performance is riveting and unforgettable.

Back to the issue of othering. Although the writers make it clear that most of the problems addressed in “A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island” are the result of white privilege, corporate greed, and systemic racism, there is something missing in the script that is amplified further by Mr. Stewart’s impressive performance. These missing elements are probably best addressed in the form of rich and enduring questions. Questions like: “What about the fears of the black and Latino prisoners.” “Why should a convicted white prisoner feel he or she does not belong in a prison populated by inmates who do not look like them?” “Where does privilege end and responsibility begin?”

This is not only a guide for the white prison population. This is a guide for the White Man who builds, staffs, and operates prisons in America and profits from those institutions of incarceration. “The big irony of this place, though? 85% of the folks there… haven’t even been convicted of anything yet. They’re all the folks who can’t afford to pay their bail, and so are stuck while they await trial… likely to only return to Rikers, or worse.” Hopefully, Richard Roy’s and Eric Webb’s commendable effort will result in a heightened awareness of the deplorable brokenness and systemic racism of America’s prison system.

 

A WHITE MAN’S GUIDE TO RIKERS ISLAND

The cast of “A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island” includes Richard Roy and Connor Chase Stewart.

“A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island” runs at The Producer’s Club (358 West 44th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues) through Sunday September 29 on the following performance schedule: Thursday - Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $25.00, available at 212-315-4743 or www.producersclub.com. For more information, visit www.awhitemansguidetorikersisland.com. Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.

Photo: Connor Chase Stewart in “A White Man’s Guide to Rikers Island.” Credit: Jacob Goldberg.