“You are greater than the worst thing you’ve ever done,” said the prison warden addressing offenders. The warden is played by an actor, one of the cast of the Off Broadway production of A Whorl Inside a Loop, but some in her audience are not acting. The youth from our residential juvenile justice programs are among those seated in the theater, thanks to the support of the David Rockefeller Fund. They are participants in our innovative creative arts therapy program, which is one reason this Broadway show resonates so deeply with them.
The show, written collaboratively by theater veterans Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott, is a fictional story based on true events. Ms. Scott, playing herself in this Off Broadway production, volunteers at a men’s prison to lead a theater workshop. The men in the prison work with their volunteer teacher to develop personal monologues based on their lives, which help them come to terms with their crimes, but also reveal their talents for writing and storytelling. The monologues, developed by actual wards of the prison where the lead actress volunteered, reveal the inmates to be more than just men who committed terrible acts. They reveal their cherished roles as sons, brothers, and friends, and their own suffering from neglect and childhood trauma.
The juvenile offenders in our programs have also used art and music to come to terms with their crimes, and address some of the root traumas they have experienced as children growing up in impoverished communities, often marred by street violence, limited resources, and absent opportunities for future success to inspire teens and provide hope for bright futures. One teenwho lost his mother, a single parent, at a young age, learned the music of Johnny Cash in the therapy program. He expressed how Cash’s lyrics helped him process his mother’s death in better ways than he had in the past when he would express his pain outwardly, sometimes victimizing others.
The cast of Whorl Inside a Loop stayed behind after the show to answer questions from the audience. One teen resident from a Bronx home asked if it was difficult to channel the emotions and experiences of so many different characters in a play.
“It is hard, but even if we haven’t experienced exactly the same thing as the character we’re playing, we’ve all felt similar feelings that can help us identify with others,” said Daniel J. Watts, the actor who plays Flex and several others in Whorl Inside a Loop. “We might never have been to a physical prison ourselves,” added Donald Webber, Jr., another cast member, “But there are all kinds of prisons – in our minds, in our jobs, in our relationships – that can restrict our freedom and make us face what we have done in other ways.”
Like actors learning to identify with their characters, the youth in our juvenile justice homes are learning to discover other parts of their own characters – the ones that will serve their rehabilitation and their re-entry into their communities where they have a second chance to contribute their gifts. They too will have to break free from mental and emotional prisons to access their full potential before they can earn privileges and freedoms both inside our homes, and beyond. And like the characters in Whorl Inside a Loop, Creative Arts Therapy will continue to be an avenue to self love, accountability, achievement, and freedom.