Wolf’s sentence was “a day and a night”—life without parole—until, pressured by the family that was growing up without him, he decided to turn snitch. When he is told that his sentence is being commuted, and that he will go home after 25 years behind bars, he begins to shake. His jaw unhinges and his lips flutter, his eyes wide with disbelief. The man who raged against his warden and delivered impassioned speeches damning the prison state becomes servile, childish, agitated. He jumps up and down, waving his hands in circles. “I won’t let you down!” he cries out. “Thank you, your honor! Thank you!”
Kash Goins, writer and director of V to X, also plays Wolf, the most influential prisoner in a cellblock full of lifers.
Designer Britt Plunkett’s has dramatically reshaped the Adrienne’s 3rd-floor Skybox theater, normally a blackbox with a stage on one side and seating on the other. The audience sits on three sides of the central playing space, which is ringed by prison bars. The prisoners’ cells, however, spill out of the center and into the seating area, allowing for action on all sides of the audience.
Goins utilizes this staging to make the chaos and danger of prison life as real and raw as possible. When a group of cellmates start arguing in the main space, or emotions ride high between the warden and one of the guards, a prisoner in solitary confinement in a corridor behind the audience screams and smashes his chair, or another, in his cell, bellows a song. Loud music and scuffles are frequent; the guards seem unable to speak at anything lower than a shout, and routinely take certain prisoners out for a beating, and even among prisoners there are frequent squabbles.
Goins’ cast members play their roles with incredible empathy and unusual commitment. Whether they are drinking and dancing, talking politics, joking about their life sentences, or showering, we see a balance between despair and resilience. The constant potential of violence, either from guards or other prisoners, develops a pressure heavy enough to unhinge and destabilize otherwise rational characters.
Wolf, who is confident in his power and intimidating even to the guards when he’s just another lifer, becomes suspicious and self-conscious after his testimony and pending release. M.P., the cellblock peacemaker played by Omar Long as a jocular gentle giant, completely reverses on his own religious values and attacks a fellow prisoner after his own appeal for parole is turned down and he is called a “pervert” by the judge.
Most remarkable, though, is the joy that they access. There is a joy in resilience, and when they are able to form real connections, or make jokes despite the horror of their situation, this joy is felt. It flows through the entire play, from the new year’s party that opens it to an unusually raucous curtain call.
Through its deeply human portrayal of convicted felons and the horrors of prison life, V TO X is as close to revolutionary theater as we get on the Philadelphia stage. It could benefit from a more realistic portrayal of the prison warden (he comes across as a straight-up Disney villain at times, laughing as he punishes prisoners or delivers bad news) and maybe some cutting (the full tragic circle of Wolf’s story, for instance, becomes predictable). But while most political theater in Philly is unfortunately limp (see my review of #therevolution), Goins presents a clear and despicable injustice, and does so with real, emotionally complex characters. [Skybox at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St.] January 29-February 20, 2016; gokashproductions.com.