Drawing on prison scandals torn from newspaper headlines, V to X (five to 10), now running at Arden Theatre through April 15, takes you behind the terrifying walls of the "big house." Kash Goins hits the trifecta as writer, director and producer of a riveting play that puts the excessive incarceration of African Americans on trial.
The play was inspired by revelations of the brutal mistreatment of a teenager, Kalief Browder. Arrested in 2010, he was denied both bail and trial, yet spent three years at notorious Rikers Island prison, mostly in solitary, fell into depression, and, after his release, committed suicide.
Kalief shows up in V to X as "Bitch Baby" (Jaron C. Battle), a pathetic figure sequestered in a rear balcony cage, who periodically shouts, cries and is beaten. But Goins does not milk the story, as Kalief's tragedy is only one piece of a larger morass.
At times, issues are rendered explicit. During intermission, an unseen woman sardonically lectures on the "prison industrial complex." Warden Jenkins (Steve Connor) gives tours to pitch private prison investment, comic relief too farcical to be didactic. You spend most of your time with the savage humor of the prisoners themselves.
The set design of Dustin Pettigrew is a hypnotic bank of cell beds. Andrew Montemayor's dramatic lighting separates day from night, each with its own set of dangers. During an assault, sound designer Lyell Hintz uses Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness," while in the nighttime stillness you may hear Nina Simone, or the hollow metallic din of prison vastness.
The show is intensely immersive. The warden talks directly to you as potential investors. Prisoners stare past you to yell at events playing out on a rear wall TV, desperate for a way to belong in the larger world. On occasion, actors swarm the center aisle: guards beating prisoners, prisoners beating each other under the fight choreography of Terri McIntyre.
The drama slowly builds. The "deacon," M.P. (James Tolbert), breaks down after pleading his case to the parole board. Strawberry (Alicia Dominique), a jailhouse transsexual, explains why he murdered. Thomas (Jonathan Suber), a brutal prison guard, is kicked to the curb by authorities when the threat of scandal makes him a liability.
With their colorful jailhouse lingo (the program offers a glossary), the prisoners are comical, scary, full of life, and hopelessly entrapped. The story of wily wheeler-dealer Wolf, played finely by Monroe Barrick, is prominent. In circular fashion, the play begins and ends with Wolf, while the lives of the other prisoners change only in that they move to different bunk beds.