Lorraine, in the play This Wide Night, has just been released from a British prison. She knocks at the door of her former cellmate Marie, who got out some time ago and has been living in a shabby, cramped city flat. When the women were behind bars they were close friends despite their age difference (Lorraine is 50, Marie 30), but now that each is free at last, what's the point of reconnecting?
Marie isn’t doing as well outside as she had proudly predicted, and had stopped visiting her former friend inside. Lorraine is feeling unmoored, overwhelmed, and anxious about finding a job and a place to live instead of the supervised hostel where she has a transitional bed. She's also half-frantic at the looming prospect of seeing her adult son after their long estrangement.
Should Marie risk disrupting the fragile, sorry routine that keeps her afloat despite its dangers? How can Lorraine build a new life if she merely sinks into her old obsession with mothering Marie?
The play foregrounds many of the larger issues addressed by a unique local nonprofit that co-sponsored a preview performance of the play at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) in Gig Harbor last week. The preview was brought there in recognition of the reality that a formerly imprisoned woman reentering society faces special challenges. At WCCW the stage set — Marie’s “bed-sit” — was only a space in front of the visiting-room toilets. But the drama was so gripping it was easy to ignore potential distractions, including the reality that Marie’s sofa-bed was a row of folding metal chairs, and a quart of booze was for security purposes only a plastic water bottle labeled with VODKA scrawled on a scrap of paper.
The collaboration that brought the preview to WCCW began with conversations between Shana Bestock, artistic director at Seattle Public Theater at the Bathhouse, and Kim Bogucki, Seattle Police Department detective and co-founder of The If Project, a nonprofit that aims to steer youth and women away from involvement in crime. A discussion with the actors after the performance at the prison drew the WCCW audience into the collaboration, their comments prompting the director to make notes about lines and timing. The ripples will keep widening. Inmates returned to their cells that night to start writing about the play and their lives in essays that Bestock will post in the Bathhouse theater lobby.
During the discussion a woman told the actors, “You were so standoffish with each other, like my kids when they come to visit. They don't want to tell you what's really going on.” Another inmate said through her tears, “You both shut yourselves down. I do that. We’re in prison. We’re supposed to be rocks.” A woman in the back row agreed: “In prison you’re in protection mode. If you allow yourself to feel, … well, just look around!” (Hardly an eye in the room was dry.) “You could break down.”
The world outside, too, weighed on the women's minds. “My son — after 12 years, will he want to see me? Will there be jobs? It’s a lot to step out into.” “In here, no matter what, you belong. Out there…” Other voices picked up the trailing thread: “What will it be like to walk into someplace where they think I'm a piece of shit?” “You end up doing what you know how to do: prostitution, drugs, paper crimes.” “In here is the best life I’ve ever known.” “Get out and have all those choices? Send me back!”
Then the summing-up: “You made our life real.” “You were telling my story.” “Can our families and friends go see this play?” “These are our real struggles.”
For four years The If Project has been asking women in prison, “If there was something someone could have said or done that would have changed the path that led you here, what would it have been?” The women’s responses are videotaped, and detective Bogucki, together with a team of former inmates, uses the videos in workshops with Seattle's at-risk youth. “The women aren’t getting paid for this,” said Bogucki. “They do it to give back, to help some child from going the same way.”
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!