THE AUDIENCE filed in without the buzz of chitchat that usually accompanies a theater crowd. They were all women, mostly young, and dressed alike in faded denim jump suits, personalized with a collar turned under, or rolled up pants legs. One woman had shaved her hair on the sides of her head; another had shaved her head completely. There was one exception--she wore a uniform, and after they all sat down, she counted the women in blue. Everyone had arrived from the cellblock who was supposed to.
The "stage" was half the "multi-purpose room" at the D.C. Jail; the audience was made up of prisoners from the women's detention center, mostly women given short sentences for prostitution or drug-related crimes. The play was "Getting Out," a fierce, emotional story about a young woman getting out of jail and trying to establish a new, non-criminal identity, presented by a small-budget group trying to do theater that reaches beyond the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience.
The play opens with a prison official's announcement over a loudspeaker; seconds after the speech was finished a real-life one could be heard through the doors. The slow hum of automatic doors opening and closing down the hall provided an eerie counterpoint to the scenes on stage.
For Jane LeGrand and Judith Z. Miller, the founders of the Fine Line Actors Theatre and the lead performers in "Getting Out," the play "made sense politically and professionally." They had a successful run with it last year, and then applied for the grants and gifts that would allow them to take the drama "inside," which they were able to do for two performances this week.
"Doing it for a middle-class audience, the basic theater audience, I kept thinking that there were people it would really make a difference to in their lives," said Miller, a one-time photographer who started acting in 1979 and supports full-time theater work with a part-time job.
"I think the purpose of theater is to strike at the hearts and guts of people," said LeGrand, who also teaches theater privately and in the D.C. school system.
The audience response at the center was dramatically different from the average "middle-class" group. For one thing, they laughed uproariously at things a regular crowd would pass over. When Arlie's mother, arriving at her first apartment after jail with a load of sheets and towels says, "Bet you didn't have colored towels where you been," they howled. When the mother says, "They shoulda put you to work scrubbin' floors, that's what you kids need," there was a chorus of "noooo." And when Arlie's former pimp, a good-looking man, sauntered on stage, there were noises of approval reminiscent of men at a striptease.
After the show the cast came back into the room and Miller asked the audience: "We'd like to know what you thought and what you felt." A few women said the play seemed "real," and Arlie's conflict with her angry self, which playwright Marsha Norman dramatized by having two actresses play the different parts of her personality, rang true.
"Being back out and looked down on and rejected by your parents, that's it," said one young woman. "That's really what a woman feels. There's always someone on the street ready to pull you down again. That's how women are in prison: confused."
The actors seemed more intent on talking to the audience (or "residents," as the corrections department prefers to call them) than vice versa, regarding them with a mixture of awe and empathy. "Is there anything we can do better?" asked Charles Esser, the actor playing Carl.
"I was really scared to bring this play here, because it's so realistic," said another actor, Hal MacIntosh, a former policeman.
"It ain't that bad," said one resident, as others laughed.
"What do you do all day?" the actors asked the women. The responses: "Watch TV." "Play cards." "Sit." "Just like the play says."
"What did the play say to you?" Miller asked.
"That either you want to stay here or you want to get out of here," said one woman. "And you've got to make a choice . . . You've got to make a believer out of yourself before you can make someone else believe."
"I'm getting out next week," said a woman in the first row. "I'm trying to forget the past. I guess that's what I got do, like she was saying in the play, get a job. And I don't have any skills or anything. But that's what you have to do. I guess it was the Lord's will that I saw this play tonight."
The play will be performed on June 18, 19 and 20 at the GALA Theater for civilian audiences, and after that the company is taking it to the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Va., where Washington women with long sentences are sent. Several of the women who saw the play Wednesday said they would probably see it again at Alderson.
"I hate to sound sentimental," said Miller. "But if that one woman who's getting out next week doesn't come back, that's the validation I wanted."