Mandie Patterson's acting group, nicknamed by one actor The Greatly Rehabilitated in No More Need of Reform Players, will present its version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" tonight and tomorrow night at the Northern Virginia Correctional Unit.
Each member of the all-male show is an inmate at the men's prison near Centreville, where Patterson is a rehabilitation counselor.
"I don't know the first thing about theater, but I began working with this acting group a year-and-a-half ago. That's a long time for any program to last in prison," Patterson said. "There was another counselor interested and then an inmate came in who wanted to do plays, so we got started.
"That inmate was the guy who gave the group its nickname - sort of a takeoff on the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players."
Their first production was "The Emperor Jones." Patterson said they have a hard time finding scripts. "That first one was a natural with its large male cast."
The inmates' current show casts Scrooge as an irascible sergeant refusing to grant Christmas leave to soldiers in a Veterans Administration hospital. All the actors are men who auditioned for parts two months ago. The show has been in rehearsal since October for its brief two-night run in the prison cafeteria.
"Only one of the nearly 20 cast members has ever been on stage before," Patterson said. "But we all got together and talked about what we wanted to do for a Christmas play. We improvised our ideas, put them on tape, then wrote them down in a script."
She explained that "the guys wanted to set their Scrooge in a highly restricted environment similar to prison, so they choose a VA hospital." The Prisoners rehearse only one night each week for a couple of hours with Patterson and Alice Synder, a community resident who is a volunteer.
"Alice has had theater experience and training and is a marvelous help in seeing that the shows are good," Patterson said. Snyder has been donating actors and train the technical crew. "I got really hooked on doing this," Snyder said.
The prison's rudimentary lighting system and the four raised platforms used as a stage were built by carpentry teacher Gary Thomas with help from the inmates. The small stage is assembled when needed in a cafeteria corner for plays and talent shows.
"We have a really great gospel group, The Natural Tones of Joy," Patterson said. "Many of the men play instruments or sing and one guy writes poetry."
Borzie Jones heads the gospel group.
"They call me 'Pops,'" the graying rhythm guitarist said, grinning and nodding toward the others, bass guitarist Robert Free, singers James Edward Andrews, Charles Langley, Jerry Gomillion, Wesley Patterson and William Robinson.
Wesley Patterson portrays the role of Sergeant Scrooge, while Christmas Past is played by Jay White, the poet, and Christmas Future by Mitchell Hamlin. In an ironic aside, the direcotr added that "there is no Christmas Present in this version."
Mandie, pronounced Monday, Patterson has been a correctional counselor since 1974, the year she got her master's degree in sociology from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. A native of South Africa, she has been in the United States for 12 years and according to her, her slightly British accent "is going real Southern now."
She says of the drama group, "It's fun! I get very positive feelings out of working with the men where we are equals working together on something. I like the feeling of togetherness . . . learn to know a lot about the men thisway."