Prison Narratives: What Have We Come to Expect?

By Dante Flores, Dramaturg


No one would blame you for having to curl up and sit with your own thoughts for a while after having watched the last season of Orange is the New Black. You’d be similarly blameless for falling down the ‘Prison Television’ rabbit hole, no doubt going from programming like OITNB or Oz to reality shows like Lockup or Scared Straight. There’s a morbid kind of romance to it all; a fantasy in which you construct the walls brick by brick, and think on the life you would lead within. But how do they compare to, say, a play?

Getting Out, the first play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman and soon to be produced in Emerson’s Jackie Liebergott Black Box, tells the story of Arlene: a woman newly released from prison overcoming obstacles, both internal and external, to adjust to life on the outside.

So, how does the prison we see on television compare to Getting Out? First, the events we see play out in prison dramas and reality shows are designed specifically to retain viewership. Piper’s world on OITNB seems to never have a dull moment, so much so that the show is going into its fifth season. OITNB even takes its story beyond of the prison walls, and shows the expansive world of the outside. Similarly, Lockup and Scared Straight move from story to story without much empty space in between.

What we’ve come to expect from our prison narratives is that they have a certain degree of separation between their world and ours, especially when they’re told from behind a screen. But as we learn more and more about Arlene’s past, tension builds within the confines of her apartment, until the inside and outside become indistinguishable.

While dealing with many of the same subjects, Getting Out captures the claustrophobia of prison, finding the terror of the things which we on the outside take for granted: having a minimally rewarding job, or planning which groceries to buy. The violence of a life behind bars has gone from Arlene’s life for now, yet it’s precisely those little mundane things that, at every turn, threaten to send her back.


Getting Out runs February 2-5, 2017 in the JLBB

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