Escape from Prisons

Playwright Shanique Scott revisits her sordid past.

It’s said that a lot of comics use their medium as a way to unburden themselves of pain. Shanique Scott goes a step further by using the medium to revisit her past wounds … over and over and over again. Born in the South Bronx to an abusive, religious-fanatic mother and drug-addicted father — “a setup for me to die,” she said — Scott ran away from home at fifteen and wound up at a group home called Sheltering Arms Children Services, home to twenty other girls. Despite the name, Sheltering Arms was a lonely, transient place, Scott said. The other residents kept coming and going, and most of their problems were commensurate with Scott’s own, if not worse. There were teenage prostitutes; girls raped by foster parents; girls who’d been locked in Rikers Island; girls who’d been beaten up. Scott became the “house clown” as a means of getting by.

Scott had always been a ham. As a kid, she imitated her auntie, her grandmother, and the people at church. Later on, she impersonated other girls in the group home. She finally got discovered at age nineteen, by a New York City comedian who dropped by the group home to lead improv games. He took a shine to Scott and said that if she could put together five minutes of material, he would give her a slot at New York Comedy Club. Scott took the gig and killed it. She kept doing stand-up while taking classes at Russell Sage College and living intermittently at Sheltering Arms, then took a hiatus to pursue a master’s degree in theater at the University of Buffalo. As a graduate student Scott began writing an autobiographical play based on pretend games she used to play as a kid. Initially called “The Momma Game,” then “Renee and Rose” (Renee was a homeless woman from her South Bronx neighborhood; Rose was a pushover who took all the bums in), it eventually became Prisons, a fierce dramatization of Scott’s sordid past.

The title Prisons is actually a pregnant metaphor. In Scott’s play, school, church, alcoholism, poverty, and execrable living conditions all constitute a form of prison. She sees children as prisoners of fate, and adults as prisoners of their own free will. Heavy stuff, for sure, but Scott still finds humor even in her most disturbing childhood memories. As adults, she says, “we have outs in some ways” — we’re not always condemned to live in prisons of our own making. Scott found an escape hatch, after all. Prisons plays Saturday and Sunday, August 23 and 24, at La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley). 8 p.m., $15-$18.

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