A White Man’s Guide To Rikers Island: Interview with Playwright Richard Roy

A White Man’s Guide To Rikers Island
“A White Man’s Guide To Rikers Island” is a critically acclaimed play that was based on a true story written by Richard Roy.

“A White Man’s Guide To Rikers Island” is a critically acclaimed play that was based on a true story and written by Richard Roy of “Richard III” fame (which starred Denzel Washington) who also acts in the piece. After a successful premiere last year, the play will run again at The Producers’ Club in NYC starting July 26, 2019.

“A White Man’s Guide To Rikers Island” follows a privileged Caucasian actor named Rich who finds himself in the notoriously violent New York prison after a drunk driving incident leads to a charge of involuntary manslaughter. Cast into an aggressive population where his white skin makes him both a minority and a target, Rick is forced to navigate the volatile landscape daily where he is surrounded by gang members and drug lords. One of his closest companions is a transgender cell mate who teaches him how to cope with the violent abyss of life on the inside.

As Rich struggles with his circumstances, he also feels intense guilt for his crime and has difficulty finding forgiveness. A corrections officer suggests he start writing a story to submit to the National Penitentiary Press Competition and that is how “A White Man’s Guide ToRikers Island” is born.

Richard Roy recently granted an exclusive interview where he discussed this play and the tragic and traumatizingreal-life events that led to its development.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your talent for acting and writing and which passion came first?

Richard Roy (RR): Acting came first. I retired from boxing at age 22 and moved to New York City to begin my acting career. Tony Danza used to work out at my gym, The Gramercy Gym on 14th Street at Union Square. He went directly from boxing to starring on TV on Taxi, so I thought acting would be easy. Boy was I wrong. I would show up for an audition and so would another 50 guys that looked like me. When I was in my 20’s, I was a rugged all-American type. Now I get “not too bad looking. For an old guy.”

I never thought for one second about writing anything untilI ended up in Rikers Island. I’m in Rikers Island for like 1 week and I’m in The Farm Gang in my Cell Block. In storms in The Muslim Brotherhood. It’s like these guys owned the joint. They storm up to me and say “White man, want to work at the Rikers Review? The jail newspaper?” The Rikers Review never had a white male writer.  I was dumbfounded. What would I write about? I turned them down. They scowled at me and stormed out. Then the House Gang leader, a big Puerto Rican drug dealer named Herb, said to me, “You don’t turn down the Muslim Brotherhood. They can make your stay here misery.  Besides, when you work for the review you get a press pass. You can go anywhere, anytime you want. You can go visit other inmates all over Rikers.” So the next day the Muslim Brotherhood returned in force and I took the job. They hung a press pass around my neck and whisked me out. They yelled at the CO’s. (Corrections Officers) that I now worked for the review and off I went.

MM: “A White Man’s Guide to Riker’s Island” is based on a true story, so did this really happen to you? How has the experience changed you?

RR: Changed me? Are you kidding me? I’ve never gotten over the car accident where I killed a young man. To top that off I get sent to Rikers and I know I deserved to be there, make no mistake about that. There’s not a day I don’t think about that horrible day. It’s in my head and will never leave me. And I can’t seem to forgive myself, which everyone says will help me go on with my life. My director and friend Tom Waites always said to write about it. If you can’t help yourself, maybe you can stop someone from drinking and driving. I can do that. But nothing relieves me. So here we are.

MM: In the play, Rich ends up in prison because he drives drunk and subsequently killed someone. How much of a cautionary tale is this play about the dangers of making bad decisions?

RR: This whole play is about preventing someone from driving drunk. I just had a conversation with a young lady who said she will never drink and drive again after listening to my story. And there are a lot of men that come up to me after the show and tell me it could have happened to them a thousand times and said never again will they drink and drive.

MM: What are your favorite scenes and lines in this play and why?

RR: My favorite scenes are when Connor Stewart imitates all the characters at the Rikers Review. The back and forth is priceless. They argue about why a white man is writing an article in the Rikers Review. Let me tell you something. Everyone who worked there hated the white man. Then I joined the C-76 (my building) basketball team. So I got to know the biggest inmates in the joint. And I tried really hard, so they eventually liked me. And then the article “A White Man’s Guide To Rikers Island” came out and I made fun of the blacks and Hispanics in Rikers. They loved it and I was suddenly treated like a rock star. My favorite line in the play is “I may be a minority in here, but out there, we’re still the majority.” This is why everyone hates old white men, which I guess is now me. Hahaha.

MM: What was it like to stage this play and were you expecting such rave reviews?

RR: Producer Ken Davenport read an initial draft of my play and suggested it be re-written as a one man show, which I did with the help of dramaturg Eric Webb. Then, in Tom Waites acting class, we all decided the story should be told through a young man’s eyes. So now an extraordinary actor plays the young me and all the different characters. And since everyone wants to see the guy who went to Rikers Island, I appear at the start and finish the play.

I’m one of those actors who never paid attention to reviews in the past. But I must say the great reviews from our first round of performances earlier this year were awesome.

MM: What are your ultimate career goals and what additional projects are on the horizon for you?

RR: I believe my play could easily make it to cable television where we could reach millions instead of thousands. I always joke that when Orange is the new Black disappears A White Man’s Guide To Rikers Island will replace it. Odd that Orange just left the building.

I have written three other plays. My next play is called Texas Jack. My real great Uncle Texas Jack Omahundro (my mother’s maiden name) started Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show back in 1873. It was Texas Jack, Buffalo Bill, and Wild Bill Hickok. Texas Jack died at age 33 which is why no one knows who he is. It’s really funny how these 3 cowboys were initially so scared to go onstage in front of an audience. The play is really madcap fun.

MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention or discuss?

RR: If my play helps one person, then it’s a win. I think I’ve already done that. For more info, visit www.awhitemansguidetorikersisland.com