Television

Girls on the Wall

For 17-year-old Whitney, used to "holding her tongue," sharing her story is difficult. She's survived up to now by keeping it to herself.


Girls on the Wall

Airtime: Various
Cast: Whitney, Rosa, Christina, Meade Palidofsky
Network: PBS
Director: Heather Ross
Air date: 2010-01-03
Website
Trailer
Amazon
I had this thing where you gonna give me my respect.

-- Whitney

"They wanna know why I'm quiet, but I don’t vent to them, none of that. I'm too cool. Too much. I don’t talk about nothing. Most of my thoughts just stay in my head and I think about a lot." Whitney wears an orange jumpsuit. She's an inmate at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, Illinois. Here she's surrounded by other girls, each angry and alienated in her own way. The "average inmate" at Warrenville is 16 years old, and at least half of those who leave will be locked up again. "Smiling as she takes her interviewers on a tour of the facility, she notes, "It's not fun here. Just because I look happy, okay, I'm not happy."

A smart, savvy, and frankly charismatic survivor, Whitney is one of three featured subjects in Girls on the Wall. Heather Ross' documentary -- recently airing on PBS and soon available on DVD -- follows their efforts to write and perform a musical based on their lives, under the guidance of Meade Palidofsky, artistic director of Chicago's Storycatchers Theatre. "My mission," proclaims Meade, is "to marry theater to social change." In this case, that means encouraging the Warrenville residents to communicate their experiences as a way to understand them. "If you put it out there," she urges, "Eventually you're able to let it go."

To start, Meade encourages her performers-to-be to "Think about your own personal story, think about something that really happened to you." The girls sit down and begin to write, some disbelieving and some impressed that anyone would even ask to hear them. For 17-year-old Whitney, used to "holding her tongue," sharing her story is difficult. She's survived up to now by keeping it to herself. That story -- which features a drug-addicted father, an absent mother -- is similar to those of other residents. Christina, 18, has run away from home nine times in her short life, hoping to find and look after her crack addict mother. During "Girls on the Wall, she makes probation and finds temporary shelter with a couple who want to adopt her. With her release in mind, Christina is distracted from the play, hopeful that her freedom will help her to "shine," even if this means she has negotiate a whole new set of boundaries. Following a scene where she's smiling and meeting her new family's friends in church, Christina worries, "It's been nice but it's been hard also, because they're like so perfect, so they don’t understand what I've been through."

As her story shifts, drawing her away from Warrenville -- an institution that is introduced with brief shots of brick walls, chain-link fences, and barbed wire -- she's confused and frustrated. Unsure just how to please her new family while also coming to understand herself, Christina bristles at their attempts to "set boundaries." Smiling uncomfortably, Christina sighs, "I'm just gonna fake it for a little," then catches herself. "I mean, I'm not gonna fake it. I'm gonna be myself around them."

Here Christina raises the film's central and most difficult question: what can it mean to "be yourself" when you've had so little encouragement? What does it mean to share -- and perform, and absorb -- a life story that has only been painful and traumatic? As Christina bubbles, trying so hard to say what she knows is expected of her, and Whitney maintains her self-protecting silence, 17-year-old Rosa is introduced as she raps her story. "Me, I don’t like to hold my mouth either," she asserts. "I'm gonna say what I gotta say."

And what Rosa has to say is daunting. Sexually abused as a child, mad at the world, she's determined to make herself heard in the way she best knows, frequently by intimidation and violence (following one encounter, she turns to the camera and asks, "You wanna see my scar?", then explains matter-of-factly that she's had 32 stitches to close a red and raw-looking knife wound on her neck). Many of the girls have had experiences like this, as they seek ways to describe their disappointments and efforts to sustain any sense of hope or at least a semblance of control over their chaotic lives. A montage early on reveals the many reasons residents have been sentenced to Warrenville, ranging from assault and robbery to stolen vehicles and "mob action with aggravated bodily harm."

Whitney observes, "Some people just brag about stuff they do, but I don’t want to even talk about it." As Meade urges Whitney to "share herself," Whitney begins to use the camera as an outlet. "I had a anger problem." She reflects. "Because maybe my life affected me more than I thought it did. So I guess, I was at the wrong time, wrong place, and now I'm here."

The documentary structures Whitney's story so that it coincides generally with the development of the musical. As the time before the performance counts down ("Three weeks until opening night," "Seven days until opening night"), Whiney is increasingly able to share her story, much as Meade hopes at film's start. But if the narrative here is carefully shaped, with closing epigraphs indicating what's happened for the three primary subjects, their stories remain complicated and open-ended.

6


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.