I had this thing where you gonna give me my respect.
“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.