NEW YORK — Inmates at Rikers Island jail this week could have been forgiven for wondering if they were suddenly in an episode of "Orange Is the New Black."
Thirteen female inmates who performed a deeply moving dance and poetry piece they helped write had a special guest in the audience: Kate Mulgrew, star of the prison Netflix show.
"Art is imitating life today," she said with a laugh.
Mulgrew, who plays the tough-as-nails inmate Red, was so moved after Wednesday's show that she took time to speak to each of the inmates personally and shake their hands. "So full of life," she said to many.
The performance — drawing a standing ovation from fellow inmates, guards and guests — was the culmination of months of work by the inmates and teachers from the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, which began its outreach program there this summer.
"It was awesome. I'm so proud of them," said Michelle Clifford, the warden of the Rose M. Singer Center, the only women's jail on the island. "It brought tears to my eyes."
The inmates attended three-hour theater classes twice a week over the past 2½ months to create the show called "Our Circle." It incorporated their words and movement and the poem "The Coming of Light" by Mark Strand and music by Philip Glass.
"I can honestly say this program has given me my human back," said Latanya Jones, who was arrested last year on larceny charges. "It's made me remember that this is not forever. It's just for right now."
The stage was just a space in the middle of a basketball court surrounded by plastic chairs. The women — in pink Stella Adler T-shirts — made their entrance from a bathroom and picked up various skirts left on the gym floor, soon putting them on.
The exuberant piece included the inmates freezing as if statues, doing improvisational solo dances and all motioning as if throwing their hearts into the air. They also got into pairs to gently take turns nudging each other like helium-filled balloons. It was full of lightness, girlish energy, air and freedom.
"Even this late the bones of the body shine/and tomorrow's dust flares into breath," they spoke from Strand's poem. The women ended with declarations about what a circle means to them: Infinite embrace, said one. Another chance, said another.
Tommy Demenkoff, the studio's director of outreach, said his staff gave the women training in acting, movement and speech, as well as a framework for the piece. It was up to the inmates to fill it in, "basically, with themselves" so "their authenticity rises to the top."
Inmate Jennifer Wansley, arrested this summer on attempted robbery charges, said working on the piece was calming and collaborative. She said the women — of different ages, races and religions — had created a strong bond, evident from their congratulatory hugs and smiling, flushed faces.
Wansley said inmates came in every day for rehearsals gruff from their cells but left happier. "When I come here, I'm more at peace," she said. The program has also gotten her hooked on acting: "I'm going to take it seriously when I get out."
The acting program comes at a time when Rikers has come under scrutiny for a host of controversies including bloody brawls, drug activity and inmate deaths and even the accidental release of prisoners.
"We're into a big reform program and trying new things and to think outside the box," said Clifford, the warden. "Anything that helps recidivism, or with idleness within the jail, helps the inmates grow and keeps it safer for the staff. It's just a win-win."
Stella Adler was one of the titans of 20th-century actor training who stressed social engagement and activism. Her school helped train Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Elaine Stritch and Warren Beatty.
The studio has enrichment programs in seven low-income south Bronx middle schools, helps inmates earn their GEDs, and collaborates with recovering substance abusers at Phoenix House.
Mulgrew is a proud alumna who studied for two years under Stella Adler: "If you're not useful to your community, you might as well just hang it up, go to Hollywood and do a bad sitcom," she said. "This is being useful."
Tom Oppenheim, the studio's president and artistic director as well as Adler's grandson, said the decision to train female Rikers inmates came because the women are, in many ways, a forgotten population.
"Theater makes use of humanity. And jails and prisons are places where humanity is in great danger of being discarded," he said. "When you give inmates an opportunity and the environment to express themselves, to communicate what matters to them, you see there's enormous richness."