The truth behind bars

The animals: A riot breaks out in the fifth season of Orange is the New Black. Photos courtesy of NETFLIX

The truth behind bars
QUIET COMPANY - Carina Santos (The Philippine Star) - June 8, 2017 - 4:00pm

Seeing a sequence played out by a cast as acclaimed as that of Orange is the New Black is a sight to behold, even if you’re just around for a two-scene string.

Inmate “Black Cindy” (played by Adrienne C. Moore and curiously in guard garb) wheels around what looks like a sedated Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), a.k.a. “Crazy Eyes,” who’s in a tense confrontation with Taystee (Danielle Brooks). They remember their cues, their marks, and when they stumble a bit over their lines, the director doesn’t need to yell out “Cut!” They start over, still steeped in whatever emotion carried them up to that point, and carry on.

There is an emergency, an overtaking, a riot going on around them at the Litchfield Correctional Facility, and the three prisoners seamlessly transition into another scene that’s been set up — this time, a tender one between on-again, off-again friends-with-benefits Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and Lorna (Yael Stone).

The sequence is intense and happens towards the end of the fifth season of Orange is the New Black, Netflix’s most-watched original series, which comes out June 9.

Perhaps it’s the series’ version of a midlife crisis, but this season adopts a new format: capitalizing on the depth and spectrum of grief and oppression, its 13-episode run happens in almost real-time. We get a long, slow look at the characters’ unraveling over the three days that follow the accidental death of inmate and fan favorite, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), at the hands of an incompetent corrections officer. It’s a death that resembles Eric Garner’s at the hands of the NYPD in 2014 during last season’s penultimate episode.

The prolonged gaze is often uncomfortable and unpleasant. At worst, the prison’s resulting situation feels infinitely hopeless.





Selenis Leyva, who plays inmate Gloria Mendoza, says: “These women really are going to have to kind of find a way to come together in order to survive what’s happening.”

Picking up after a hell of a Season four cliffhanger where Daya (Dascha Polanco) points a gun at two guards, the show defies, yet again, the conventions of storytelling: they show the gun at the end of the season, but it doesn’t go off just yet.

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As Orange is the New Black wrapped shooting of its fifth season, Young STAR caught up with some actors from the award-winning ensemble cast on what makes the show so special, the importance of activism through art, and what Orange fans can expect next from Netflix’s most-watched original series.

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It’s apparent just how in love the actors are with their characters, and after five years of inhabiting their lives, maybe that’s not so surprising. “I sometimes know Cindy better than anybody,” Moore says.

Part of why the cast is drawn to the characters is because of their desire to tell varied stories about lesser-heard voices through their craft.

Aduba says, “To be able to get to do that, through someone like Suzanne, who is so different — she’s outside of the box of not just this world, but how we understand people to convey feelings, how you’re supposed to love, how you’re supposed to respond, react, teach, learn, whatever... So that’s why I’m grateful, and that people in the show are being celebrated in that capacity.”

“I really just think it’s how human and complex these characters are, you know,” adds Lyonne. “Their truth of life is an ultimately gray area on every level, and people are complex, and every situation is very layered and individual. Human behaviors have history, and sentences have impacts on futures a lot — especially in a women’s prison, of course — so it means a lot of young mothers who have to abandon their children and things like that.”

“Even though it’s not ‘realistic,’ it is realistic, because we’re living these stories on set,” Polanco says.?Leyva adds: “These are real women. They exist out there.”

Aside from complex and compassionate storytelling, creator Jenji Kohan manages to frame certain current events in such a way that they’re brought to the viewers on a really personal level. That’s hard to do when you’re working with such a large ensemble, but they pull it off masterfully.

Whether on purpose or otherwise, Orange has used well-loved, multi-faceted characters to mirror and address America’s socio-political sphere, focusing on issues that range from the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements following harrowing acts of police brutality, to fundamental religion and spirituality, race-driven violence and racial profiling, sexual assault, and even the privatization of prisons.

Of this, Polanco says, “(Jenji and the writers) have their magic when they implement the comedy and the drama, and actually touching these issues or taboos that people do not speak about, or haven’t spoken about, and are brought to (light) due to the show.”

Cast members insist that the show didn’t deliberately set out to make political statements. “We had no idea the responsibility that came with such a show,” adds Polanco. But when you have a platform, an audience, and something to say, you can’t possibly stay silent.

“For me, I never looked at myself as a political figure, but I’ve always felt if I was gonna have some type of place in this political conversation, I’d always want it to be with the art,” Brooks says. “I just wanted people to really understand the parallel of, like, this is the world that we live in, and I actually feel like there’s a lot of people in this world who are so deaf to what’s going on in the world.”

“It was this really terrifying moment where I kind of realized how dehumanizing the process is of kind of numbering people for perceived crimes,” Lyonne shares. “I remember it was in that moment where we realized the potential impact that this show could have in a very real way and how much of a testament that really is to Jenji and our writers, that it’s in such a palatable, aesthetic package for receiving new information that kind of shifts your thinking.”

Moore, who believes in activism and teaching through art, adds, “I have this book (from) when I was in grad school — I always use this as an example — but the first sentence or two into the history book said, ‘Art is to teach and to entertain.’ And I took that as being the litmus for what I feel my calling is to be as an artist, not just an actor, but as an artist in general. I think right now, if you’re looking at our political climate, our economic climate, just all these different facets of our government and our society today, we are at war with ourselves and this whole idea of who is better than the other, or who deserves to be here over the other.”

“I think it’s (about) how generalizations of any kind can pit people against one another,” Aduba says, adding that the internet has opened a lot of doors for communication, “but we’ve still yet to open the door of the mind, in some ways, you know?”?

“How rare it is to be on a show where you do need to know what’s going on in the world,” Brooks notes. “And I think that’s a beautiful thing to be able to challenge your mind like that and challenge you as a person and what you want to add to society and what you believe and really start to shape who you are… And here, we’re talking about all these things, but that’s why I think this show is so successful, because it goes beyond entertainment. I do truly feel like our show has had an impact on this world, when you watch President Obama bring it up in his speech, you know?”

A proponent of diversity in television, the series has stood apart from conventional TV from the outset. As the seasons progressed, the multiracial cast of supporting characters ceased to orbit the series lead, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), and the series moved into a broader story that’s equally about these outliers as it is about the white female protagonist whose oppression in a faulty prison system seems almost inconsequential when set up against the plight of the others’ both in life and in prison. The riot in Season five, after all, began after the prison warden, in a statement, neglected to mention Poussey, an African-American, by name, which is reminiscent of the initial reports surrounding Sandra Bland’s death while in police custody, spearheading the Say Her Name movement.

Although diversity is a hot-button topic these days, Leyva hopes that the “diversity trend” becomes the norm. “Netflix, thank goodness, is still ahead of the game… I’ve been in the business for 20 years, it’s like (you hear) ‘Diversity! We just love diversity!’ No, you don’t,” she says. Still, Orange has made her proud and hopeful. “There are different stories and each one of us has stories that are worthy of being told. I had talked to Jenji Kohan, over and over again, because she was brave enough to not just talk about it, but do something.”??“We didn’t even know we wanted to see stories told by dynamic women, diverse women of different ages, sizes, races, religious backgrounds, ethnic groups, and yet, here we are, five seasons deep, satisfied as a global culture,” says Aduba. “There aren’t many shows that are like Orange that are a mashup of sexual orientation, gender identification, race, age, size, politics, religion, and conventional ideas of ideal beauty and not. I think there are people in the world who have long wanted more and not seen or heard their stories being told and saw themselves in a story that they don’t normally see but can relate to.”

Aduba is quick to add: “And that’s not to say that, don’t try and follow Piper, but we realize that maybe our small-minded idea or our shortened worldview needs some lengthening. I think that surprises a lot of people, and then starts some internal questions like ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How do I walk?’”

* * *

It’s hard to imagine an even more suffocating environment than the different degrees we were made privy to in past seasons of Orange. A tinge of desperation blankets the entire prison and Leyva says that everyone is driven to drastic measures for their own survival.

“So, this season does start right when I get the gun,” Polanco says. “I think that the beautiful thing is that it starts there, and it points out to so many different things. We’re gonna have a power struggle, we’re gonna have groups uniting that you don’t expect to unite. We’re gonna have issues outside of the prison, really affecting the prisoners... I mean, it’s chaos.”

Lyonne frames the season plainly, “We are a prison really beyond the brink. I mean, we’re in a full-scale riot, and the stakes are as high as they possibly could be… The inmates are literally running the asylum, which doesn’t get any more intense or edge-of-a-cliff than that.”

“I think that’s what makes Jenji Kohan a genius, personally, her ability to weave in topical subjects in an effortless way, in a realistic way, in a compassionate way, in a way that forces the audience to come up with an answer,” Aduba says. “She doesn’t leave us with it, she doesn’t give you the answer. We, as a society, are forced to find it. I think that continues through season five as well, this negotiation where we’re trying to really establish who we are as a people, as a culture.”

Taystee, who had maintained a close relationship with Poussey, is at the forefront this season, where she’s in the unique position of fighting for the rest of the inmates, but at the same time is intent on getting justice for her friend. “You see Taystee totally in a different light this season,” Brooks says. “Hands down, (she) is going for blood.”

The six-month shoot for Season five — with the high stakes, and as Lyonne describes it, a “Lord of the Flies” situation — can be emotionally taxing. “Yesterday, we shot the finale, and we all looked at each other and it was just… You could see us all, like, exhale,” Leyva says. “We exhaled at once.”

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The new season of Orange Is The New Black will stream on Netflix starting June 9.

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