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Recognize this guy?
If you didn’t just see him perform last night, perhaps you remember him from his 2007 or 2008 Capital Fringe appearances. Or from the special engagement he played at Fort Fringe last November as a fundraiser for the festival.
Or maybe you ran into him… on the inside.
Mark Whitney has brought Fool for a Client, his autobiography-laced critique of the criminal justice system, back to DC for the fourth consecutive year. Expanded by half an hour since its 2008 iteration, the show interweaves the more Kafkaesque elements of his own history with — as he told me by phone from his San Diego home a few weeks ago — an admonition of what, with 40 years of the zero-tolerance War on Drugs as our teacher, we can expect to see with this misguided War on Terror; how it affects our civil liberties in real ways.
Whitney, 51, didnt get serious about performing until his mid-40s. Before that, he was an entrepreneur and a convict.
When he was 28, Whitney lied to a New Hampshire bank while seeking a loan to purchase Ben & Jerrys franchise rights. When he learned his court-appointed attorney was a real-estate lawyer whod never tried a criminal case — not so unusual a predicament — he chose to represent himself. He was initially sentenced to three years in jail. He appealed, representing himself once again, and managed to get his sentence reduced.
Its complicated. Whitney says that in addition to the crime he committed, he was also prosecuted for things he didnt do, which is why he couldnt simply plead guilty. I would have died in prison, he says.
All told, he ended up spending his thirties in and out of courts and jails, serving a total of 700 days at five different Federal prisons on the installment plan.
He spent his days of incarceration at the law library.
The big guys, who can do 1,200 pushups in two hours? You make sure they all know you can read, Whitney says.
After Whitney was released for the last time, he founded an online legal database that lawyers subscribe to for $500 per year. I sell them legal research data, and then I take that money and use it produce a show that’s very critical of the justice system, Whitney says. So God bless the lawyers.”
The website provides most of his income, but Whitney says that if he was single, he could earn close to a six-figure living on the fringe circuit. Besides our fringe, he tries to play the Minnesota and San Francisco festivals every year. DC, with its dense concentration of shylocks, is his prime territory. But he’s thinking bigger, booking a 25-city tour for next year.
Whitney is also filming his current run of CapFringe performances at Studios Mead Theatre. He plans to edit the five performances into a 90 minute release and shop the results to film festivals. The hope is that this might be the best way of presenting the story to people who might be interested in adapting it into a feature film.
If that fictionalized version ever happens, it sounds like it might bear some tonal resemblance to The Informant, the 2001 nonfiction book that became a great This American Life episode and finally, last year, a Steven Soderbergh-directed, Matt Damon-starring feature.
It’s on my Netflix que.
Mark Whitney performs Fool for a Client today at 1:30 p.m. at The Studio Theatre’s Mead Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Looky here for a complete schedule of his 2010 Capital Fringe performances and ticket information.