Young Vic, London – until 30 March 2019
The joy of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is in meeting his characters: watching them perform to each other; hearing their patois and verbal brio; exude a charisma which they know gives them power.
I recently read two other of his early plays, Our Lady of 121st Street and In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings. Both largely feature screw-ups and miscreants, but they also feature reformed characters. In Our Lady…, former pupils of the deceased (and missing!) Sister Rose reunite from as far as LA to say goodbye to their saviour, whilst in In Arabia…, Lenny has recently been released from prison and tries to make amends. In both plays, people and places are not what they once were or what they could have been. In Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, the themes of redemption and religion are more pronounced, more entrenched in a tighter group of characters.
Kate Hewitt’s production and Magda Willi’s design are deceptively simple. A long traverse stage, no more than two meters wide with a concrete floor, runs from one end of the auditorium to the other. Above, over 40 white spot lights illuminate this catwalk. Four glass doors slide back and forth to create the different places, most notably the separated isolation yards in Rikers Island Prison. It’s an aesthetic which is extremely clean in its execution, and one which gives the illusion (conversely) of space, light and freedom. I particularly liked the way you could see reflections in the glass, to create the sense that characters might be talking to, arguing with, or convincing themselves.
Whereas other productions have enclosed the action in cages, the action and performances here – although the characters are still very much confined – are fully opened out. It allows Lucius’ evangelism to soar and Hanrahan’s monologues to gain an air of a courtroom. Furthermore, staging it in the round allows the guard Valdez (a smug and pitiable character played very well by Joplin Sibtain) to roam all levels of the auditorium, in turn creating a panoptican effect. The characters have nowhere to hide so it heightens the idea of performance. And these characters sure do perform!
The legal procedural in the play centres around Angel, who finds himself facing a murder charge after shooting a church/ cult leader in his water buffalo-sized ass in an attempt to rescue his friend. The reverend subsequently, and indirectly, dies. His lawyer Hanrahan (played with methodical control by Dervla Kirwan) takes a liking to him and agrees to represent him. We see how his case becomes of a professional project for her but there’s also a personal connection. We hear a story of how her father stabbed someone at a dance when she was younger, but only with a fork – it’s as crucial a qualifying detail as Angel shooting the Rev onlyin the ass. Here lies one of the ways in which Adly Guirgis confronts us with the question of if there is ever honour or reasonable justification in crime.
In Rikers, Angel meets Lucius Jenkins, a born again Christian and cold blooded killer. There’s much about Lucius to dislike, although this is after we’ve warmed to him. But mostly there is a lot of reason to like him or at least be impressed by him. He relishes his one hour of sunlight a day and he has all of the joie de vivre of a free man. One of the guards even brings him cookies and talks to him about his personal life. There may be a cage and 24 hour security around him but he is free of mind. Or at least that’s what he has us believe, so convincing is Lucius’ performance? Or perhaps that’s what he believes himself? Oberon K.A. Adjepong’s performance lives up to the bar that Lucius sets himself. It’s a highly physical (as much as it can be in that small space) performance which takes advantage of all the humour in the text. But he’s also unnerving, conjuring Lucius’ coldness which shows his disregard to life, despite his vivacity. In some ways, Lucius’ presence is the contrary to Ukweli Roach’s as Angel Cruz. Whilst one side of the stage is lit up by Lucius, Roach is curled up and silent near his cell door, eyes turned away. For Angel, Lucius is a saviour, someone to rebut cigarettes from, or a springboard to perform back off. There’s a hilarious moment when he’s questioning Lucius’ piety and the preposterousness of the idea that he might have shot Jesus.
Adly Guirgis raises questions about justice and redemption, what’s right and wrong, and the power of belief. How does the system treat people the same when the circumstances are so different? And they come through these characters whose unbridled sense of humour, stories, dialogue, and street-wise sense of authenticity, despite being locked out of society, are remarkable.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train plays at the Young Vic until 6th April, 2019Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Ukweli Roach in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Credit: Johan Persson