Good versus evil. Truth versus lies. Free will versus actions determined by the circumstances of our existence. These are the dichotomies that Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train puts up against each other, whilst exploring the injustices and complexities of the American justice system. Whilst Angel Cruz (Ukweli Roach) is locked up in prison for a murder accusation after he shoots a cult leader, Lucius Jenkins (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) is serving time for the violent murders of eight people, including a child. Cruz’s lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Dervla Kirwan) tries to get the truth from Cruz, for she does not believe that he shot with the intention to kill. The prison system, on the other hand, is less sympathetic to the prisoners: whilst one prison guard Charlie D’Amico (Matthew Douglas) offers Jenkins cigarettes and Oreo cookies, Valdez (Joplin Sibtain) spits in his face and treats him with ruthless aggression, slapping on his handcuffs like he’s an animal in a cage.
Kate Hewitt’s production performs in traverse; a long, fairly thin stage that acts like a catwalk from one end of the Young Vic to the other. Set on the stage, designed by Magda Willi, four glass doors which slide forwards and backwards to create two prison cages which can vary in size, presenting for the audience the entrapment versus the freedom. The thin stage provides a wonderful moment of comedy as Adjepong throws a cigarette over the cage doors to Cruz, but it misses and falls right off into the audience. In this moment, the audience is reminded of itself. We are in a theatre. The events are constructed. And what the traverse staging perhaps allows us to do beyond anything else is reflect upon the themes, of justice and judgement; of reflection, as we stare past the stage into the other half of the audience.
Willi’s glass doors have been cleverly crafted to provide a reflection like a mirror, so even when an actor is turned away from us looking through the glass, we see their face in full. As Adjepong and Roach talk to each other across the distance, we see each of their faces reflected against the image of the other person.
Adjepong’s character is so likable at first; we are drawn into his generosity and friendliness as he converses with Douglas’s prison guard. He takes delight in telling Roach all about his first murder of a pizza delivery boy, whose company sent another free pizza after receiving a complaint that the first didn’t arrive. In fact, no one seemed to even notice his murders at all until he killed a white man. The structural racism within the justice system is highlighted in a monologue that is delivered with great comic timing; it is within moments like this that the brilliance of Guirgis’s dark comedy (as advertised) is really emphasised. He constantly plays with opposition: as Roach loses his breath but breathes properly again with the help of a cigarette.
All of the performances are superb. Roach can’t understand why it was so hard for the surgeons to remove the bullet from the man’s ass, and he delivers this and all his moments with such integrity and vulnerability; he only wants to be honest, and we witness the pain in his eyes as he learns that telling lies does not necessarily make you evil. Sibtain’s abhorrent prison guard says ‘I am a good man because I choose to be’, yet his behaviour is repulsive. We are reminded that one’s actions are determined by their circumstances; one might not have as much free will in a murder case as some would like to make you believe. Cruz calls him a ‘fucking asshole’, which serial murderer Jenkins corrects to ‘misguided’. Each actor on the stage is totally compelling for the duration of the performance. Conversation is quick and we’re taken from scene to scene with sharp blackouts and loud drumming which fills the auditorium with a violent force.
Despite this justice system perhaps seeming like a world away from our own, the play is remarkably successful as it holds, at the core, questions that are essential elements of humanity; of what makes us good or evil. It questions the intentions of the jury; of what they need to be convinced that a man is innocent. If any of us were in the same situation as Angel Cruz, perhaps we too would pull the trigger and shoot a cult leader in the ass.
Hewitt strips back this production to the central themes and conflicts, and it is, ultimately, quite remarkable in its execution.
Review by Joseph Winer
From Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherf*cker with the Hat), comes this critically-acclaimed dark comedy about the American justice system and the contradictory nature of faith.
Inside the lockdown wing of Rikers Island prison, a frightened young man accused of murdering a cult leader is confronted with a charismatic born-again serial killer and a sadistic guard. Will one man’s redemption lead to another’s damnation?
Cast: Oberon K. A. Adjepong (Lucius Jenkins), Matthew Douglas (D’Amico), Dervla Kirwan (Mary Jane Hanrahan), Ukweli Roach (Angel Cruz) and Joplin Sibtain (Valdez).
JESUS HOPPED THE ‘A’ TRAIN
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Director: Kate Hewitt; Designer: Magda Willi; Costume Designer: Kinnetia Isidore; Lighting Designer: Guy Hoare; Sound Designer: Peter Rice; Movement Director: Imogen Knight; UK Casting Director: Julia Horan CDG; US Casting Director: Jim Carnahan CSA
JESUS HOPPED THE ‘A’ TRAIN
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Wednesday 20 February, 7pm
Young Vic – Main House
66 The Cut, Waterloo, London, SE1 8LZ