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Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at the Young Vic | Review

Oberon K. A. Adjepong and Joplin Sibtain in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson
Oberon K. A. Adjepong and Joplin Sibtain in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson

In the USA, approximately 37% of the male prison population is African-American whilst making up only 12% of the total population. So, it’s no surprise that the two main protagonists in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s modern morality play Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train are black men.

Imprisoned on Rikers Island in New York City, Lucius (played by Oberon K. A. Adjepong) is an old-timer and is in prison for at least eight murders and awaiting a transfer to Florida where he will face the death penalty. Angel (Ukweli Roach) is a younger, minor offender and has just arrived on Rikers accused of shooting a preacher “in the ass” but the preacher later dies and Angel is charged with murder in the first degree. It’s their relationship, their differences and their similarities that drive the play and its themes to its inevitable climax.

There are three other characters in the play, all of who are pointedly white. Mary Jane Hanrahan (Dervla Kirwan) who’s Angel’s well-meaning court-appointed attorney, D’Amico (Matthew Douglas) who’s a prison guard who befriends Lucius and Valdez (Joplin Sibtain) who’s a sadistic prison guard who enjoys taunting and teasing both prisoners with obvious delight.

The play opens with Angel desperately trying to remember the Lord’s Prayer whilst unseen prisoners call out telling him to be quiet but not as politely as that! There’s so much swearing in the first five minutes that there’s not a lot of room for any other dialogue!

Guirgis’s play which premiered Off-Broadway in 2000, seems at first to be about the criminal justice system in the USA depicting the way that black males are treated not only by the guards but also by their lawyers although in this case, Hanrahan is doing her best for Angel. However, it soon becomes clear that Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train also is about God, morality and redemption and asks questions about faith and injustice. And that’s the main problem with the piece – Guirgis is trying to address to many concepts and views in the space of two hours.

What saves Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train from being a bit speechy and preachy, is the superb production and the mesmerising performances from Adjepong and Roach. Adjepong in particular see-saws between being a pent-up ball of angst to an almost zen-like man at peace with his god. Roach plays Angel as a confused young man who in his eyes has done nothing wrong but as the play progresses, he begins to realise the error of his ways.

Kirwan as the lawyer has a strange role. Whilst she has a couple of scenes with Angel where she lays out his options, a lot of her time is spent addressing the audience with a lot of exposition which at times seems unnecessary. Sibtain as Valdez is so vile that he makes us sympathise with the two prisoners who may have done wrong but should be expected to be treated with some kind of civility.

Matthew Douglas as the good guard is only in the play for a short time at the beginning and he then disappears until right at the end. I’m not sure why he’s in the play except to contrast with Valdez which seems superfluous.

Played out on Magda Willi’s simple, thrust stage with just four glass doors that slide backwards and forwards making us feel the prisoner’s claustrophobia as the world closes in on them. Whilst the piece is quite episodic, the blackouts between scenes are accompanied by a cacophony of very loud drums, percussion and saxophones courtesy of Sound Designer Peter Rice which assault the ears like fingernails on a blackboard making the audience feel as uncomfortable as the prisoners. The lighting from Guy Hoare adds to the atmosphere and we see the lights of an imaginary ‘A’ train and feel the heat of the sun which beats down on the prisoners as they exercise. Kate Hewitt’s directs superbly, extracting superb performances from the whole cast as well as keeping the action hurtling towards its conclusion.

Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train is at times a visceral, funny, profane and unsettling piece of theatre which just falls short of greatness, although this production and these performances, means it gets pretty close.

4 stars

Review by Alan Fitter

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
Directed by Kate Hewitt
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
Young Vic – Main House
66 The Cut, Waterloo, London, SE1 8LZ

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