By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
The value of enduring questions is that they are not specific to a time or place or event. Theatre should be raising enduring questions and conflicts that playwrights (and their cultures) grappled with hundreds of years ago and remain relevant today. Stephen Adly Guirgis raises several such questions in the revival of his play “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” currently running at The Pershing Square Signature Center’s Irene Diamond Stage. The conflicts occur between: prisoners Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi) and Angel Cruz (played with a passivity that masquerades a deep-seated wrath by Sean Carvajal); the prisoners and their guards Valdez (Ricardo Chavira) and Charlie D’Amico (played with a compassion that does not match his environment by Erick Betancourt; and Angel and his public defender Mary Jane Hanrahan (played with a steely determinism by Stephanie DiMaggio).
Both Lucius and Angel are imprisoned on Rikers Island and – for reasons of their safety – are housed in a special 23-hour lock-down wing. Lucius spends as much time in the wing’s yard where he enjoys the warmth of the sun: Angel spends the same amount of time with no apparent reward except his gradual exposure to Lucius’s peculiar Weltanschauung and dogged proselytization. Lucius in “inside” for murdering eight people. Angel is incarcerated for shooting the Rev. Kim “in the rear” at the pastor’s church from which he hoped to “kidnap” his friend Joey. Joey has been “brainwashed” by Kim’s cult-like congregation. Playwright Guirgis once attempted a similar rescue of a friend from the Unification Church.
Charlie, Lucius’s “benevolent” guard is replaced by Valdez after the “system” discovers Charlie shares too many cigarettes and home-made cookies with Lucius. Charlie knows Lucius will be extradited to Florida where he will be executed by lethal injection and treats Lucius with respect and an unexpected humanity. Valdez – the only character with one name – replaces cigarettes and cookies with body slams, threats, and racist invectives. He is pure evil and is cruelty incarnate, and Mr. Chavira successfully brings to his character the epitome of despicable behavior. “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” carefully strips away the façade of “right and wrong,” “innocence and guilt,” and “good and bad” to expose the horror of “discarding” human being – a discarding that is “irreparable” and will “last forever.” The play also resounds with the horrific wonder of the cycle of redemption.
Lucius is successful at “doing theology,” developing a complex and workable theology that allows him to understand his own situation and share his faith with Angel. This is a remarkable survival technique that theologians have for years attempted to teach “the faithful.” Lucius processes his situation from the POV of the New Testament, specifically the crucifixion of Jesus. He also echoes John’s warning to the Church in Laodicea not to be “lukewarm, neither hot nor cold.” Lucius urges Angel to “speak out” and admit to his wrongdoing, to be either “freezing or blazing” but “never cool.”
Angel, unlike Lucius, fails to “do theology.” He reflects on being “saved” by Jesus who hopped the ‘A’ train to allow him and his friend Joey to release their grip on one another and get off the subways tracks before the arrival of the train. He understands “salvation” in the subway tunnel but not in the special 23-hour lock-down wing of protective custody on Rikers Island where Lucius models salvation in every breath he takes, in every word he speaks. However, just moments before Lucius is extradited to Florida, he “gets through” to Angel and, on the stand, Angel refuses Mary Jane’s stern warnings and admits to shooting and attempting to kill the Rev. Kim.
The play raises rich and enduring questions regarding justice and morality; moral ambiguity; and guilt and innocence. When is it all right to lie to save one’s life? How does systemic racism affect prison populations? Is the justice system just? The playwright uses a variety of rhetorical strategies to address these questions including parallel structures, comparison and contrast, and cause and effect. Other carefully developed tropes used are rich imagery and figurative language.
Contrast the moral integrity of the man who killed 8 people with the man who, with his attorney, tried to get cleared of charges for intending to kill a religious leader (Unification Church Kim) and shot him in the rear. Mary Jane needs a victory and is convinced Angel will be acquitted if only he lies on the stand – to avoid being accused of suborning her client. She “finds honor” in Angel’s attempts to bring his friend Joey back from Rev. Kim’s cult.
Lucius is correct. Those in systems do far worse than he has done with no remorse. Lucius was molested, raped, victimized, and abused as a child. The system never intervened, never attempted to save him. In his final act of defiance and empowerment, Lucius is executed by the same system that failed to protect him – “high as a kite.” Edi Gathegi’s performance is haunting and exhilarating and he portrays Lucius with a depth of authenticity that scatters chards of catharsis across the stage and throughout the theatre.