Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Jake Murray
This is the Northern première of Jesus Hopped The A Train, first performed in New York in 2000, and then at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2002. Durham based Elysium Theatre Company have produced a startling and provocative take on this powerful play about moral responsibility and the American penal system. The themes of redemption and damnation are at the forefront of this play and Director Jake Murray ensures his terrific cast embody the complexities of finding goodness even in the most seemingly “monstrous” individuals.
The setting is Rikers Island Prison in New York. Two apparently very different men are imprisoned there and come to know each other during their shared one hour of fresh air each day. Angel is young and naive, new to the prison system he is not a hardened recidivist and seems initially bewildered by all the fuss. All I did was shoot him in the ass! – it is his bad luck that Rev Kim later dies on the operating table. Lucius is awaiting the outcome of his appeal against extradition to Florida for the death penalty having murdered 8 people.
The two actors playing Angel and Lucius do a tremendous job and are perfect foils for each other. Danny Solomon is all lanky, fluid limbs and is perfectly cast as the naive, coltish youth who is initially credulous that he is actually in trouble at all. Solomon moves from his desperate fumbling prayers and cockiness toward his state-appointed lawyer to a fragile, shell-shocked rape victim and then to a coming of age as he is tutored to navigate the legal system and reflect with Lucius about the nature of freedom and redemption.
Faz Singhateh has all the on stage charisma of a cult leader such as the ill fated Rev Kim. His Lucius is larger than life and glows like the sun he has grown to love. Apparently at ease with accepting his crimes and confident of his redemption through Jesus, he is desperate to avoid the death penalty having finally found his own inner peace. Ironically he seems more free in his hour outside each day than his mean spirited guard Valdez is ever likely to be.
The other characters provide all the shades of dark and light that enhance the message of what is good or bad, right or wrong, and how do we accept or assign blame. Lucius is a mass murderer but he is kind and perceptive and has genuine empathy. He is also a victim of early abuse and has a mental health diagnosis. Does he deserve to die for his crimes or be supported in his redemption? The young lawyer wants to do good for Angel through guilt that her skills can get hardened recidivists out of jail, yet ultimately her pride and arrogance will add years to his sentence. Valdez is casually sadistic yet operates within the law. Charlie D’Amico is apparently too soft to succeed as a guard yet surely his humanity is also a positive in a prison environment.
The set design is strikingly effective in its simplicity. Louis Price has created the starkness of a high security jail while also creating a sense of personal freedom when the men are outdoors even in their cages. The slash of barbed wire fencing through the cheery brightness of the star spangled banner is a potent image.
Jesus Hopped The A Train is an excellent piece of theatre that provokes debate on many topics. It highlights the complexities of human nature and the unfairness of the lottery system in the American penal system. It also beautifully highlights how precious are the small elements of personal freedom whether we are praying on our knees, feeling the sun on our skin or watching a bird fly past. The human spirit is bigger than any concrete cell could ever try to hold or suppress. We are all capable of finding our own redemption if we look within.
HOME 16 – 19 May
Images by Mark Russell