Set in a US penitentiary – where Magda Willi’s stage design could literally squeeze the life out of newly arrived prisoner Puerto Rican Angel Cruz – Kate Hewitt’s production of Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train shines a new light on the religious debates that have come to define this critically acclaimed play. Angel is brought to Rikers Island pending a court case for shooting Rev Kim, a cult leader who kidnapped and brainwashed his best friend. Angel (Ukweli Roach) believes his actions were in the right and expects everyone to agree with him, even after the Rev dies on the operating table.
Lucius, a black older man in the next cell and a serial murderer who has found God, begs to differ. He sets about befriending Angel, extending his hand of friendship along with cigarettes and numerous lectures about God and faith-something circumstances have led Angel to lose. We are drawn to Lucius, who Oberon K.A Adjepong invests with a warm complexity, although the constant prowling of his cell or sudden physical freezes suggest here is a man who could crack at any moment. We go along with Lucius, though- playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis wants us to – until a startling reveal illustrates that Lucius is a kidder as much as the next man and can fragment just as easily.
The heart of this production seems to be about, on a very basic level, who has the freedom to force choices onto whom and why?
The white female lawyer Mary Jane, Angel’s attorney, has the longest monologues and the biggest space within which to say them. Director Kate Hewitt and designer Magda Willi open out the space, pull back the cells and give her the whole stage from which she can woo the audience with her emotional monologues. Suddenly she is in Guy Hoare’s spotlight and she’s not even in the courtroom. What are the real reasons for her desire to help Angel beyond the horrifying story she presents to us? Though she is put in a morally questionable position by Angel, she is confident enough to take advantage of this to bolster her reputation. Her self interest should make us suspicious, and Dervla Kirwan keeps us guessing.
Lucius also handles his space in the manner of someone who doesn’t doubt himself. His faith shows itself through his daily exercise routines; Movement Director Imogen Knight has him literally star jumping his way into the Old Testament. But it is the way in which Lucius talks to Angel which really matters. When he is trying to get Angel to accept God or is asking Angel to face up to what he has done, he’s right up against his cell door. By contrast, Angel is mostly on the floor or at least far away from him, as if his words are pinning him back. In the door, Lucius must only be able to see a reflection of himself. “Every man carries with him through life a mirror, as unique and impossible to get rid of as his shadow”, W H Auden once wrote. Whilst it could be true of either of these two men, the force of Lucius’ faith overpowers Angel and begins to break him down.
Kirwan occupies the same stance when coaching Angel on how to take the witness stand. She too is at the door with Angel back mostly against the wall. The play increasingly becomes a spectacle on how Angel’s vulnerabilities leave him open to the manipulation of others to suit their own ends; to Mary Jane and to Lucius, he is a project. There’s a moment where Mary Jane successfully schools Angel in the art of lying and he stands on a stool and puts out his arms in the shape of the cross in a literal representation of the crucifixion, with Mary Jane standing behind him. Might it be saying that Angel is also being hung out to dry by the forces of self-interest?
The only relationship where there is no corruption at play is between the sadistic Corrections Officer Valdez (Joplin Sibtain) and his charges. It seems a contradiction in terms, but everyone knows where they are with him-although he gets off playing his role “like a cowboy”. Valdez does not concur with Lucius’ faith in God or Lucius’ version of himself, which is the beginning of Lucius’ breakdown. The other CO-redneck Charlie uses Lucius as a free therapist in return for perks. Matthew Douglas gives us a friendly Officer in Charlie, successfully masking his indifference. Given a choice, would you rather have someone like Valdez who tells you what he thinks of you or Charlie, who uses you for his own needs in return for perks, but, in the end, is indifferent to your plight? The choice, if it is one, is not good, Guirgis seems to be saying.
But then the play’s themes shift slightly into free will and how the need for redemption modifies it. Lucius can’t do anything except choose redemption and God. It is a fact Adjepong portrays by occasionally allowing his body to slump in defeat when Angel challenges him. The question is not where God fits into the American penal system in this production, or even whether redemption can be attained and should be for these two criminals, but whether there is any personal choice about believing in God and attaining redemption in the first place. The question is posed by Sibtain’s gung-ho gait as Valdez as he swanks freely around the cells, able to choose to be his own God. It is posed by Kirwan’s Mary Jane who steps up onto the stage not doubting her entitlement and freedom for one moment; she has no need of God. It is most of all posed by Roach’s Angel in the beginning scene to which we return at the play’s end. The horror is that if Angel stays within the penal system, he will not be allowed to choose whether he wants God or not, irrespective of what he believes. And Angel can’t choose because the system refuses to share the burden of his sin with him and this is through a lack of privilege. He is, you might say, forced into it, conveyed in this production through the set design. It’s a brilliant idea and neatly underlines one of the big themes in the play.
Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train is on at the Young Vic till 30th March 2019. More info here.