Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped The “A” Train is a play and a poem, a prophesy and a prayer, a profane rant and a psalm. Underlining this extremely tender and human work set entirely on Rikers Island in New York are the questions: can we see God in the most unlikely of places and can we hear his message even if the messenger is flawed? Guirgis has rightly earned a reputation for taking the language of the street, and like Charles Bukowski, elevating it to poetry. Yet, I have always found there to be an intense spirituality to his plays (this is the man after all who penned The Last Days of Judas Iscariot after all) that ask the impossible questions of faith and our relationship with the divine.
The revival of this work currently playing at the Signature does full justice to the script. Indeed, it feels more relevant now than it did in the waning days of the Clinton Administration. For in a time and a place that is increasingly divided between us and them and between the haves and have-nots, who better than to spread the word of Jesus (who, in his own day, was a refugee and a member of a marginalized community on the periphery of a great empire) than someone wearing a prison uniform? Guirgis forces his audience to confront the comforts of their own belief systems by placing the gospel in the mouth of Lucius Jenkins, a serial killer. Performed with a fiery intensity by Edi Gathegi, Lucius stands as a paradox. Lucius admits to being a killer, but he is no penitent either. “Every day I got left,” he says, “I’m a live free. I’m a open up that gift God give me each and every day, save me the wrappin’ paper so’s I could package up my gift and pass it on.” The gauntlet has been thrown down. Do we have the ears to hear even though this perfectly acceptable notion within the Christian tradition (and a good deal others) are said by someone we find morally repugnant? And if we cannot, then is not us that are lacking?
This is a fantastic direction for a play to take for it is impossible to leave that question in the theater. It haunts one in the hours and days after the performance. And it is in that the theater finds its true mission. A film cannot live on in us this way a theatrical performance can, and as theatre has its origins in religious ritual, it works best when it incubates questions of the metaphysical. The playwright dazzles with easy elisions of the sacred and sacrilegious, but all the while he is laying the foundation of his moral inquiry – and that is what lasts.
Gathegi is ably joined by Sean Carvajal in the lead role of Angel. When Carvajal’s Angel appears , we can feel the suffering coursing through his body, which manifests itself as added weight as if Angel alone were walking on a higher gravity planet. He navigates beautifully the shoals of dialogue, moving quickly from his tough guy persona to his more intimate reflections. In the end, Angel has the choice between the expedient path and the morally correct but harder path. We at last realize that he was actually listening to Lucius. We as the audience may have been rooting for him to choose expedience, but in the end, he was right and we were wrong. Both Gathegi and Carvajal take on parts originally played by Ron Cephas Jones and Jon Ortiz, and they invest them fully in their own energy, their own truth.
Ricardo Chavira, Stephanie DiMaggio, and Erick Betancourt round out the rest of the excellent ensemble. Paula R. Clarkson’s direction keeps the focus on the moral complexity of the world on stage and not pyrotechnics.
Thornton Wilder once stated, “I regard the theater as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. ” When theatre is doing its job – as Jesus Hopped The “A” Train surely is – then it communicates what it means to be human. The audience member having experienced this play would be hard pressed after not to use the lens of the play to wonder if certain decisions are made because they are socially acceptable or if they are truly right. Can we see that Jesus is on the “A” Train and “see us safe to bed”?