(a play by Stephen Adly Guirgis*, performed by Synergy** at the Trafalgar Studios, London, on Thursday 22nd April 2010)
I want to write a review of the wonderful play I saw last Thursday – ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’ by Stephen Adly Guirgis . The tricky thing is how to do so without giving away the story completely. I just want to talk about the whole thing without worrying about spoilers. It makes me realise how tricky it is for reviewers in ‘Time Out’ and the like: a review which mustn’t spoil the experience for someone who will be going to see the play or film for themselves. I am (or was) more used to writing essays for English Literature exams ( over 25 years ago, mind you) – and that’s quite a different approach.
‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’ is an extraordinary play. I laughed a lot, I gasped, I winced, I pondered and, at the end, I almost cried. The language is vigorous and full of expletives, but at the same time subtle and multi-layered, with a great deal of sub-text going on below the words. The play’s critique of religion, of moral absolutes and of the justice system is searing and thought-provokingly complex.
The play is set in Riker’s Island, New York in the protective custody wing. There are 5 characters: Lucius, a convicted serial killer who has found the Lord and is hoping to avoid extradition to Florida for execution. The other prisoner, Angel, is on remand, having shot a cult leader. He explains to his lawyer, Mary Jane, that the self-proclaimed ‘son of God’, Rev Kim, had brainwashed his best friend, and , having failed to rescue his friend, Angel - in a frustrated gesture of protest - had shot the Rev Kim ‘in the ass’. The initial charge of attempted murder is changed to 1st degree felony murder when Rev Kim later dies of unexpected complications. It is Mary Jane who tells us that Angel has been transferred to the protective custody wing following his brutal beating and rape, at the hands of other prisoners, and his subsequent suicide attempt. She becomes determined to find some way to ‘save’ Angel, even if that means risking her career by suborning perjury, since the only way for him to be acquitted is to lie.
The two remaining characters are a friendly prison warden, D’Amico, who has a soft spot for Lucius – and loses his job as a result, but who reappears towards the end of the play to describe Lucius’ fate, and a loathsome, bullying warden, Valdez, who treats Lucius with contempt, but seems to pity Angel.
The name of the central characters, Lucius and Angel, indicate that the story, while very particular and concrete, can also be taken as an everyman parable of good versus evil (‘a modern morality play’ as the programme puts it) – but with myriad shades of grey rather than black and white moral absolutes. As the review in ‘Time Out’ put it: “The extraordinary script has you switching allegiance from character to character as the story evolves. Lucius, the serial killer, who has found God, is so charismatic that you can’t help liking him in the early stages, despite the horrific nature of his crimes.”
So, Lucius is likeable yet (surely?) evil – a serial killer who smugly spouts about God, forgiveness and taking responsibility for one’s crimes. There’s a well known cliché that cynical convicts claim conversion to enhance their prospects and (like Valdez) we cannot help but wonder about this other possibility, even though Lucius seems convincing. He claims that he pleaded guilty because he was/is willing to take responsibility for his crimes: he would just rather serve a life sentence in New York than be executed in Florida.
In one heated exchange, Angel challenges Lucius and eventually seems to hit home: surely, as punishment for his horrendous crimes, he (Lucius) will go to hell. No, Lucius counters, he is confident that he is ‘right with God’ and will be going to heaven. Angel then asks why, in that case, Lucius is trying to avoid extradition to Florida – why avoid execution if he’s so sure he’ll be going to heaven? Lucius falls silent and seems angry. Later, possibly as revenge (although played disingenuously so it’s hard to know if there is malice afoot or just wrong-headed self-righteousness) Lucius infects Angel’s thinking, with disastrous results. I find it a poignant and significant inversion – that traditional morality and Bible-bashing are used by Lucius to ‘tempt’ Angel and lead to his undoing. I am left questioning the moral framework of traditional Christianity, particularly the value it places on truth.
Another fascinating sequence hints at Lucius’ damaged past – did he really have free choice when he started to kill? Is he a product of his abused childhood? Do white wealthy people get more sympathy when they explain the reasons behind their crimes than a poor black man ever does? And yet, and yet….one short phrase late on in the play brings us up short as we discover just how appalling and sadistic Lucius’ murders had been.
The title of the play is explained when Angel recounts a childhood game of ‘chicken’ with his friend down on the railway tracks. When they both find themselves stuck with a train bearing down on them, and then are mysteriously thrown out of the way at the last minute, his friend suggests they were saved because ‘Jesus must’ve hopped the A train that night’. Poignantly, this is the same friend who later becomes ensnared by pseudo-son-of-god Rev Kim.
The play begins and ends with Angel attempting to pray. At the start, Angel stumbles fearfully yet comically through the Lord’s Prayer, unable to remember the correct words (‘Howard is thy name’), with mocking voices coming at him from unseen fellow prisoners offstage. At the end of the play, Angel’s final prayer almost broke my heart. Angel is in pieces, crying and rocking backwards and forwards on his knees as he prays obsessively and pathetically for forgiveness - not for killing Rev Kim, but instead for a trivial childhood wrongdoing. Such regression into an infantilised and guilt-ridden version of faith speaks volumes about Angel’s psychological fragility and the fatal naivety that has been his undoing.
Mary Jane’s career lies in tatters; Lucius has long since gone – without undue drama (to meet his maker? Or not.) and the play closes with a convicted yet relatively (but not absolutely) 'innocent’ tied up in knots of guilt, babbling in his fear that God’s judgement on him may be as harsh as the secular ‘justice’ system has been.
And what an even sicker joke it all is if that (or any) God doesn’t even exist.
* Stephen Adly Guirgis is a New Yorker of Egyptian and Irish American parents. He started as an actor and founder member of LAByrinth but ended up writing and directing as well. So far he has written three full-length plays: ‘In Arabia We’d All Be Kings’, ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’, and ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot ‘(the last of which I saw two years ago and loved)
From the programme (extract from an interview by Philip Fisher):
‘The story behind ‘Jesus’ is interesting. Guirgis had a close friend who “joined a cult and together with his brother and father we tried to kidnap and deprogramme him. He’s still in the cult today. I had to let go of this, and start facing beginning my own adult life. I had anger!” It was this anger, together with a reconsideration of his attitude to God as a lapsed Catholic that led him to write ‘Jesus’. He added to this his experiences as a violence prevention specialist and HIV officer working in a prison.’
** From the programme:’ Synergy Theatre Project, established in 1999, works with prisoners and ex-prisoners through theatre towards resettlement and rehabilitation, whilst placing the wider issues surrounding imprisonment in the public arena.’ The team assembled for this production included ex-offenders, professional actors, an ex-prison officer and a serving lifer on licence.