REVIEW: Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (Young Vic) ★★★

Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2000 play, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train follows Angel Cruz and God-lover Lucius Jenkins, as they navigate life in a prison on Rikers Island in New York. Puetro-Rican, Angel, played with refined commitment by Ukweli Roach, shot a religious cult leader in the behind, landing him with potential murder charges.

Packed densely into a bullet-fast script, a barrage of themes are explored; the American justice system, racism, faith, hope, and forgiveness to name but a few. Guirgis certainly isn’t afraid to throw a lit firework into a pile of dry leaves and wait to see what happens; the firework being just about any profound subject you can think of; the unlit bonfire being two convict characters with very different crimes and very different ideas.

The common thread is anger. Angel is angry at the justice system, the justice system is angry at him and Lucius (Oberon K. A. Adjepong) is startlingly anger-free. For said inner-peace, everyone is angry at him, with pages and pages of tedious dialogue defending his faith in God. Whereas, the alternative argument of man-made ‘good’ or ‘bad’ judgement feels like a statement on loop, growing staler with every mention.

Particularly out to get Lucius, Joplin Sibtain, who plays the somewhat cliched ‘nasty guard’ character calls Lucius ‘Superstar’, threatens him and masticates his favourite Oreos in front of him. This racist, fascist, atheist character serves a purpose at times; he brings the pair in and out for their daily hour-long ‘exercise time’; he acts as a ticking time bomb to round off arguments; but we never truly understand the character. Instead, we simply hate him, when hate – we are told – is definitely not simple.

Somewhat knitting the story together are some stunningly performed monologues by Dervla Kirwan who plays hard-shell-soft-inner lawyer Mary Jane Hanrahan. Angel’s case sparks sympathy in her character, whose father did time for what she believed to be an innocent crime – yet another huge discussion thrown in for good measure. Her input is enjoyable but a tad superfluous.

The set design is slim and smart – if a little cold and uneventful – with glass doors narrowing and broadening the space between actors. This deliberate minimality is supposedly designed to give a sense of the mundanity of prison life. But, as is a common symptom of simplicity, the scenes seem to merge into one despite an attempt to separate them with unpleasant drum crashes lasting just a few seconds too long.

There are some genuinely heartbreaking, haunting and hilarious moments cleverly wrought with all the right beats for audience reaction. However, for a script which is supposedly designed to thumb a flip book of shades of grey, the dialogue seems to mostly flip back and forth between black and white, good and bad, forgiveness and punishment etc., disappointingly concluding with no answers.

Assumably, it is the play’s fearlessness which warrants such frequent worldwide revivals. The Young Vic has done the piece as much justice – pardon the pun – as possible and the acting is undeniably outstanding. But beyond finding out what Angel’s sentence will be, ‘A’ Train is more of a conversation than a story. In its two hour run time, the play poses a hell of a lot of questions and answers them with yet more.

Reviewed by Nicole Darvill-Batten
Photo: Johan Persson

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