An Angel Begs Forgiveness
Stephen Adly Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train
Signature Theatre | NYC
directed by Mark Brokaw
One man’s justice is another man’s crime. One man’s retribution is another man’s torture. One man’s saviour is another man’s devil. What we do to those on the other side of the law is a reflection on how we view ourselves and how we view morality. America is the home of the imprisoned and the yet-to-be-imprisoned. Liberty and Justice are not for all in this land. We like to forget that we have nearly 3 million people in prison and the highest number of incarcerated persons of any other developed nation as we proclaim, with raised flags and hands on hearts, that we are freedom incarnate blessed by God. At what point do we recognise the inherent injustice of our justice system? Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a mirror that bends to show us the underlying truth of a world that we take for granted and a faith that is cruel and unwonted.
Angel Cruz, a 30-year-old Latino-American, shot a reverend, who portrayed himself as the son of God. Cruz’s reason for shooting the false prophet is that his best friend was brainwashed by said reverend. Cruz is incarcerated for attempted murder and finds his ideas of justice and morality are not in line with the criminal justice system. This system fails Angel Cruz from the beginning and inevitably grinds him into dust - the reverend dies on the operating table and his incredible influence brings attention to the case from the District Attorney - the charge moves from attempted murder to murder in the first degree. Cruz faces life imprisonment but through the help of his attorney, he stands a chance of causing a jury annulment.
While the entirety of the trail is unseen by the audience, we are filled in by asides from Cruz’s tough and prideful attorney, Mary Jane - played by the wonderfully bold Stephanie DiMaggio. The primary action takes place just outside of a 23-hour containment unit on Rikers Island. In which two cages that are exposed to the outside hold Cruz and the pious, octuple-homicide committing, religious zealot Lucius Jenkins. Jenkins quickly befriends Cruz and attempts to convince him of the glory of the Christian God. Cruz resists, since after losing his best friend to the church he struggles with his belief in God. However, over time Jenkins plants the seeds of doubt in Cruz’s mind and they grow into a voracious sense of self-doubt. All the while, the vindictive and cruel Officer Valdez (a galvanic and stoic Ricardo Chavira), berates and dehumanises both of them for their crimes. Jenkins is soon to be brought to Florida to be executed by the state for the eight lives he stole, but before he goes he pushes Cruz to question his morality and to admit that he has committed a mortal sin. Guilty within his conscience, Cruz admits his crime while on the witness stand and earns himself life-imprisonment with his first chance at parole many decades away. Cruz prays for forgiveness to a God he once no longer believed in.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, Victor Rasuk who was originally cast as Angel Cruz in this production had to withdraw at the last minute. The production found a replacement in Sean Carvajal after the first few preview performances had been cancelled. Luckily, Carvajal is a force of nature. He brings thoroughly intense fury to his character, while also delivering some hysterically funny moments that are iconic of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ work. One can only imagine the power that Carvajal will bring to the stage once he is fully embedded into the role.
Cruz’s foil, Edi Gathegi, gives a simply staggering interpretation as serial-killer Lucius Jenkins. Gathegi is zeal incarnate and brings the house down with his vigorous portrayal.
Director Mark Brokaw pulls us into Rikers Island nearly twenty years after the play’s debut under direction of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Brokaw allows the play to speak for itself and gives the production a new life with natural flow. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez brings us into the stark and hopeless cages of the inmates in their one hour of “freedom” from solitary confinement.
The Signature’s season has been one filled with tragic reflections on American society with revivals of plays from over a decade ago. Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a mirror shining directly in the eyes of our hubris. An Angel falls from grace for trying to save his closest friend from evil and sends himself to Hell because a false prophet said he was sinful. Will we do what is right when the time calls for us to do so, or will we defer to inaction for fear of divine retribution?
photo | ©Joan Marcus