Thursday, 21 February 2019

REVIEW: Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at the Young Vic

The Young Vic is one of those theatres in London where you are sure to encounter bold directing, great acting and new writing as well as revivals that are given a new flavour. The 2000 play by Stephen Adly Guirgis “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” is given a worrying and relevant new dimension, giving voices to underrepresented actors on stage and showing police brutality in US prisons.

Director Kate Hewitt and her set designer Magda Willi take us to a prison on New York’s Rikers Island where instead of seeing bars and iron everywhere, rooms and cells are separated by large glass windows and doors, which move up and down the traverse stage as the scenes progress. 

The story introduces us to Angel Cruz (played by quite angelic face Ukweli Roach), who is awaiting a verdict after he is suspected of shooting a priest in the buttocks. Every day, he is allowed one hour on the roof to take in fresh air and light. That’s where he meets Lucius Jenkins (Oberon K. A. Adjepong) who, while Angel is not really looking for a new friend in this prison, becomes a voice he gets used to. Lucius killed eight people, is very religious and believes he is truly loved by God, at least that is what he says. The prisoners are bullied by guard Valdez (Joplin Sibtain) in cringeworthy scenes of psychological violence.

Guirgis’s play raises universal questions about how we define good and bad, judge what feels right or wrong, and the question of the importance of a higher spirit to guide us through life. The last ten minutes of the play in particular were striking to me: while all along Angel was not sure whether he believed in any kind of god, he starts praying when he learns that he will remain in prison for another 20 years. When Valdez enters to tell him that his time is up on the roof, Angel is in a trance that we are afraid is only the beginning of a downward spiral for him. Will Valdez be his only friend, that bully who thinks it’s funny to joke about prison rape and spit in inmates’ faces? I felt a genuine worry for that “friendship”.

Peter Rice’s sound design was like a kick in the gut: scenes separated by drums and electronic music. I did feel like those pieces were too loud, jotting me out of my chair every time, but was this intentional? Did Rice want us to feel uncomfortable, jumpy?

Lighting designer Guy Hoare also did a beautiful job with the use of the glass,
which, at certain angles and with certain lighting, could look simultaneously like a mirror and a window – breakable and fragile, as well as all-revealing. 

With only one American actor, I thought the accent work by the actors, coached by Charmian Hoare, was excellent. In addition to the very strong actors mentioned above, Dervla Kirwan as Angel’s lawyer was also a force, telling us about a certain memory of her father and putting impulse and morals into perspective.

This is a shocking, human, depressing and also uplifting and funny play that, for those who don’t know the play or who want to revisit it, is not to be missed.

Review by Sophie Tergeist

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: F11 | Price of Ticket: £40
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