BWW Review: JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN Wrestles With Truth at 4th Wall Theatre Company
The first thing my Acting professor taught us freshman year was that good theatre tells the truth within imaginary circumstances. Since then, I've had the pleasure of witnessing that in action many times, but no play I've seen has done this as authentically and thoughtfully as Stephen Adly Guirgis' JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN.
JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN does what 4th Wall Theatre Company does best: explore valid, thought-provoking, true stories that linger on your mind for days following. Directed by Co-founder and Co-Artistic Director of 4th Wall Theatre Company, Kim Tobin-Lehl, JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN is exactly what we need.
The play watches as prisoners Angel (Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott) and Lucius (Joseph Palmore) await charges for murder and the death penalty. One of them supposedly caused the death of a well-known reverend, the other--labeled a serial killer--murdered eight people. One of them blatantly rejects God, the other wholly embraces Him and responsibility for his actions, despite his criminal history. These discrepancies put the audience in a position to decide for themselves the nature of "good" or "evil" as they watch the action unfold.
JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN not only tells the truth about the criminal justice system and the law, but it holds up a mirror to the humanity in all of us. Who among us is qualified to decide what is right and what is wrong? Or, as said in Guirgis' script, how does one weigh the risks and benefits of "trying to do a great right, while doing a little wrong"? While many of us would point to the law and to government for instruction or justification, as soon as the government or the law alone begin to decide what is moral and what is not, society will surely be in chaos.
Guirgis' play does more than open a can of worms. It unpacks and presents the audience with several hard-to-swallow, but impossible to deny, truths of today. The bias and discrimination present in the criminal justice system. The power dynamic--whether based on skin color, ethnicity, gender, or another quality--present in our social interactions. The concept that our society is structured in a manner where humans have taken, or rather, stolen, the right to decide the fate of fellow humans: if they live or die, if they freely practice religion or are persecuted, if they go to jail or get off with a warning, or if killing one man is as deserving of punishment as killing eight men. In this way, the play asks the audience to consider perspective, empathy, and the ever-present battle of good versus evil.
With such a delicate but powerful message, it is necessary to have actors that are not only able to take on their characters' perspective, but live it out in both their spoken and unspoken moments onstage. Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott was more than just likeable as Angel, and I found myself rooting for him on his innocent, albeit misguided, journey. Christy Watkins was a voice of reason between the harsh world of prison and the world of reality as Mary Jane, Angel's lawyer. She brought a presence of understanding and compassion to the prison cells, and you could feel the energy of the audience pushing her forward on her mission to free Angel.
Santry Rush portrayed the villainous Valdez, a corrections officer in the prison. Rush is one of those actors that portrayed the villain so convincingly, you had to remind yourself he was only a character and that after the show ended, it would be Rush coming out of the stage door, not Valdez. Orlando Arriaga's character, D'Amico, gave a sliver of humanity to the otherwise compassion-less setting of the jail cells. While this play tells the unthinkable truth about the brutality and abuse that goes on behind bars, it is nice to think that D'Amico's, who slip the prisoners Oreos and homemade dinners, also exist.
It is impossible to imagine this cast without Joseph Palmore as Lucius, the serial killer turned "God-fearing man", in Lucius's words. Palmore did not just read lines or put on a costume--He was Lucius. From the moment he stepped onstage, working out in his jail cell while chanting books of the Bible (backwards, I might add)--he was Lucius. His character is understandably more than complicated, being both a serial killer and a God-loving, truth-spitting, joy-spreading man. These circumstances again place the audience in the hot seat, forcing you to question the way humans handle forgiveness, responsibility, consequence, and truth.
Ryan McGettigan's realistic and transformative set design allowed for the focus to be placed entirely on the characters and their relationships. Paired with Mike Mullins' sound design and Christina Giannelli's harsh and true-to-life lighting, this team of designers placed the audience right smack in the middle of the Manhattan Correctional Center, faced with an ultimate question of justice versus mercy.
Photography Credit: Gabriella Nissen
JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN runs from September 6th-29th at Studio 101 Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street 77007. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3:00pm, with one Pay-What-You-Can performance on Monday, September 24th. Visit 4thwalltheatreco.com or call 832-786-1849 for tickets and more information.