Associate Connecticut Critic
When “Jesus Hopped The A Train” begins, you think it’s going to be a story about Angel Cruz, a thirty-year-old Latino who winds up in prison after shooting a cult leader in a botched mission to rescue his brainwashed friend. We see Angel’s first night behind bars, trying in vain to remember the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name. Howard?”) amidst the cacophony of his incarcerated neighbors telling him, in no polite terms, to shut up. We see Angel meeting with his lawyer, a tightly-wound public defender with personal walls as thick as the ones at Riker’s. Given those two scenes, you might assume this will be just another legal procedural about a hoodlum caught up in the prison-industrial complex. You might even think that those first two scenes play just a little too broadly. Are we really laughing with Angel or at him?
But you’d be wrong. In some productions of Stephen Aldy Guirgis’ play, that might be the case, but at Collective Consciousness Theatre the show’s gravitational pull changes the second Terrence Riggins walks on stage. Playing Lucius Jenkins, a fellow inmate convicted of murdering eight people, Riggins delivers the kind of bravura performance that makes you lean in closer to not miss a single syllable. The kind that seems so raw and dangerous, you almost feel like a creep for listening in but then anxiously wait for his return whenever he leaves the stage. The kind that opens up the scope of a script. The kind that only happens when the right actor connects with the right role at the right time.
Riggins has done terrific work at Collective Consciousness before. But Lucius feels like a culmination of that journey, taking the charisma of his Martin Luther King, Jr. (in “The Mountaintop”), the passion of Kenyatta Shakur (in “Sunset Baby”), the world-weariness of Lincoln (in “Topdog/Underdog”) and, along with a streak of psychosis, funneling it into a wholly new and wholly lived-in performance. It’s a complex and feral feat of acting, one that would feel at home at Long Wharf or Yale Rep or even at one of the best New York theaters. To see it in such an intimate black box in the middle of an energetic and well-thought-out production for $25 a ticket feels, in you pardon the joke, like a crime.
Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos, who starts off strong but grows even more assured once he starts interacting with Riggins) meets Lucius in the prison yard. Both are in protective custody and must spend their one-hour of outside time locked in individual pens. Before Angel arrived, Lucius would spend this time chatting with D’Amico, a kindly guard played by Rob Giardian. But after D’Amico is canned for slipping Lucius contraband cookies, he’s left without an audience. The new guard Valdez (Jason Hall) is cruel and curt. When he shows up, Angel is reserved, angry and abused. But as Lucius works his sociopathic charm on Angel, he begins to open up little by little. A great deal of “Jesus” are the conversations between these two. Beautifully acted, these scenes are expertly written by Guirgis whose dialogue is both frank, darkly comical and naturalistic while still playing host to some fascinating theological debates. The two convicts talk about God and redemption, free-will, racism, addiction and the meaning of freedom. It seems simple on the surface, but between these two strong actors, Guirgis’ stellar script and Dexter J. Singleton’s finely-tuned direction, it makes for electric theater.
That’s not to say everything in “Jesus” works so well. The play runs about 15 minutes too long – the second act has too much repetitive, screamed arguments – and Guirgis has a habit of spelling his theses out a little too neatly. The themes are smartly presented and evident without having public defender Mary Jane (Bridget McCarthy) say “one man’s neurotic is another man’s hero, and who, ultimately, can say which one’s which with any real certainty at all?” The guard Valdez is not given the depth and nuance doled out to the other characters. He’s a violent, racist jerk and not much else, although casting Hall in the role does give it some interesting subtext. The character, usually played by a white or Latino actor, is now African-American and has similar features – shaved head, facial hair, even the booming voice – to the convict he’s guarding.
In fact, that symmetry is present in almost every character. One gets the sense that, with only a slight reversal of fate, Valdez and Mary Jane could have easily ended up going down a dark path with Angel serving as their subsequent lawyer. “Jesus” beautifully toys with that idea, like in Mary Jane’s monologue about her alcoholic father. It’s also clear that our preconceived notions of these characters color the way we view them. White, polished and put-together, Mary Jane dug herself out of a childhood filled with violence and poverty while Lucius succumbed to mental illness and hard drugs. But it isn’t that clear, of course. In one of the play’s strongest and most sobering moments, Lucius rails against this saying “Was it my free will to be abused and violated from the age a five? Was it my free will to turn ta drugs and alcohol as a result a that sh*t? Was it my free will to be an undiagnosed manic-depressive paranoid schizophrenic?! Nah, people doan wanna hear ’bout none a that! All people wanna do is cry for the victims! What about my victimization? Some movie actress, she got incested once or twice, she so ‘brave’ to come forward! But me? I’m juss’ a Black Plague! Ain’t no ‘disease a addiction’ for me, it’s ‘free will.’”
Spoken in Riggins’ hoarse yet commanding drawl, modulating his speed and timbre with the dexterity of a blues guitarist, it’s the kind of moment when a play hits a perfect bulls-eye. Backed up by wonderful performances all around – especially McCarthy who does heart-breaking and detailed work as Mary Jane – “Jesus” is the kind of tough, uncompromising theater that is as philosophically engaging as it is emotionally and theatrically. That’s a rare thing to find anywhere, let alone in smaller professional or community groups. It’s the reason I keep coming back to Collective Consciousness.
Collective Consciousness Theatre’s “Jesus Hopped The A Train” by Stephen Adly Guirgis runs through November 11 at Erector Square (319 Peck Street, Building 6S) in New Haven, CT. “Jesus,” directed by Dexter J. Singleton and produced by Jenny Nelson, stars Jhulenty Delossantos (Angel), Rob Giardian (D’Amico), Jason Hall (Valdez), Bridget McCarthy (Mary Jane Hanrahan) & Terrence Riggins (Lucius). The production team includes Ashley Sweet (stage management), David Sepulveda (set design), Jamie Burnett (lightening design), Tommy Rosati (sound design), Carol Koumbaros (costume design), Emiley Charley (ASM/Propmaster).