Review - Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train at the Young Vic
The Young Vic under Kwame Kwei-Armah is already setting its stall by programming a more racially diverse series of plays and/or castings. He began his tenure with an embracing, community-led musical re-write of Twelfth Night, and continued with Danai Gurira's bracing American play The Convert about colonial appropriations in Africa. Coming up is a production of the Arthur Miller classic Death of a Salesman, re-set amongst a black family.
But right now it is offering a London revival for Stephen Adly Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, originally premiered at Off-Broadway's LAByrinth Theater Company in 2000, when it was directed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in a production that subsequently visited the Edinburgh Fringe in 2001 and then played at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002, before transferring to the Arts.
It's a galvanising play about criminal justice (and injustice) that's still shockingly relevant in its depiction of America's broken system, asking challenging questions about punishment, faith and redemption. It focuses on two prisoners on New York's Rikers' Island secure prison facility. One is Angel Cruz (Ukweli Roach), who is newly admitted after he takes revenge on a man by shooting him in the butt - but who then dies and so he finds himself charged with first-degree murder. The other is Lucius Jenkins (American actor Oberon K.A. Adjepong), who has been found guilty of killing seven people, and is now awaiting possible extradition to Florida where he would face execution for his crimes.
The stakes are therefore high. Both parties are undeniably guilty. But should their punishments fit their crimes? A lawyer Mary Jane Hanrahan (Dervla Kirwan), who is fighting Angel's corner, puts her own career on the line as she coaches him to plausibly evade a conviction for murder. And a kindly prison guard Charlie establishes a bond with Lucius, until he is transferred and replaced by the more brutalising Valdez (Joplin Sibtain).
Director Kate Hewitt stages a production of hurtling intensity and immediacy, full of nerve-jangling sound and lighting effects, in the close-up quarters of the Young Vic. The theatre has been re-arranged into traverse form, with the audience on either side of a narrow strip of stage that bisects the theatre, and is itself split into two halves to represent the two outdoor pens in which the prisoners are separately held during their relaxation time. It is acted with spellbinding realism by the whole company; you believe every moment here, even when there seem to be occasional improbabilities in their narratives.
But that's also the point: who and what do we trust?