Jesus Hopped the A Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis
What a crying relief! I head into London, ever wary that I'll shell out scarce money to hear actors tossing platitudes about, and I come across Jesus Hopped the A Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis. It's thrilling.
It's billed as a prison drama and the set is two metal cages. All looks bleak so far. Then the actors start to speak. The characters are a black serial killer who's seen the light; a Puerto Rican who killed a Reverend Moon figure to recover his friend from a cult; his lawyer who dares to follow her passions in a bid to set him free; and two prison guards, one hard one soft.
The serial killer stars - played by Ron Cephas Jones you won't ever find a better performance on stage. He uses his outdoor cage like a racetrack, crisp stabbing movements bound into one flow just like his language. The arc of that language is magnificent, as high and wide as a rainbow. He's talking to his bible, to God, the warders or the Puerto Rican, the talk is always a baring of his soul to the sun. And of course the sun burns. The system's going to win. No matter how much he finds wonder in the scraps of life he's allowed, the death sentence scrapes at his heels.
You get passing references but this isn't a drama of childhoods left behind. It's no psychological mumbling and wondering why things turned out so bad. It's no coming to terms with the past but with the present. These are all little guys, including the lawyer, but their speeches are wondrously long, powerful and eloquent. You don't get talk like this in life, it's theatre, but it's the kind of talk you long to hear. The kind that makes sense of where people are.
The play doesn't fall down the spiritual claptrap either, the offering of false dawns that David Hare has inherited from Ibsen. The state claims its victim. Religion claims another - though he shot to wound a self-styled son of god, the Puerto Rican is doomed from his own opening attempts to get the words of the Lord's Prayer right. Eloquence appreciates the moment but wins no reprieve in this world and grinds you down to a mumble.
The production has been brought over to London from the Labyrinth theatre in New York. I'd be set to give it my best actor award (to Ron Cephas Jones, though John Ortiz as the Puerto Rican couldn't be bettered either), my best ensemble award; my best play and best director (Philip Seymour Hoffman). It's showing right now at the Arts Theatre, set up as a club to break the one-time censorship in London. Waiting for Godot was premiered here. Give me a new play by Beckett or Guirgis tomorrow, I'm heading for the Guirgis. The Arts Theatre yesterday saw me sitting in its front row at the end of the show, dropping silent tears, changed somehow.