In The Stranger by Albert Camus, a condemned man spends the night before his execution fighting off the entreaties of a priest who wants to save his soul. The man murdered an Arab on a beach for no good reason and now, with death staring him in the face, he realizes there is no God, no heaven, no salvation. By embracing his rightful punishment, he’s at last free.
This is one of many themes that gets a spirited workout in Jesus Hopped the “A” Train by Stephen Adly-Guirgis at the Hastings Street Ballroom. The play opens in the darkness of a prison. We hear an inmate stammer through the opening verse of the Lord’s Prayer. The poor sap is quickly shouted down by fellow jailbirds who voice their contempt for him and God.
The lights come up on a prison yard where Lucius Jenkins (Oliver Pookrum), a convicted serial killer, is enjoying his one hour of exercise under the baleful eye of Valdez (the incomparable Joel Mitchell). Lucius has found God and wants everyone to know about it, the higher up the appeals court chain the better. But he’s no Karla Faye Tucker. He’s a fast-talking homunculus-psycho dedicated to an interesting regimen of chain smoking, calisthenics and revival tent yammering. Imagine Jesse Jackson cut off at the knees and crossed with Jack La Lanne and an overcaffeinated panda.
Lucius is joined shortly by Angel (Brian Marable), a misguided youth who popped a cap in a Korean cult leader trolling the ghetto for converts. Angel’s childhood buddy fell under the huckster’s spell, so Angel sought retribution against the “false prophet.” Sadly, his fate is in the hands of a public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Leah Smith), who leaves him to seethe in Riker’s while she bollixes his case.
Mitchell, Marable and Pookrum give unbelievable performances. When any of the three are on stage, the effect is riveting. Mitchell, as always, finds the corrosive nugget of his character and swaddles it in charismatic girth. Valdez doesn’t hate Lucius; he hates his jailhouse conversion swindle. Lucius should know better about how the world and God work. And if that contempt is a back door to racism, Valdez refuses to break it down.
But one’s Lenten temperance is sorely tested by the second act when the play bogs down in its own sense of importance and bravado. There are too many episodes in which paint dries, albeit to a chorus of profanity and blasphemous bluster. Yes, prison is a drag, but why lock down the poor audience?
Then again, where would you cut? I found myself wishing that the expository interactions between the public defender and Angel had been integrated into the far more compelling scenes with Valdez and Lucius — and good riddance to the public defender’s soliloquies. But then we would never see Leah Smith. Just the sight of her is a chronicle of Hanrahan’s sad rise from working-class girl to public defender: the lumpy, overripe physique of a cocktail waitress crammed into an uptown business suit; the weather-beaten face, veteran of many drinks and much psychic turmoil, growing more haggard by the minute under a hasty mask of powder and rouge; the way she squirms on the stool as she admits to the audience that she let a cushy plea bargain for Angel go awry because she overestimated her powers of winning a jury’s sympathy for her client.
Likewise, scenes in which Lucius is shucking and jiving alone in the yard look like losers until we hear Valdez berating him from the watchtower. The spotlight catches Mitchell’s porcine face breaking into a beatific smirk. We might as well be in ancient Rome. Nero is in his box and, in a moment, Lucius might well have to do battle with a couple lions as well as the devil.
This is a message play. At times, the disparity between the quality of the acting and the writing is shocking. Playwright Adly-Guirgis does Angel and Lucius a real disservice with the ludicrous nature of their crimes. There’s humanity in both of them to be mined without the allegorical overkill. And this is a common fault in African-American theater, where characters are often types: cartoons ready-made for easy laughs or ventriloquist’s dummies who deliver righteous words to uplift the race.
Even more troubling is the insinuation that, just because these are fucked-up black men from broken homes trapped in a corrupt justice system ruled by the mendacious white devil, their crimes should be forgiven outright, or worse, excused.
See Jesus Hopped the “A” Train by Stephen Adly-Guirgis and the African Renaissance Theater of Detroit at the Hastings Street Ballroom (715 E. Milwaukee, Detroit) through April 13 — 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday. Call 877-865-6818.Timothy Dugdale writes about theater for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]