It’s easy to fall for the Shawshank presumption

Christopher Walker reviews “Jesus Hopped the A-Train,” playing at the Young Vic Theatre until April 6.
www.youngvic.org/whats-on/jesus-hopped-the-a-train 020 7922 2922
**** (Four stars)

One of the weirdest things about the United States is how many of its own citizens it locks up. Well over two million, or just under 1% of the population. There are also twice that number on parole. That is a higher percentage than any other country in the world – and an extraordinary five times the global average. This is a weird legacy of prohibition, when the large scale criminalization of a previously legal pursuit changed the balance forever. It is also a legacy of the US’s troubled racial history. More than 60 per cent of these prisoners are black or Hispanic.
This is important background to Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Aidly Gurgis’s play “Jesus Hopped the A-Train.”
Described as a “dark comedy about the American Justice system,” the two principal characters are black and “blatino”. Both are accused of murder, and are being held in solitary confinement at Rikers Island, the main prison in New York. Their only contact is with the guards, their lawyers, and with each other through glass walls.
Although both trapped in the same hell hole, and both accused of murder, they are very different people. Oberon Adjepong gives a spellbinding performance as the older, charismatic, Florida murderer,Lucius. Ukweli Roach plays Angel, a young Puerto Rican accused of shooting a cult leader in the rear.
They strike up a strange “father-son” relationship.
The three white roles run the gamut of racial experience. One guard (Joplin Sibtain) is a tough talking racist, the other (Matthew Douglas) a hopelessly naïve groupie. Sibtain taunts Lucius that he can go on a break and “buy a Kit-Kat” – such ambrosia. But since that is about all that differentiates the guards from the prisoners, we soon realize they are all trapped in this awful place. Dervla Kirwan puts in a strong performance as Angel’s lawyer. With her own complicated back story, she is the tough brief with a heart of gold. She outlines the haphazard and often random nature of justice in the States. The only common theme being one of racial discrimination.
Director Kate Hewitt brings the best from each of her performers, while the glass menagerie created by set designer Magda Willi drives home the chilling claustrophobia. The production standards are very high. The atmosphere is often tense, not helped by random percussion noise. There is a strong religious element to the debates between the two main characters, “Jesus” is thrown round a lot. I said we are looking at a hell hole – but more accurately it is some form of purgatory. The two characters are both being held awaiting progress through “the System.” We feel like we are in purgatory with both competing not to go to Hell.
In many ways the audience are asked to make the decision themselves. We think at the beginning that the two characters are very different. If anything, the older man at first attracts our sympathy as he is bullied by the racist guard. Then we come to realize that he is a serial killer – guilty of the most hideous acts. Evil personified. Not so much Lucius as Lucifer. And Angel by contrast, is the young innocent caught up in the web of American justice and the penal system. Or is he?
A grim conclusion. “Be blazin’ or be freezin’ – but don’t you ever be cool.” Burn baby, burn.