Curtain Calls

Review: 'Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train'
Drama delivers message that God can be found in the most unusual places – and people

If there is one spot on Earth where you might not expect to find a stimulating and insightful discussion about theology and human nature, it's probably Riker's Island prison. But then again, maybe that's the perfect place for such a debate!
And if there's an ideal location in which to tell this tale, it's within the confines of Detroit's intimate 1515 Broadway where "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" opened last Friday night.
If the play's title sounds familiar, it should: It was just two short seasons ago that the African Renaissance Theater made its dramatic debut with what was to become one of the most honored productions of the 2002-03 theater season. "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" – staged at the then-fairly unknown Hastings Street Ballroom – took the town by storm, and ultimately walked away with several awards bestowed upon it by Metro Detroit's always insightful theater critics. (Well, most of them, anyway. But more on that later!)
So it was a gutsy move when founder, producer and star Oliver Pookrum decided to revive his premier production so soon after its initial run. Would theatergoers – and theater critics – recall the hoopla from two years' past and pack 1515 Broadway to the rafters simply because of its well-deserved reputation? Or would they say "been there, done that" and instead patronize any of the other fine shows that are being staged throughout the area?
Of course, with stagings only a couple of years apart, it's inevitable that comparisons between the two WILL be made. However that's the risk producers must accept whenever they decide to remount a once-popular production.
But since Curtain Calls was about the ONLY major theater column or newspaper that DIDN'T heap praise on the original production -an accidental oversight about which Pookrum has been good naturedly teased ever since, including at the 2003 Wilde Awards – a certain baldheaded critic eagerly arrived at the opening night performance with a set of fresh eyes and nothing to compare it to. Therefore, this production would be judged strictly on its own merits and nothing more.
And what he saw was pretty darned good!

The script

For only one hour each day, prisoners Angel Cruz and Lucius Jenkins have a taste of freedom. For that's when they are taken to separate cages on the roof of the prison where they can smoke, exercise, enjoy the sun or talk.
What they do is mostly talk.
Jenkins, referred to as "the little black faggot" by the prison's general population because of his HIV status, is in solitary confinement awaiting extradition to Florida where he is to be executed for murder. While incarcerated Jenkins was "saved" – that is, he found God. So much so that he pleaded guilty to the eight murders for which he was charged and is now seemingly at peace with himself and the horrors he inflicted upon his victims.
Cruz, who was placed in solitary after being attacked and gang raped shortly after his arrival at Riker's, is accused of murdering a cult minister who claimed to be the son of God. "He stole my friend, so I shot him in the ass," he tells his attorney, Mary Jane Hanrahan. Although he only meant to injure the reverend, a fatal heart attack on the operating table caused the charges to be changed to murder – which, of course, doesn't sit well with the man who was only looking out for his friend's best interest.
So when faced with an opportunity to persuade a jury that he's not guilty, will Cruz take it? Or, like Jenkins, will he accept responsibility for his actions?
Playwright Stephen Adly-Guirgis' powerful drama tackles many weighty, philosophical issues. He poses many questions, yet answers very few; much is left for the audience to ponder. For instance, can a sadistic, manic depressive mass murderer ever redeem himself? Is it ever too late to seek redemption? And does God ever use unusual vessels to send messages of peace and love to those in need of forgiveness?
Although there is much anger in the script, Adly-Guirgis also finds humor in the dark places his story inhabits. What's structurally troublesome, however, is the author's jarring switch from a very realistic style of theater whenever the prisoners are on stage to a more theatrical style when two characters – Hanrahan and prison guard D'Amico -deliver monologues directly to the audience; it's never made clear to whom the monologues are supposedly addressed or why – especially D'Amico's in the second act. (Plus, Hanrahan's decision to risk her heretofore stalwart career to help Cruz is likewise bothersome; although it helps drive the play to its conclusion, it's not totally believable!)

The production

Small, intimate productions do best in theaters that are likewise small and intimate. As such, the long-respected 1515 Broadway is one of the best spots locally to produce "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train."
With no seat more than about 15 or 20 feet from the stage, the audience can't help but feel the anger that seethes throughout director Pookrum's production. To stage it in a larger venue would do it a great injustice.
Pookrum keeps the story flowing, with its highs and lows mostly well-paced. Transitions between scenes are handled particularly well.
However, it's the actors who will make or break this production. And on opening night, the small but thoroughly engrossed audience was treated to several engaging performances.
William Apps is perfectly intimidating as the in-your-face white jail guard, Valdez, who immediately sets out to prove who rules the roost. Nelson Jones plays his predecessor, D'Amico – a guard who is fired for befriending Jenkins – with an equal amount of compassion.
Most impressive, however, are the well-muscled Pookrum (as Jenkins) and Falah Salaam (Cruz). Each dives into his role with tremendous energy; the resulting characters are well-defined and totally believable.
On the downside, many of the actors need to watch their diction – especially whenever tempers flare and anger increases. And Amy Arena stumbled over her dialogue throughout much of the first act, something one hopes won't happen in future performances!
"Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" Staged Friday through Sunday by the African Renaissance Theater of Detroit at 1515 Broadway, Detroit, through May 30. Tickets: $20. 313-333-1444.
The Bottom Line: A thoroughly engaging remounting of an earlier smash hit, but now it's time for ART producer Pookrum to challenge himself and his theater company with something new, something different and something spectacular!