Sophie Wright meets the cast and crew of the upcoming professional production hosted by the Assembly Rooms Theatre.
I know very little about Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train; when I sat down to interview the cast and creatives of Elysium Theatre’s upcoming production, the first thing I asked for was a brief synopsis. “I don’t want to say it’s just about one person,” cast member Danny Solomon says, before expanding on the plot. It was a simple throwaway comment, but after meeting with the members of the production I feel as though it succinctly summarizes the show.
Written by American playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is set in the notorious Riker Island prison in 1998, New York. A young man incarcerated for shooting a cult leader in the backside, and a serial killer who found spiritual forgiveness, meet in adjacent cages on the roof of the prison. The play sprawls into a contemporary tale of imprisonment, religion, society, murder, humour and redemption – all achieved through the tangible struggles and conflicts of the characters themselves.
First produced off-Broadway in 2000, the show’s exploration of America’s criminal justice landscape remains pertinent today. “The American prison system’s not changing,” says cast member Garth Williams – which isn’t exactly true, statistically. Estimates suggest that 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the US, with the number having increased by more than 500% in the last 40 years.
And it’s no coincidence that the two main characters are men of colour. More than 60% of people in prison are non-white individuals. While racial issues are not the main focus of Jesus, it cannot be escaped, as Faz Singhateh learnt while researching the role of Lucius. “There’s a line,” he says, “that ‘no one started paying attention until I started killing white people’.” The character of Lucius takes its inspiration from historical events like the Long Island serial murders or the Atlanta child murders, where people of colour became victims through a law that intervened too late. “Serial killers,” Singhateh goes on, “their success is bound in their normality. It’s so easy to be a serial killer in America.”
But Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train raises larger, more universal questions that a Durham audience will appreciate beyond a closer look at American social politics. “It raises questions about ethics,” says Solomon. “All these characters have their own stories that come across as very valid at times.” Cast member Alice Bryony-Frankham agrees: “these are real characters, real people, even if they seem like caricatures to begin with.” The way in which the people presented on stage have their stories fleshed out moves beyond researching inspiration in the real world; Guirgis’ script “gives you everything you need,” says Alastair Gillies. It’s “extraordinarily visceral”, asking questions like ‘what does God forgive’, ‘how do you stand by what you believe in’, ‘how can the criminal justice system reflect human morality’.
This production of Jesus fits Elysium Theatre’s drive to show Durham and North East audiences shows they’ve never previously seen. “It’s never been done outside of London [within the UK],” says Jake Murray, director of Jesus and founding member of Elysium Theatre. “It’s very electric,” he continues, a fast-paced script with incredible moments of chemistry between characters, making it the perfect piece of theatre to continue towards Elysium’s core ensemble. By creating a collective of individuals who have chosen to work together, audiences can witness simultaneously comfortable and fascinating dynamics between characters, while the actors can try and test new and unexpected parts. “You have this feeling of trust,” Murray says, which I sense is integral to executing Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.
Current themes, action-packed script, social issues, discussions of morality, and a theatre company creating a slick and tight core apparatus – this production has it all. An incredible opportunity to see an amazing piece of theatre at The Assembly Rooms Theatre, this should not be missed. “The most exciting piece of theatre you’ll ever see,” says Murray – and I’m very inclined to believe him.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train will be playing in the Assembly Rooms Theatre at 7:30pm on Monday 14th May.