Review: Jesus Hopped The A Train (Unit 102 Theatre)

Scott Walker and Ronnie Rowe in Jesus Hopped The 'A' Train

Two prisoners explore faith and morality in Jesus Hopped the A Train playing at Toronto’s Unit 102 Theatre

Do you like emotionally charged prison scenes? How about authentic street dialogue and thoughtful debates about faith, religion and mortality? Then head over to Unit 102 Theatre at Queen and Dufferin in Toronto to see Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train. This play is refreshing food for thought, has phenomenal acting and is particularly well-written.

Written by acclaimed playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train includes all those elements. Mounted by Unit 102 Theatre, this play also has riveting acting and a harsh, cold “in your face” staging and lighting that make for an excellent night of theatre. The boldness works well, as the play mostly takes place within a prison.

If you are not familiar with the name Stephen Adly Guirgis, keep in mind that Philip Seymour Hoffman has often directed his plays. Yeah, I know.

Upon leaving the lobby and turning left, one is suddenly and jarringly transported to the sidelines of a prison. For some reason it felt like being in the gallery for an execution. That’s the mood and “vibe” that Mike and I felt as we took our seats.

The story primarily revolves around two men accused of murder and their daily interactions during their routine hour “in the yard”. One is Lucius Jenkins, superbly played by Ronnie Rowe. Lucius is a black man from Miami convicted of killing eight people. He’s now “found God” and has become a media sensation, his days of killing pizza deliverymen seemingly behind him.

Andy McQueen plays the other inmate, Angel Cruz. Cruz is accused of killing a “false prophet”. He shot a man in the seat of his pants, who later died from medical complications. There’s a question of whether doing a terrible thing with a terrible weapon may or may not be justified. McQueen is a young actor who does a remarkable job bringing a rainbow of emotions and intelligence to the character. Watch out for this talented young man.

The two inmates toss cigarettes back and forth between their cages while in the yard. They also toss religious beliefs and platitudes back and forth. It’s a fascinating and riveting power play, almost like watching tennis. The power shifts between the two has emotional intensity equal to that of an NBA playoff game. Mike and I were on the edges of our seats throughout the play.

Two prison guards “look after” Lucius and Angel. The first is D’Amico (Anthony Ulc). D’Amico is sympathetic, ultimately a thankless bleeding heart. Scott Walker plays the bad ass guard, Valdez. After the play I told Mike that I was certain the character Valdez would be killed during the play. Mike said “I thought you were going to get out of your seat and kill him.” Walker is that good at portraying an evil bastard.

The public defendant appointed to helping Angel, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Tommie-Amber Pirie), is caught between a rock and a hard place. She has to tread the fine line of what is right and working within “the system”. We see her as an attorney in some scenes, at a table instructing and coaching Angel on his defense.

Mary Jane is tough as nails but entirely likable. In other scenes, she performs monologues. Pirie has a resume of fine acting longer than Lucius’ rap sheet, and it shows. She makes the switch so effectively between coaching and monologue scenes that at first I thought she was two different actors. Dualities galore is the name of the game in Jesus Hopped The ’A’ Train!

Unit 102 Theatre is one of Toronto’s smaller theatres and has a distinctive mood and feel. It’s cozy, bare-bones and relies upon a well-written script, superb acting and creative staging. It’s a showcase, an opportunity for talent to shine. As such, this hidden gem of a space has become a hotbed for great theatre. If you are interested in expensive props and cutting edge computer generated effects look elsewhere. If you are interested in seeing exquisite, in your face talent, go see Jesus Hoped The ‘A’ Train.

Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train will definitely rattle a few cages. Break out of this prison of a winter and go see it. Consider it time off for good behaviour.

Details:

  • Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train is playing until February 15 at Unit 102 Theatre (376 Dufferin)
  • Shows run Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, with an additional matinee on Sunday February 9
  • Tickets are $20, with PWYC matinees
  • Tickets are available by email or through the box office at 416-532-4422

Photo provided by the company.