Review: Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (Soulpepper)

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a graphic and disturbing deep dive into prison life and faith

Soulpepper Theatre presents Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, a graphic and distressing story of two prison inmates serving time for murder. One has been serving his sentence for years, but his discovery of God helps him find joy in his days. The other is a younger man recently charged and now overwhelmed with desperation and grief as he sees the rest of his sentence lain before him. This is a blistering story of life behind bars on Rikers Island, of racism and police brutality, of a harrowing life of constant struggle.

Directed by Weyni Mengesha, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train revolves around the lives of these two prisoners: Lucius Jenkins (Daren A. Herbert), a serial killer who killed eight people (that the police know of) but who discovered God and is more than obliged to share this blessing with everyone. His discovery has helped him come to terms with the heinous acts that he’s committed. New to the block is Angel Cruz (Xavier Lopez), a tough and self-righteous young man who shot a man but never had any intention of killing him. Mary Jane Hanrahan (Diana Donnelly) is Angel’s young and cunning public defender who’s determined to win their case not only for Angel but to establish her own reputation and Valdez (Tony Nappo) is the brutal take-no-shit prison guard with a near personal vendetta against Lucius.

The soul of this production lies in the performances from Herbert and Lopez. Their discussions on faith behind bars are revealing and eye-opening, with Lucius’ faith allowing him to find peace with his crimes and his looming death sentence, while Angel’s desperation is tearing him apart at the seams. Though he may not have shot with the intention to kill, he killed nonetheless. Does that make him any less of a murderer, a monster, than Lucius? What’s one life without intent versus eight lives with intent?

Powerful and dynamic performances are required with such a small and intimate cast, and this whole team has surely delivered. Herbert and Lopez have done incredible work with their roles. They are both real, gritty, and raw. There’s a wild and unhinged edge to Herbert’s portrayal of Lucius that leaves you wondering about his grip on reality. On the other hand, Lopez plays up Angel’s youthfulness in how he responds to Lucius and his public defender Mary Jane — his rough attitude is a ruse of playing tough, but it’s evident how scared he is.

Likewise, when Donnelly delivers her monologues as Mary Jane, you see how green she really is as a public defender. She’s cocky and arrogant until her case gets away from her due to her own hubris and Angel’s humanity. Nappo plays the real villain here; he’s the guard you want to hate. He’s cruel and ruthless, filled with racism, vitriol, and self-righteousness.

The prison set here is simple and yet highly effective. With bars and cold lighting to create the prison cells, the set designed by Ken MacKenzie provides a strong and intense backdrop for the play and allows for plenty of space for the actors make full use of. I also loved the use of lighting, in particular the warm beam that shines down on Lucius. His relationship with the hour of outdoor time and the sun is a key component of his character.

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is just downright incredible theatre. It’s dirty and gripping and raw, all the elements I love in good crime television, which is intensified when live on stage. This is certainly worth the watch.

Details:

  • Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) until February 23, 2020.
  • Performances run Tuesdays to Sundays at 8:00 pm with matinees on Wednesdays and weekends at 2:00 pm.
  • Tickets range from $25 – $98 with student discounts available with ID.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by phone by calling 1-888-898-1188, or in person at the box office.
  • Run Tiime: This performance runs approximately 2 hours 20 minutes with a 20 minute intermission.
  • Audience Advisory: This performance contains coarse language, graphic imagery, and the use of herbal cigarettes, viewer discretion is advised.

Photo of Daren A Herbert and Xavier Lopez by Dahlia Katz.

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