The Sun Shines on These Inmates
Let us face the facts: The Brad Powell Theatre is located within The Dole Cannery Shops building in Iwilei. It does not have a lot of space to work with. Thus, the productions chosen must be able to live and breathe within the confines of the building. Many productions have flourished and worked well within the confines of the Dole Cannery halls, but the setting of Stephen Adly Gurgis’ Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train felt different. I was wondering what exactly about it resonated with me, and I think I finally am able to put it into words, if but a little clumsily. The set felt stark, confining, and rigid, like a prison should. However, it also communicated a greater sense of scope, one that’s not immediately discernible when you first enter. As the production goes on, and the drama unfolds, the set evokes grand feelings of size and oppression, much like the prison industry and the buildings that fuel it. While this partially was accomplished by the director, Peggy Anne Siegmund, the actors, and the playwright, one of my first acknowledgements goes to Paul Yau (scenic design, alongside Siegmund) and Charles Wade (sound and lighting design, alongside Siegmund). Work that elevates the setting is always the work of lights, sound, and set working together as one. Let me be fair- the set is not the most intricately painted/built set there ever was. There is also a portion of the set on stage dedicated to the public defender’s aparment/house, which is well done. What I am saying is that its elegance comes from its simplicity, and the sum of all of its parts shapes the setting to be a character unto itself. Large, ominous, and always reminding you of your sins. A perfect backdrop to a gripping drama, a suitable house for a Pulitzer Award-winning playwright, and a fitting vehicle for the themes and elements this play tackles.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a play about many things, but it begins with the most obvious anchor- prison. The audience follows Angel Cruz (Jarod Bailon) , who is behind bars for shooting a cult leader (as he deftly puts it, “poppin’ a cap in his ass). He’s not cooperative with his public defendant lawyer, and he’s not cut out for prison life as he faces abuse after abuse, finally getting relocated to the 23-hour isolation wing of Riker’s Island because of his status as a target for the other inmates. Bailon earnestly fits into the shoes of Angel, who initially fights against the system that put him where he is but then decides to comply with his public defender, who offers him a ray of hope. His public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan, played by Po'ai Lincoln, is staunchly confident of her skills. Public defenders usually get a bad rap, and it’s because they are overworked and underpaid, sometimes being unable to give the proper amount of time to their clients. She knows what she’s worth and doesn’t take Angel’s disrespect, but she is also excellent at what she does- getting acquittals for her clients. Lincoln plays Mary Jane with the humanity the audience needs to balance and anchor the show alongside dashes of both vulnerability and cynicism, presenting a fleshed out performance. There are two security guards- Charles D. Amico (Fili Leasau) and Valdez (Ryan Bechard). Leasau’s Charles is cool, easy going, and tries to sneak cookies and cigarettes to inmates. He gets replaced by Valdez for these infractions, but Leasau returns for act two to deliver a poignant and heartfelt monologue. Bechard’s Valdez is the opposite of Charles, as he runs things “by the book.” Evoking real life parallels of guard abuse, Bechard exercises his authority in a violent and cruel way that never turns truly grisly. He enjoys lording over the wards he has to watch over, and while he is quick to punish and berate, never falls into a over-the-top quality that would have been easy to fall into. One of Valdez’s greatest labors is Lucius Jenkins (Curtis Duncan). A convicted serial killer (eight people, at least) who has turned to God, he shares one hour of daylight out of the isolation wing with Angel. Duncan’s performance elevates Gurgis’ writing so well, you would think the role was written for him. He portrays a man with a past so dark by showing a charisma that is a delight to see, switching beats and gears within the complex and nuanced character on a dime.
Siegmund has gathered an impressive team and understands Gurgis’ work in and out. At the start of our performance (I caught a preview), she mentions that it’s okay to laugh. Gurgis writes very human characters, and comedy will inevitably be attached to the dialogue. The writing is a bit lengthy- the characters are verbose and wordy. However, rest assured her actors grab you and don’t let go. The time races by as the drama and tension unfold piece by piece. As with any Gurgis play, many contemporary themes surface, sometimes subtly and sometimes in your face. The prison industry, our justice system, and where right and wrong fit on a moral scale are definitely some. Race is a large one. Ultimately, Gurgis does not answer any questions or present any hard stances on any of the topics brought up in the play. This is his brilliance- showing life, in all of its gray areas, in all of its nuance and complexity, and all of its details. You are not presented with good people and bad people. This production shows you what we all are- flawed people- and how these specific people deal with the hands they are dealt. Siegmund succeeded in staying true to this metric, and the cast and crew should be proud of their work in this production.
Side note: Samuel Tafolo designed the costumes, and they served the production well. There were even authentic patches- I was impressed! There are also two guards that help with transitions- Marty Wong and Tanyah Tavorn. They, alongside the run crew, helped make transitions quick and efficient!
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train runs at TAG’s Brad Powell Theatre in Dole Cannery through March 3. For parking, park at the Regal Theatres parking lot and bring your ticket for validation. Tickets to the performances can be found here.