Every year, I track all the major off-Broadway theatre company’s seasons to determine whose deserves to be crowned the best of, currently, 2017-2018. It’s still too early to declare a winner, but based on its three revivals this fall, the Signature Theatre looks like the odds-on favorites.
With Suzan-Lori Parks’ dual Red Letter Plays – In the Blood and Fucking A – and now Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, Signature has brought back plays whose prescience simply astounds. Exploring hot-button issues as varied as – respectively – respectability politics, gendered taboos, and the justice system, they’re three works of true art that predate these concepts entering the zeitgeist. As such, they serve as yet another reminder that minority artists customarily tackle relevant and resonant topics far before the national discourse, which has until only recently – thanks to social media affording people of color with platforms never before attainable – been largely dictated by White America.
Though the prison-industrial complex of course existed when Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train premiered in 2000, very few fiction writers were delving into it as clearly and vividly as Guirgis. He probes the lives of his characters so wholly as to elicit equal doses of understanding, compassion, empathy, sympathy, and judgement for all of them, each of whom deserves and receives their time in the spotlight. Practically every scene reveals a different aspect of the complex, with the characters providing an achingly human lens to refract the audience’s expectations and conceptions of justice and freedom in the United States.
Though imprisonment has been a common focus of art throughout the 21st century, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train by no means feels dated, partially because the problem is worse now than ever, but mostly due to the other, far-less traversed territory the play wades through: the relationship between Christianity and the communities discriminated against by the prison-industrial complex. Before the country was even a speck in Puritan eyes, the imperialism of western civilization exploited Jesus’ tale to justify the suffering about to be inflicted on conquered lands. If the subjugated believed that the Son of God tolerated torture to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, then they’d be more inclined to bear their lot in life thrust upon them by slave-owners.
As the first moment of the play attests to, modern-day prisoners similarly seek solace in the Bible to make sense of their incarceration. The lead character Angel – a name that also stands as a testament to the lingering influence of the Gospels – struggles to find the words to the Lord’s Prayer, all while his fellow inmates profanely disrupt him. This is a thematically-rich beginning that exhibits both the power and limitations of Christianity in environments people of color are forced into. Throughout the play, Guirgis presents various ways that religion can save, heal, but also damn and be used as a tool for corruption. Christianity and America’s justice department are basically systems of belief sworn to serve and protect that can also turn against their own. As such, who can blame those who survive that fate from figuring out ways to make faith and judgement work for them and against their oppressors?
Even the artwork and photos used in the marketing materials draw a visual connection between Christianity – represented in the prayer-hands – and jail:
Though the play obviously addresses depressing subjects, Guirgis – much like Suzan-Lori Parks – utilizes a distinct theatrical vernacular that deploys disarmingly hilarious humor, which acts as a sort of olive branch to the audience to draw them into their often-punishing stories. My only fault with the text lies in its periodically tidy dramaturgy, especially when compared to Parks’ cognitive wrestling matches.
Mark Brokaw’s sturdy but straightforward direction amplifies this problem. The most inventive aspects of the revival – there are only a few – reside in the open set design; unlike most past productions on the Signature’s Irene Diamond Stage, scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez leaves space around the set, a subtle indicator that what’s depicted in the play is in no way exclusively contained within the play. The air around the set – and all the holes on the set, be they windows or gaps in jail cells – convey an open landscape where ideas freely pass between characters, and between Guirgis and his audiences. These are issues that plague lives daily outside the doors of the theatre, thus the world of the play is not restricted within the set nor the stage, with Brokaw sometimes placing actors to the sides of the auditorium to deliver monologues.
Speaking of whom, the uniformly strong ensemble brings their characters to life with aplomb, but they don’t really add new dimensions to the roles, rarely transcending established archetypes that we’ve seen before. As such, their performances are all almost predictable and expected. They plumb the depths of Guirgis’ characters, but their turns lack the layers to unpack found in his script.
Yet given the vital subjects addressed in the play, and the general vitality of this revival, these critiques ultimately prove moot. Much like with Parks and her Red Letter Plays, the Signature allowing their subscribers and others attendees to hear Stephen Adly Guirgis’ voice so clearly in such a crisp revival at this specific juncture in American history is nothing less than a godsend.
Even better, the Signature’s impressive start to the season looks like it’ll continue in the months ahead. Next up is a double-bill of two plays – Homelife and The Zoo Story – by Edward Albee, who spent much of his career digging into the violent anger simmering just underneath the surface of many Americans that has bubbled forth of late. Then comes Paradise Blue by Dominique Morisseau, who showed she has her thumb on the pulse of society right now with her Pulitzer Prize-worthy Pipeline earlier this year at Lincoln Center. Finally, Signature’s season ends with a remounting of Our Lady of 121st Street, another celebrated work by Guirgis. Oh, and I didn’t even mention that they’re directed by, respectively, Lila Neugebauer, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and Anne Kauffman, three of the best in the game today.
Signature is demonstrating how pursuing diversity is not merely an abstract ideal. Rather, it’s common sense: hiring different sorts of storytellers from the usual mold will lead to new types of stories, and who doesn’t go to the theatre to experience something new? Marginalized communities are the most equipped to tell previously marginalized stories, the sort that the rest of us desperately need to hear.