Meet me at the station

“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” investigates the possibility that good intentions can produce bad results.

Greg Corradini

Much has been written about right, wrong and mankind’s moral jeopardy.

Aristotle set a standard when he said happiness was the end to which all actions aspire. American jurisprudence has moved from this philosophical underpinning to an amazingly complex web of precedent and analysis. Certain laws, however, rest squarely on basic assumptions about what is fundamentally ethical. Laws that prohibit homicide, for instance, seem self-evidently valid. And yet, sometimes there must be exceptions.

In “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” by Steven Adly Guirgis, Angel Cruz, a 30-year-old bike messenger, is incarcerated after busting a cap in the Rev. Kim’s “water buffalo ass.” The reverend’s religious cult has been stealing people’s minds and money without legal sanctions for too long. The shooting, intended to scare the reverend, leaves Angel basking in righteousness. With a little help from shrewd attorney Mary Jane, Angel just might be able to attract the jury’s pity and sidestep the consequences. Unfortunately, the reverend’s unexpected death leaves the district attorney filing felony murder charges and Angel is moved into protective custody.

There he meets a new friend: Lucius Jenkins, aka “Black Plague.” Lucius, a zealous media rep for God, tries to convince Angel to turn inward toward his faith for guidance. With God on his side, Lucius says, Angel will confront the wrongness of his action and live stronger in the presence of fear.

It is Lucius’ double speak on God that brings the greater question in “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” into perspective. Lucius himself has killed eight individuals, one of whom was a child. Can salvation arrive through a corrupted vessel?

“Any place where you can have your life resurrected, thass a damn convenient place,” Lucius tells Angel. “God juss happens to be a very damn convenient individual, brother! I didn’t get him ’til I was 42; a suicidal, multiple homicidal drug addict starin’ down at Death Row? Would I have preferred to find him at 25? Hell yeah! But I didn’t!”

Off-Broadway director Stephen Dimenna has had a long creative history with Minneapolis. After graduating from the University theater department, he set up a program in Hennepin County that works with incarcerated youth, teaches them about play writing and has them perform their own piece about their lives and struggles. Although this is Dimenna’s first time directing a Pillsbury Theater production, the theater has lent its space for his county-sponsored productions the past last three years.

“I always liked plays that are about underdogs,” Dimenna said. “Angel Cruz was this terrific guy who does the wrong thing but for the right reason. I thought those are interesting questions for an audience to wrestle with. After working 11 years with incarcerated kids, I was just really thrilled to do a play that in some ways speaks about our criminal justice system. It’s one of those atmospheric plays that has an opportunity to really be like a one-two punch in the audience’s gut.”

The Pillsbury House Theater is the only neighborhood center that tries to change social and educational problems of the community creatively through theater. The theater operates under the auspices of Pillsbury United Communities, which has been servicing Minneapolis communities for 105 years.

“What (they) are trying to do with that theater is great because it’s really about connecting with the community and not just doing fluffy plays,” Dimenna said. “But doing plays that in some way resonate for an audience in that community – particularly South Minneapolis, but for the entire community. They like to do plays that raise interesting questions that force us to look at issues in our society that maybe we wouldn’t look at if we didn’t go to the theater.”

Solitude and the shadow of perpetual fear drive Guirgis’ characters to look for meaning in relationships and ideologies. Their attempts to excavate anything valuable usually founder against the cold floor of paradox. Angel, unable to confront the guilt he feels, wants the easy way out. Lucius just wishes people could forgive him and believe he has changed.

“Do you really believe that there’s a thing called God?” asks Valdez, the prison officer, to Lucius. “Or is it that your pain is so unbearable that you force yourself to create a belief in order to medicate that pain? And if there is a God, Superstar, do you honestly believe that you are free from the burden of what you’ve done? You renounced your humanity when you claimed your first victim!”

“You got any friends, Mary Jane?” Angel asks. ” ‘Cuz we gotta friend, Eustace, he’s doin’ life In Arizona, but we stopped hangin’ wit him when we was like 11! And we got this other friend, Crazy Legs, he died a cancer at 22, and dass hard, but, at least he’s dead!”

In Guirgis’ world, consolation is doled out by the mouthful. Angel and Lucius trade insults in an effort to understand and console each other with the only means they know – verbal provocation.

Lucius: God forgives me for what I done, and he’ll forgive you too if ya ask him.

Angel: You ain’t straight wit’ shit.

Lucius: And you know that how?

Angel: Don’ make me fuckin’ hurt you, man.

Lucius: Hurt me? How a little Chihuahua like you gonna harm me?

The language they use is coarse and deconstructive. There are no cocktail witticisms and palliative sermons to be found. Fifteen profanities occur in the opening eight lines of the play. For some, this might seem like the recourse of an author with little to say. Yet, beneath everyday speech lie unexplainable motives.

As the play progresses, the bare-knuckled slang that once bruised the viewers’ ears now goes unrecognized. Angel and Lucius’ hard words begin to lack conviction. If you thought prison was bad, then losing your linguistic muscle is a new low. When the hard shell is stripped away, all the viewer is left to witness is a frightened, childish and compassionate core.

It must be hard to transcribe the motivations of everyday speech. That Guirgis can pull it off is a testament to his talent.