Review: ‘Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”

opened March 3, 2007 at SF Playhouse

`Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train’ stays on track at SF Playhouse
three [1/2] stars Crime, punishment and power

There’s an extraordinary insight into the fragility of the human mind in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ drama Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train now at SF Playhouse.

A serial killer known as the “Black Plague” describes some of the horrific things he did to his eight victims in Florida and New York, including killing a child. With chilling intensity as he talks with another murderer in extreme isolation on Riker’s Island, the killer says: “’I think that was a very unusual thing for me, killing that boy, don’t you?”

The serial killer, you see, has found God. He has been, as some would describe it, rehabilitated. He is a man of spirit now who has taken responsibility for his actions and awaits extradition to Florida, where he will likely face the death penalty.

The young man he’s talking to is Angel Cruz, whose best friend joined a cult headed by the Rev. Kim. After kidnapping and attempting — unsuccessfully — to deprogram his friend, Angel channeled his anger toward the Rev. Kim and ended up shooting him in his ample behind during a church service.

During subsequent surgeries, the cult leader died, and Angel finds himself charged with murder in the first degree.

Guirgis’ tale of two murderers — one God fearing, one Godless — is often like a fist to the solar plexus in director Bill English’s excellent production, which opened Saturday in San Francisco.

More focused and forceful than Guirgis’ Our Lady of 121st Street, produced last season at SF Playhouse, Jesus is a better example of the playwright’s potent combination of smart, streetwise dialogue and passionate dramatic poetry.

When we first meet Angel (the superb, sensitive Daveed Diggs), it’s his first night in prison, and he’s desperately trying to remember the words to the Lord’s Prayer. He can’t remember the word “hallowed” and says, “Our Father, which art in heaven, Howard be thy name.”

It’s sort of funny, but Angel, who claims later to be an atheist, is grasping for some sort of comfort. He seems, at least from our limited perspective, to be a good man — not quite as tough as he’d like us to think — but essentially good.

But that whole notion of “good” is at the crux of Guirgis’ play.

Certainly it’s hard to believe that Lucius Jenkins (a pitch-perfect Carl Lumbly, taking a break from his TV and movie work and pictured above), the serial killer, is anything but bad. But the man’s constant harangues about faith and God and morality make a lot of sense. Could it be that Lucius’ conversion is more than a jailhouse convenience and is actually authentic?

Angel doesn’t want to believe that this rough older man — a cold-blooded killer who exercises while he preaches — could be spouting the truth about right and wrong. That might mean the killer is “good,” while Angel, desperate to get out of prison and willing to lie and bend the truth, is “bad.”

The relationship between the two killers — separated by the chain link fences and barbed wire of English’s set — is the heart of Guirgis’ drama, but he fleshes out the story with a driven lawyer (Susi Damilano, right with Diggs), who believes that sometimes shooting a cult leader in the butt is the right thing to do (“One man’s neurotic is another man‘s hero,’’ she says), and two prison guards: one older and more willing to see the good in a notorious killer (Joe Madero) and one younger and full of righteous hatred and violence (Gabriel Marin).

Madero’s Act 2 description of watching an execution is staggering, but it’s Lumbly’s Lucius that really gets under your skin. Hotwired by faith and redemption, Lucius may be saved or he may be crazy. Lumbly doesn’t judge his character and keeps him right on that provocative edge. There’s passion and intensity to spare in this performance, and when Lucius bellows at Angel, “Be blazing or be frozen, but don’t be cool!” we know he means it.

Lucius’ future, whether he’s repentant or not, is fairly well determined, but Angel’s is not. His actions and his sense of morality ultimately collide and send him down the track toward oblivion.

Ironically, it’s the hateful corrections officer who foretells Angel’s fate, although he thinks he’s talking about garbage: “Once you have discarded an irreplaceable item, it is lost forever.”

For information about SF Playhouse’s Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, visit

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