Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis’ hard hitting play packs a punch at The Young Vic. Set in the infamous Rikers Island prison- we visit two men inside the lockdown wing. Angel Cruz, Ukweli Roach, a frightened young Puerto Rican who is accused of murdering a cult leader is unwillingly partnered with a charismatic born-again serial killer Lucius, also known as ‘The black plague’ (Oberon K. A. Adjepong). Both are guilty of their respective crimes, but the pair have very different experiences which have led them to the same place.
Directed by Kate Hewitt, this fast- paced, visceral play grips the audience. In between snappy dialogue there is deafening percussion, designed by Peter Rice, which reminds us that time is running out, for Angel’s crusade for his innocence, and Lucius for his life. Magda Willi’s staging is remarkably simplistic with a traverse and two square boxes representing the cells/outdoor space, she creates an almost see-saw like image. We are invited to weigh up the two men’s crimes against each other- who is the most guilty? Who deserves redemption? Will one man’s redemption lead to another’s damnation?
Faith is explored, as Lucius persuades Angel to reconnect with God, which is ironic as it was a charlatan who claimed to be the son of God, that was the reason Angel wound up in trouble in the first place. Lucius also claims to be at one with God, despite his countless murders – which raises the issue of redemption, as he is arrogant in his own righteousness. Adjepong’s physicality and energy as Lucius makes him almost unwatchable as he dances around his cell, doing press ups, and strutting about, he believes his own ‘Superstar’ status. In contrast, Roach’s vulnerability is reflected in his stillness and childlike innocence in his ‘Jesus hopped the A train’ speech.
There are many issues raised in such a short space of time – outside of the Young Vic a ‘Black Lives Matter’ banner, is proudly hung from the balcony, while a sadistic white prison guards demean and enjoy taunting the inmates of different ethnicities in Jesus Hopped The A Train. The American justice system is questioned, as Lucius says; “People start paying attention when white people start dropping”.
It feels like a very important time for this play to be showing.