“Our Father who art in heaven ... how, how ... how?”
On the floor of a caged enclosure in a jail, a Nyorican man kneels in the middle of the night and frantically tries to recite the Lord’s Prayer from memory, sticking on “hallowed,” while other unseen inmates holler obscenities, telling him—and then each other—to shut up.
Much later, he’ll be just as frantically apologizing to everyone like some sort of mantra, all his street cockiness gone.
The shaky prayer and its response opens the Fellowship Theater Guild’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, running through Aug. 20 at San Francisco’s Fellowship Church, on Larkin Street just north of Broadway.
A jailhouse drama is an unusual kind of play to see in a church hall, especially one that doesn’t offer any particular answers—religious or social—to either the personal dilemmas of the inmates or the questions that arise in a society that incarcerates (and sometimes executes) a sizable proportion of its citizenry.
Jesus Hopped the “A” Train is also low on the usual brutality and sentimentalism of the genre. It successfully employs confessional monologues as character studies that also reveal insights into motivation and responsibility for criminal acts, insights that don’t leave out contradiction.
Angel Cruz (played by Hector Osorio) is in the slammer for attempted murder.
“All I did was shoot him in the ass! What’s attempted murder about that?” he protested to his appointed lawyer (Nell Schwartz), whom he runs through the ringer in glib, streetwise fashion. But the lawyer’s sympathetic and sees a chance to pull out the stops of the legal skills she’s proud of.
The lawyer tells a story about her father accompanying her to a school dance and making a big hit, before stabbing a bigotted suburbanite with a dessert fork. She says that’s why she wants to take on Angel’s case, despite his resistance. She’s seen the same look on his face her father had that night, “incredulous ... as if the whole world was crazy and he the only sane one ... The dysfunctional side of me was proud of him. One man’s neurotic is another man’s hero.”
Meanwhile, another, more seasoned prisoner is going through a change of fortune. Lucius Jenkins (Felix Justice) is working out in an outside cage on his hour exercise period, revelling in the sunlight and talking a blue streak to himself in semi-Biblical lingo.
“Usurp the serpent, Lord, it’s crawling up my leg,” he says. “Let me jog in place up to heaven, with your grace.” His friendly guard, offering a steady flow of cigarettes and food, is replaced by a cynical hardnose, Valdez (Peter Fitzsimmons).
“It used to amaze me, the valuable objects people cavalierly discard,” Valdez has previously told the audience. “[They] do not understand that, once you discard an irreplaceable object, it’s lost forever.”
He baits Lucius: “I hear you give out autographs.” Lucius protests, ”Prayer cards!” The hazing gets ugly. Lucius protests the violation of his constitutional rights.
“I’m the constitution and you’re a skinny black faggot,” Valdez tells him. “You are not here because you’re a VIP, but because the livestock downstairs wants to cannibalize you.”
In a series of revolving scenes and monologues, these four (and Lucius’ sympathetic ex-guard, Charlie D’Amico, played by Jaime Gutierrez) play out the compulsions and hidden agendas of their own characters and of their strange interpersonal relationship in the most impersonal of circumstances.
The plot quite literally thickens. Lucius and Angel exercise opposite each other, sometimes arguing, sometimes exchanging thoughts.
The cast is solid, with Felix Justice and Peter Fitzsimmons—cofounders of the recently reactivated Fellowship Theater Guild—as standouts. C. J. Verburg’s direction relies on the actors’ directness and appeal to the audience; this helps overcome the limited opportunity the script provides for staging. A sense of claustrophobia doesn’t always translate to internal or emotional truth, though this cast gives a great deal to a compelling story.
Something deserves to be said about the Fellowship Church, a unique landmark under whose aegis the Guild performs. Founded in 1944 by San Francisco State philosophy professor Dr. Alfred Fisk, and Dr. Howard Thurman, a well-known theologian and a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples was the first interfaith and interracial church in the nation.
It has always encouraged “the expression of spirituality through performance,” clearly a priority of its pastor, the Rev. Dorsey Blake, and its congregation.
The Fellowship Theater Guild is real community theater, and not at all in the usual pejorative meaning of local amateur entertainment. It is in, of and about the community. As seasoned stage folk, they touch a chord of what theater is all about. They deserve support.
Jesus Hopped The “A” Train plays at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 and 7 p.m. through Aug. 20. Fellowship Theater Guild, 2041 Larkin St., San Francisco. There will be no Sunday performances in July. $18-20. For tickets call (866) 811-4111. For more information call (415) 776-4910.