God, alienation and serial killers: Playwright behind ‘Jesus Hopped the “A” Train’ shares his thoughts

God, alienation and serial killers: Playwright behind ‘Jesus Hopped the “A” Train’ shares his thoughts
New York City playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has typically been a well-kept secret in Toronto, a tough proposition for a Pulitzer Prize winner.

The 54-year-old’s work has often appeared on Toronto’s smaller stages: “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” was presented by BirdLand Theatre in 2009; “The Motherf--ker With the Hat” was at Coal Mine Theatre and “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” at Unit 102 in 2014, all critical slam-dunks. But even for theatre fans, Guirgis isn’t necessarily a household name.

This year, as he premiered his newest play (his 11th) in New York, “Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven,” two of his works hit Toronto in quick succession. Coal Mine presented the Pulitzer-winning “ Between Riverside and Crazy ” just this winter and “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” returned to Toronto, this time in a Soulpepper Theatre production .

It’s hard to miss Guirgis’s presence here now, but his knack for realistic dialogue from the margins of society, and his ability to deal with faith, desperation and the human spirit without preaching have always had a home in Toronto theatre. The city has a reputation for getting his plays right.

The Star spoke with Guirgis from his home in New York to learn more about his breakthrough play, “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train”; what he thinks about cultural appropriation in theatre and the power of theatre today.

“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” is, centrally, about two convicts on Rikers Island with the prospect of ending their lives in jail; one’s a serial killer and the other shot a cult leader. Your plays are rooted in your lived experiences. Where did this one come from?

The part that’s literally true is that I had a really good friend growing up named Joey. One day I opened the New York Post at Blimpie’s, eating lunch from acting school in my early 20s, and he had joined a cult. It was the Moonies. And me and his brother and his father spent about a year and a half trying to kidnap him, deprogram him. But it didn’t work. And eventually, once I got to therapy, I realized that Joey was like an extension of my childhood. I didn’t want Joey to go away because I didn’t want my childhood to go away. Then you fast forward, I don’t know, maybe 10 years, and now Joey is not the prevailing thing in my thoughts, but it’s still the idea of not wanting to grow up and not wanting to assume all the responsibilities that go with adulthood. I’m also coming to a place where I needed the 12 steps and I was really grappling with that third step, of willing your life over to God. I saw an interview with Son of Sam, and he was saying how he was cured and God has forgiven him. I thought, he’s crazy, but if God’s mercy and forgiveness is infinite beyond our understanding, what better example than the worst type of person that you can think of.

So that, with my friend’s stuff, with my 12-step stuff, with my existential crisis stuff, I started writing the play. And that’s why I bathed it in the metaphor of a prison. I think that an existential crisis of, at that time, a 30-year-old Irish-Egyptian kid, it’s not that interesting. But if you put a person in a dramatic situation like facing a murder charge, it’s just more interesting.

What was it like to immerse yourself in the world of serial killers, as you researched them in writing the play?

I never thought of the characters as criminals that I was studying. I thought of Angel mostly like myself; and Lucius, I never thought of him as a criminal. I thought of him as a sick person. But I did have, at the time that I was writing, pictures of death-row inmates on the wall. I just liked to have them looking at me because they all look really serious. I would look at them and I would think, all right Stephen, if you’re writing this s--t you better really dig deep. Because you’re touching on other people’s stuff.

You place a lot of importance on writing characters in situations outside of your own world; they’re often drawn from reality but not your specific reality. But, then again, they almost always take place in New York City. Have you ever wanted to break out of that setting?

I keep saying to myself I’ve got to write a play about the French Revolution or something, you know? I can’t write another play about people struggling in an urban environment. I keep threatening to write my white play. They’ll probably hate me for that.

You write Black characters, Latin characters, people who’ve been to jail, retired cops … What do you think about how theatre is dealing with issues around who can tell what stories or who can play which characters if they don’t reflect their identities? It’s a tricky subject.

If you’re doing a play in a major city you need to be respectful of what the playwright wrote in terms of these characters’ ethnicities and find it. Because if you’re in a major city, you should be able to find it. If you’re doing one of my plays in Montana, it’s a different story.

My mother was Irish American and white as a sheet of paper. My father was from Egypt and brown. First of all I had the luxury of not having to identify myself, really. But how do I identify myself now? I ask, if it’s late at night and I hail a cab, does the cab stop for me? A cab stops for me. So I’m more white than anything else.

What was growing up mixed race on the Upper West Side like?

I grew up not feeling like I belonged in any group. My neighbourhood was predominantly white, Jewish and Puerto Rican. Most people had more money than me. The kids went to summer camps. I couldn’t afford to go to camp. The kids had the good sneakers. I didn’t have those sneakers. I didn’t feel like I fit completely into my more white neighbourhood that I lived in.

At the same time I went to kindergarten and grammar school on 121st Street on the edge of Harlem. And that area was a lot more Black and Latin, and not as many white people. And economically, I fit in better there, but also I was aware that I was different.

And so as a kid, on my way to school I would change clothes to look a certain way. And then, on my way home, make some sweater adjustments to try to fit in there. I was always trying to fit in. I think, if I have an ear for dialogue, it came from listening. My life depended on it.

Then I happened to fall into a Latin theatre company. And so from the beginning I just said to myself I’m going to write whatever the f--k I want to write. If I get it wrong I know I’m going to hear about it and if I get it more right than wrong then I’ll be OK. I haven’t stopped operating under that premise … But would I want to be starting out as a playwright now? No. The s--t that I’d be allowed to write, it’s not my thing.
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