THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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Stephen Adly Guirgis' kinetic, vocally entrancing, 2000 play gets a stunning revival by up and coming director Kate Hewitt at the Young Vic. It adds to the excitement of playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah's recent take-over of this company, now something of an artistic powerhouse.
Set in New York's notorious Riker's Island remand jail, it pits two male prisoners against one another and asks two fundamental questions. Can people stand in front of what they've done even if it is a killing, and is redemption ever possible?
Its visceral energy has echoes of the acclaimed TV show Oz which mapped similar terrain around this time but Adly Guirgis' dialogue manages to elevate the profanity to a kind of jailhouse jazz, which is a delight for both actors and audience.
Magda Willi's simple design traps them behind separate glass boxes, movable metal frames, on a traverse stage. Glass is a perfect option for a play about inner reflection. This allows spectators on both sides to see everything but also gives a curious sense of both intimacy and captivity at the same time. The only false note is Peter Rice's over insistent sound design, which pummels us into submission.
In a striking central performance Ukweli Roach is Angel Cruz, the new arrival. We follow his journey from innocence to bitter acceptance of his fate. His crime was to shoot (he says, by accident) a cult leader in the ass, after the latter had brainwashed his friend.
In the other cell is Lucius Jenkins, a star prisoner who is a criminal of a different order. Refusing to be defined as a victim and about to get his own reality TV doc, he viciously killed 8 people but now has found God and expounds his faith and positive thinking while putting himself through his vigorous regimen of press ups. New York actor Oberon K. A. Adjepong has all the charisma of a prophet. His nobility and obvious keen intelligence are so at odds with his actions, which is what Adly Guirgis explores so deftly here, although at times the parameters of the two men's debating are not that lucid.
We also meet Angel's defence attorney (a powerful Dervla Kirwan) who, despite her noble intentions, turns the case into something of a crusade, with tragic consequences. Then there is Valdez (Joplin Sibtain), the morally bankrupt prison guard, offended by Lucius' intelligence and so taking sadistic pleasure in taunting him, safe in the knowledge that Lucius will have no defenders. Hewitt calibrates the tension with great skill and extracts pitch perfect performances from her cast. The sense of desperation, the perpetual din of the prison, the isolation, the sense that the legal system is so compromised by games and deals that it has forgotten the essential human questions - these are all wonderfully rendered. At the heart of it though is the richness of Adly Guirgis' densely written dialogue. There is no clutter.
He has gone on to be one of America's most distinguished dramatists and this is a great opportunity to see again his early triumph.