Weyni Mengesha is quickly becoming one of my favourite directors. Her work is fresh and exciting with bold flourishes. I read this play several years ago and wasn’t a fan. Sometimes when I read a play, it doesn’t come alive for me and that was the case with this one. The powerful staging of the show at Soulpepper enlivened the poetry of the script for me. Mengesha’s dynamic take of this material, had me feeling claustrophobically trapped in the jail cells with the two men the play centred around.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play, places us in Rikers Island, one of the most horrific jails in the US. His characters have committed crimes, made bad choices but it’s hard to not feel for them. Guirgis paints them with a wide brush, infusing them with depth and dimensions…..none of them are just one thing. At the centre is Lucius Jenkins, a man who has committed murders but has found God and enjoys the simple pleasure of catching a ray of sun in the hour he is allowed to spend outside. Even though he is caged, his faith and imagination enables him to fly free every day. Soon Lucius is joined by a younger, fearful man named Angel Cruz.
The two men spend their time outside sharing smokes and trying to make sense of what their lives have become and where they can go in this world of captivity. A compassionate public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan, comes to comfort Angel and tries everything she can to get him out of jail. He resists her but she never stops believing in her ability to set him free.
Two guards with different agendas round out the story. Gregory Prest plays D’Amico who is friendly to Lucius and does favours for him, getting him smokes and treats. This doesn’t go over well and D’Amico is ultimately fired. Valdez is the typical asshole guard who keeps order by asserting his power with testosterone fueled aggression.
Daren A. Herbert’s characterization of Lucius is spectacular. It was like watching a musical instrument and he played the most complicated compositions with ease. The mastery he displayed was awe-inspiring. He had some tricky dialogue that needed to come out with precision and certain sections were so impressively executed, it garnered applause. The physicality, the emotional depth he explored, he missed nothing. Definitely one of the best performances I have seen in a long time.
Xavier Lopez did some nicely nuanced, emotionally grounded work and Gregory Prest gave a very watchable, solid performance. I just wish his character had more than two scenes.
The criminal justice system in the US is a mess, jails are mostly filled with Black and Hispanic prisoners, they are often in these jails with lengthy sentences for minor crimes. This play casts a light on this skewed system and shows the humanity of the men that are serving time and often forgotten in these cages.