This interview was done in 2006 when L.A. Theatre Works recorded “Jesus Hopped the A Train.” It was conducted by Susan Raab.
An Interview with Stephen Adly Guirgis, playwright of JESUS HOPPED THE ‘A’ TRAIN
LATW: Who are your favorite playwrights?
LATW: What was the inspiration for writing about the prison system?
GUIRGIS: I didn’t actually intend to write “about” the prison system. For me, in this play, “prison” is a kind of launching point or metaphor for the prison within one’s self. The inner fears and rages and conflicts that keep us shackled are things I grapple with kinda all the time, and I was certainly grappling with them when I wrote the play. I think the characters in Jesus are their own individual jailors – particularly Angel. And they are all grappling. There is, I hope, an abundance of conflict and color in this play because the characters are fighting a war on at least three fronts at all times: they are battling themselves, each other, and their respective conceptions and relationships to the God they both desperately crave and bitterly reject… they are fighting for their right to be “right”, cuz if they’re wrong, then they’re pretty much fucked and they know it… or something like that. I dunno.
LATW: LATW produced your play OUR LADY OF 121st STREET. Do you see any connections or parallels between the two plays?
GUIRGIS: Well, both plays devote energy towards the examination of Faith and Religion. Both plays have a lot of characters who are in a good deal of pain and are struggling with Acceptance. In both plays, characters are actively engaged in either trying to figure it out or are trying very hard to NOT figure it out. Much like me.
LATW: Your plays tend to focus on multi-ethnic groups of characters. Is that intentional on your part, or does it develop organically out of your writing process?
GUIRGIS: I think I write characters to whom I’m drawn to in the languages and speech patterns to which I’m drawn… a big part of being a writer is about just listening to the different voices in your head and writing down what they need to say. I know that might sound a little mysterious, but, really, it’s not that mysterious when you think about it. What does a baseball player do? See the ball, hit the ball. A quarterback reads and reacts. A fisherman casts his line and hopefully reels something in. That’s what writers do. Sometimes we catch a fish, sometimes we get, like, a used condom, or an old boot. But the process is always the same, and if the process is successful, it’s usually because we left “thinking about it” out of the equation. The thinking part comes before and after. But the actual act of writing is about something else. It’s about getting the hell out of the way. And the reason I suggest that the writing process isn’t so mysterious as it sounds is because, I mean, “getting the hell out of the way” applies to, like, almost everything we do or try to do, like, all the time. Like, if you got up the nerve to kiss the girl, and then you kissed her, and she didn’t belt you in the mouth, then what happened really? I know for me that what probably happened is that I succeeded in getting the hell out of the way. That’s what a writer’s gotta do — which is probably why I spend so much time avoiding it… anyways, as far as multi-ethnicity goes in my writing, I am the product of a multi-ethnic marriage, I grew up in multi-ethnic neighborhoods, and my theater company is multi-ethnic. I love words and slang and I do love the language of the street. And I am glad that my plays in some small way foster diversity. But mainly, I just write down what I hear in my head. Maybe someday all I’ll hear is people from Connecticut or something, but for now, it’s a real mixed bag and I’m grateful for that. God bless my mom and dad for settling in New York City and exposing me to the colors of the rainbow and so many of the rich voices in the choir
LATW: Did you have a particular social or political agenda when you wrote JESUS?
GUIRGIS: No. I needed to vent, and I needed to rage, and I needed to have an argument with myself that was impossible to win either way. So I guess that’s what I did. I wrote the play at a time when I needed God, but only on my own terms. I still struggle with that. I want to be in charge at all times despite the fact that things that don’t work out very well when I’m my own Ultimate Authority… the part of me that’s still a child wants to avoid taking responsibility for anything, and is extremely enraged and resentful at any suggestion that I ought to. The part of me that’s starting to grow up a little is slightly more willing to do things a little differently and to acknowledge that it ain’t me who’s running the show. Angel’s dilemma in the play, like mine in life, is perhaps not so much about not wanting to choose what’s “right” as it is not wanting the responsibility and burden of having to make any choice at all. Angel wants permission to have whatever he does be “okay”. If forced to choose, he wants someone else to do it for him. Ultimately, in the play, Angel does, I believe, choose. He makes a choice. As for me, in my own life, I guess I’m still waiting.
LATW: The two lead characters form an intense “odd couple” who affect each other deeply. How did you create such a fascinating pair of characters?
GUIRGIS: I don’t know. I heard Lucius and felt him. And I heard Angel too. I was fortunate enough to figure out that they both pretty desperately needed each other, and badly needed something from the other. And I just let them go to war. They both have a lot to lose, and that makes for fierce warriors, and hopefully, a pretty good battle. Mary Jane and Valdez have a lot to lose as well. I think that’s what makes them pretty hard-core as well. These are folks who take their work very personally. They’re not clock-punchers. They’re true blue. Mary Jane spends the play trying to justify to us what is, in the end, simply un-justifiable. And right up through the end, she just won’t accept that. As for Valdez, his flaw is his inability to see gray. I do not for a minute think of him as “evil”. He is simply — and sadly — a man who can only see things as black or white. He is not a sadist. He just operates from a moral compass that you don’t ever wanna be on the wrong side of.
LATW: Having seen your work produced before by L.A. Theatre Works, why do you think JESUS is going to work well for the radio?
GUIRGIS: Well, it’s not boring. At least I hope it’s not… there’s a certain amount a verbal pyrotechnics going on, a lot of conflict, a lot of needs needing to be met, and the scenes, I think, all have a pretty palpable sense of urgency. Some people classify Jesus as a “debate play” which, I think, probably makes it conducive to radio listening, I don’t know. It’s a play for the ears — rough language, rapid fire, a lot of humor, and hopefully an intellectual argument carried forth by characters you can care about that takes the listener to a conclusion that, again hopefully, leads to further discussion and perhaps a small measure of inner contemplation.
LATW: Did you do any research when writing JESUS?
GUIRGIS: I checked some stuff out to make sure that what I had written wasn’t too far away from the truth in terms of prison life and the legal system… and I did a little reading on sociopathic mindsets and behaviors… part of the impetus for the play came from seeing David Berkowitz — the “Son of Sam” Serial Killer from NYC in ‘77 — on Larry King. He was talking about how God had forgiven him and that he was Born Again. As I watched him, I thought; “on the one hand, he’s clearly insane, but on the other hand — what if it were true? And what better test case of God’s willingness and ability to forgive than a crazy depraved killer like
Berkowitz”… I also saw an interview with the guy who killed John Lennon which was fascinating because of his own inability to experience and express remorse and accept responsibility even though he clearly wanted the viewers to think and believe that he was sorry…as for prison life itself, I had done a little work in prisons so I had a very tiny little glimmer and glimpse into the sad horror that that life holds. But mostly, I just wrote and hoped for the best…
LATW: How do you find such wonderful humor in supposedly bleak situations?
GUIRGIS: When I go to theater, my hope is that I will laugh, cry, and think… you can get away with a lot if you can offer the audience some laughter. Humor humanizes. It’s vital and human and necessary…
LATW: What’s next for you?
GUIRGIS: My mom just died. I miss her very, very much. Eventually, I will resume writing and acting. I have a play that’s due for next season in New York that my company LAByrinth is doing with Manhattan Theater Club. It’s called The Little Flower of East Orange, and I’m still writing it. Also, I owe a screenplay about the boxer Emile Griffith that the producers and the director have been very, very graciously and patiently waiting on for a while now. So I guess I got stuff to do. But right now, I’m taking care of family. And hopefully, myself too.