Terrence Riggins

On the Inside

Review of Jesus Hopped the A Train, Collective Consciousness Theatre 

Collective Consciousness Theatre, the black box theater in Erector Square with a penchant for urban dramas and works by authors of color, is back with its first production of the season: Stephen Adly Guirgis’ sobering Jesus Hopped the A Train. First produced in 2000, the play sets up a situation where crime and punishment combine with a story of charisma and faith, where the legal system and a higher law meet.

Incarceration is a way of life, particularly for African Americans in the U.S., but does it serve any purpose? The story focuses on the interaction between two men locked-up in protective custody. One, Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Riggins), is an avowed serial killer trying to avoid extradition to Florida where he would be put to death, while also telling anyone who will listen about his faith in Jesus; the other is Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), a somewhat confused youth accused of attempting to assassinate the leader of a religious cult who, Angel says, brainwashed his best friend. The shooting was not intended to be lethal, Angel claims, and was a just action. The two prisoners meet during the recreational hour they spend in outdoor cells divided by a narrow walkway. Jenkins never misses his hour outdoors and puts the time to use as best he can, including vigorous exercise while reciting the names of the books of the Bible backwards.

Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Higgins), D’Amico (Rob Giardian) in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Jesus Hopped the A Train

Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Higgins), D’Amico (Rob Giardian) in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Jesus Hopped the A Train

In this gripping production directed by Dexter J. Singleton, the personalities of the two men dominate the play. Mostly contentious, the two find terms of uneasy fellowship, though most of the sympathy tends to run in one direction only, from Lucius to Angel. The play establishes a simple contrast that yields much complexity: Lucius is by far the worse criminal, but he has a view of life—now that he’s likely to lose his—that has redeeming value; Angel has lost his faith in God, but his crime, in his view, was a blow for goodness. He’s desperate to find an attorney who can make his case—assault, yes, but not attempted murder. He gets Mary Jane Hanrahan (Bridget McCarthy), an attorney Angel offends by calling her a bitch, but who takes the case because she sees a certain sense in Angel’s plea and prides herself on turning juries her way. Of course, as the day in court nears, Angel must be coached in how to deny everything.

Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), Bridget McCarthy (Mary Jane Hanrahan)

Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), Bridget McCarthy (Mary Jane Hanrahan)

Jenkins, by contrast, doesn’t deny anything in his sordid past, and his challenge to Angel is to own his actions, even if, as in Jenkins’ case, they are cold-blooded killings that “didn’t feel wrong.” Long before we hear Jenkins share horrible details of his crimes, we have already gotten to know him—we might think—as a personable older inmate trying to look out for a younger one. Initially, we see him using his considerable charm to elicit favors from D’Amico (Rob Giardian), a white guard under Jenkins’ sway. When D’Amico is replaced by Valdez (Jason Hall), a surly guard who seems to relish sounding like a movie hard-ass, the change makes more emphatic the “us against them” outlook of Jenkins’ pitch to Angel.

Riggins, who played a topdog-turned-underdog in last season’s Topdog/Underdog at CCT, has a knack for playing canny street dudes who earn our trust with a steady patter of amusing observations and insights. He creates a memorable Jenkins, a character who makes us confront how easily good and evil can be at home in the same person. It’s easy to—as D’Amico—says “like him,” and yet Riggins makes it hard for us to trust Jenkins. His “act” is so studied as to seem perfectly natural and that gives us pause. In a very different register, Delossantos’ Angel is as well-realized. He’s not as garrulous or personable as Jenkins because he hasn’t learned to mask his vexations so smoothly. He tends to wear his heart on his sleeve and provides the main focus for our sympathy.

A harder read is McCarthy’s Hanrahan. She’s forthright to the audience in several brief monologues that often serve simply as plot devices, doing little to evince her character, but setting up the tension of the story outside the jail: what will be the result of Angel’s day in court? Hanrahan emerges as someone whose motives get in the way of her ends, but the legal situation, in the play, serves only as a way of contrasting the law with the truth. Thus, much of the time spent on the case seems less than necessary.

D’Amico (Rob Giardian), foreground; Lucius (Terrence Higgins), Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), background

D’Amico (Rob Giardian), foreground; Lucius (Terrence Higgins), Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), background

As the sympathetic jailer D’Amico, Giardian scores with a monologue about attending an execution that just manages to shift from being all about the speaker to show us something of Jenkins’ fascination. As the sadistic jailer, Hall at least makes us feel that Valdez is playing a role to avoid falling under Jenkins’ spell, a role forced on him by the situation.

With David Sepulveda’s realistic set design and effective lighting design by Jamie Burnett, sound design by Tommy Rosati, and costumes by Carol Koumbaros, CCT’s Jesus Hopped the A Train has a fascinating power, its tension sustained by characters who draw us in and keep us there. Giurgis specializes in showing us people who are in love with the sound of their own voices, and in Jenkins he gives us an especially spell-binding hero—a possibly regenerate villain who, with death looming, has no time for the lies we tell for the sake of ego or to spare feelings. Lucius and Angel are well-worth the time spent with them on the inside.

Jesus Hopped the A Train plays for four more performances, Thursday, November 8-Sunday, November 11.


Jesus Hopped the A Train
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Dexter J. Singleton

Production Stage Manager: Ashley Sweet; Assistant Stage Manager/Propsmaster: Emiley Charley; Set Design: David Sepulveda; Lighting Design: Jamie Burnett; Sound Design: Tommy Rosati; Costume Design: Carol Koumbaros; Producer: Jenny Nelson

Cast: Jhulenty Delossantos, Rob Giardian, Jason Hall, Bridget McCarthy, Terrence Riggins

Collective Consciousness Theatre
October 25-November 11, 2018

The Deuce of Spades

Review of Topdog/Underdog, Collective Consciousness Theatre

Two African-American brothers, one named Lincoln, one Booth—their father’s “idea of a joke”—live a precarious existence in the urban underclass. Lincoln—or Link—was once “the be-all and end-all” in the street hustle known as “three-card Monte,” now he has a regular “job with benefits” working in an arcade. His assignment? Dress up like Abraham Lincoln—including white face—and let customers shoot at him with blanks. Meanwhile, younger brother Booth—or, as he wants to be known now, “Three Card”—aspires to his brother’s former status as a hustling legend. Then there’s Grace, the woman whom he claims can’t get enough of him and is hot to be his wife. That would put an end to the brothers sharing Booth’s apartment, an uneasy arrangement that is the setting for Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, now playing at Collective Consciousness Theatre, directed by Dexter J. Singleton.

The room in which all the action takes place, with its paneling, cracked plaster, single bed and armchair, has the vibe of a place just barely suitable. The bathroom is down the hall and, when we meet the two brothers, they have no phone service. They’re scraping by, barely, and the main tension is that Lincoln (Terrence Riggins) once made real money on the street with the cards; Booth (Tenisi Davis) sees that skill as his ticket to better times. Otherwise, he seems to make his way by “boosting” stuff from department stores. The two pride themselves on their fast hands, but Lincoln insists he’s “off the cards.” The killing of a former accomplice makes him leery of that way of life. He resists his brother’s urges to teach him the secrets of successful three-card manipulation.

Parks’ play—in two Acts with an intermission—takes its time getting to what seems a foregone conclusion, once we see that Booth is packing “heat” (a gun he brandishes early in the play). In keeping with the old Chekhovian dictum that a gun shown on stage in Act One must go off in the final Act, Parks leads us there through revealing dialogue and the kind of loose banter that antagonistic brothers can easily get into and out of. The drama is in watching how these hustlers keep trying to hustle a little more dignity and respect from life.

Booth (Tenisi Davis), Lincoln (Terrence Riggins) (photo: Dexter J. Singleton)

Booth (Tenisi Davis), Lincoln (Terrence Riggins) (photo: Dexter J. Singleton)

In the early going, Booth seems a comical figure, with his brags about his girlfriend and his generally jive nature. Davis plays him as a mercurial type, moody and changeable. He’s often irked at being the “little brother” and feels a bit put upon by his hospitality to Lincoln. He wants something from his older brother and the question is: will he get it? As the play rolls along, with Booth’s hopes and plans, and, particularly, his memories of their mother, becoming clearer, Booth gains in stature if only through pathos. He never seems quite as bad as maybe he really is, or wants to be.

As Lincoln, Terrence Riggins is a great asset of this production and a major reason not to miss it. Lincoln is a plum role and Riggins inhabits him with a graciousness that makes the man easy to like. He drinks a lot and often has his guard down. What’s more, other than a place to stay and some vicarious thrills through his bro’s success with “amazing Grace,” Lincoln isn’t after anything. He has reached a place of stasis, contented so long as he can keep his easy job at the arcade. Much of the play’s forward movement is watching what finally stirs this reticent character from the lair where his former king of the streets persona has gone to hide.

Riggins lets us watch it and it’s a fascinating arc. Lincoln suffers his younger brother’s jibes with patience, and is often reflective. There are many amusing exchanges between them—such as Booth trying to coach Lincoln to make his death as Honest Abe more dramatic, or Lincoln calling Booth on his BS about sex with Grace and his reliance on stacks of porn—and, now and then, a window on their abandonment by, first, their mother and then their father.

Parks’ dialogue is richly imagined and a verbal delight, giving us lots of insights into character simply in a turn of phrase. With its intimacy and excellent acting, the show’s main defect at Creative Consciousness is in its pacing. Because of the many three-card monte routines in the play, timing can stretch out a bit, and there’s a pause, with music, that adds length to Act One. It matters because there’s a lot going on in Act Two and we want to be sharp when we get to it.

The street is never far away in perilous times. CCT’s Topdog/Underdog, at Erector Square, effectively conveys how that context creeps into lives like these. The many costume changes—Carol Koumbaros, costumes—bring in more than visual interest as well. We see how much image matters in establishing a con, not least the con we call theater.

Topdog/Underdog looks at what those title terms mean—in family terms, social terms, and in terms of history, race, and economic standing. We understand that, in any kind of antagonistic struggle, “top” and “under” can switch quickly. In a sense, these brothers are always wrestling, sometimes it’s in play and sometimes it’s in earnest. Dexter J. Singleton’s cast and production keeps a firm grasp on which is which, letting us see the now up, now down progress of a contemporary inseparable duo, charged like Cain and Abel—or Lincoln and Booth—with a harsh fate.


By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Dexter J. Singleton

Stage Manager: Brionna Ingraham; Assistant Stage Manager: Eddie Chase; Set Designer: David Sepulveda; Lighting Designer: Jamie Burnett; Costume Designer: Carol Koumbaros; Production Manager: Jenny Nelson

Cast: Tenisi Davis, Terrence Riggins

Collective Consciousness Theatre
Erector Square, Building 6
319 Peck Street
November 2-19, 2017