About a month ago, local actress Jennifer George did something surprising. After accepting a prominent role in a Detroit production of the internationally award-winning play Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, she quit. It was two weeks before the show was to open. On a Tuesday evening, citing creative differences, she walked out on the producer and cast, and didn’t return.
The Detroit theater community is small and close-knit, and such a bold move could possibly hurt her reputation. But the actress felt she had a right to do it.
She says she didn’t agree with the artistic approach of her producer, Oliver Pookrum. And it made her uncomfortable that she still didn’t have a contract to play the role. But that meant she was free to leave.
Pookrum is a Cass Tech and Wayne State alumnus. Three years ago, he founded the nonprofit organization African Renaissance Theater (ART). The group, next year to be renamed Detroit Renaissance Theater, is dedicated to putting on shows geared toward the African-American community in Detroit. For years, Pookrum has worked in the city as an actor, writer, director and producer. And he’s an activist for black theater. There’s no question he has established a reputation as one of the city’s great actors, but his work as a producer and director has caused conflict, to say the least.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is ultimately a story of judgment; one man’s heart is weighed against his deeds, the law and truth. Angel Cruz (played by local b-boy Falah Salaam) is incarcerated on Rikers Island for shooting con man and cult leader Reverend Kim in the ass while trying to save his brainwashed best friend. When the rev dies on the operating table, Cruz is charged with first-degree murder.
After Cruz is found brutally beaten in his cell, he’s moved to protective custody, where he makes contact with sociopath serial killer Lucius Jenkins (played by director Pookrum). Jenkins purports to have found God, and works to convince Cruz that he too can and should be “saved.” Cruz’s disillusioned young public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan (played in a pinch by Amy Arena, filling in for Jennifer George), slowly comes to care about Cruz, fighting to set him free.
It’s no coincidence that the attorney’s first name is Mary, that “Lucius” sounds like Lucifer, and that Angel is pulled in both of these directions, trying to come to terms with his actions while others decide his fate. At the end of Act 1, a fundamental scene lays out this struggle.
The character of Mary Jane Hanrahan has a monologue describing day one of Angel’s trial. She expresses her exhaustion and, surprisingly, her exultation. Her closing line here precisely explains her motives: “I was focused completely on the ‘greater right’: acquittal, redemption … release.” In another soliloquy that opens the second act, the attorney speaks the truth in Guirgis’ tale: “The law is fallible, the truth will not set you free, and in a courtroom, ‘legal justice’ is an oxymoron.”
These monologues, including about 460 words in Guirgus’ play, are cut from Pookrum’s production. And Jennifer George says that’s why she quit.
Creative control is an ethical war waged in all the arts, between artists and curators, writers and editors, musicians and producers, to name a few. But it’s more frequently becoming a legal issue. For example, a bill now before Congress is the result of an ongoing dispute between the Director’s Guild of America and two Utah film companies, CleanFlicks and ClearPlay. These two private companies are editing out what they consider to be objectionable content from films, without the studios’ approval, and making the “family-friendly” version available to the public.
Linda Mench, a Chicago-based entertainment and copyright lawyer, says that in the case of Pookrum’s decision to cut a lot of writing, Stephen Adly Guirgis doesn’t have legal control over the editing. “As long as a producer has bought the rights to the script, it is legal to cut it for length,” she says.
Maybe the quality of Pookrum’s interpretation is a matter of opinion. During Jesus’ first run in spring 2003 at Hastings Street Ballroom, well-known local actress Leah Smith played the role of Mary Jane Hanrahan. In a review of the play, Metro Times contributor Timothy Dugdale wrote: “Good riddance to the public defender’s soliloquies. But then we would never see Leah Smith.”
The production was met with rave reviews in the mainstream. The Detroit Free Press gave it four stars, awarding it “Best Play of the Year,” and the Oakland Press also heaped praise on the production.
Though she admits to being biased, Smith still disagrees with then-director Mary McCormick’s decision to alter the part. “They cut down my part in the middle of the run, which totally changes Mary Jane’s story. It makes her less sympathetic, and it takes the focus away from what’s actually happening in the judicial system.” Smith had hoped Pookrum would step in to resolve the matter, but he says, “I gave Mary as much responsibility as possible and she felt the monologue was anti-climactic and she wanted Act 1 to end on a more suspenseful note. And that time, only two or three lines were cut. It’s hard to sell somebody on three lines.”
Pookrum says in the recent version of Jesus, the crew had only a short period of time to rehearse. “The play shouldn’t be cut, but circumstances dictated it. We didn’t want to put the actors on trial, and it just comes down to learning the part. Actors have to do very difficult, beautiful and rewarding jobs. You got to learn your lines. You got to work within parameters. A basketball player can’t go out of bounds and say, ‘I don’t think the court should be that small.’ This is the court we play on.”
Here’s the thing about the show that I saw: Had I never read the play, I probably would have reported that it was great. In my mind, Pookrum is an excellent actor, and many others in the theater community agree. He’s a small man with unbelievable energy, and he pulls off the desperate fanaticism of a coked-up convict-turner-preacher nearly perfectly.
But I still feel uncomfortable with Pookrum’s decision. There’s only a fuzzy sense that the character of Angel Cruz is in limbo, trying to figure out whether he’s a good or bad man. In my opinion, the delicate balance between Mary Jane Hanrahan’s faith in what’s “good,” and Lucius Jenkins’ illusions about what’s right and wrong, have shifted. Because Hanrahan’s opinions are deleted, her point does not clearly come across and Jenkins seems to be a more sympathetic character.
There are different ways to look at what Pookrum does and who he is. You can consider him a man who’s militant about his own efforts and treats other people’s ideas cavalierly. Or you can consider him some kind of Robin Hood renegade in the local theater, trying to get the public’s attention in a business that’s barely surviving, even on a national level. (Pookrum says that’s why movie and TV celebrities are cast in so many lead Broadway roles — it’s the only way to get ticket sales.)
Pookrum took me to task the other day, asking a fair question: “When was the last time local theater was on the cover of the Metro Times? We need that kind of energy, a story.” It certainly does seem that, at his own risk, he makes a good one.
Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train runs through the end of May at 1515 Broadway, Detroit; 313-333-1444. Tickets are $20.Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org