Last October, I sat in the front row of The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center and witnessed Sean Carvajal’s raw and visceral performance as Angel Cruz, a 30-year-old bicycle messenger awaiting trial for the death of the leader of a religious cult, in the critically acclaimed revival of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis.
The play takes place inside Rikers Island where a terrified Angel is befriended by a charismatic serial killer named Lucius Jenkins played by Edi Gathegi. Lucius has found God and been born again, and now, Angel’s life and the course of his trial will be changed forever.
Helmed by Obie Award-winner Mark Brokaw, the cast also featured Ricardo Chavira, Stephanie DiMaggio and Erick Betancourt.
Austin Crowley of Auditorium Magazine wrote, “Due to unforeseen circumstances, Victor Rasuk who was originally cast as Angel Cruz in this production had to withdraw at the last minute. The production found a replacement in Sean Carvajal after the first few preview performances had been cancelled. Luckily, Carvajal is a force of nature. He brings thoroughly intense fury to his character, while also delivering some hysterically funny moments that are iconic of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ work.”
Carvajal’s turn as Angel has garnered him numerous awards this season including the 2018 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Play and The Actors Equity Foundation’s 2018 Clarence Derwent Award for most promising male performer on the New York metropolitan scene. He and his co-star Edi Gathegi received a 2018 Obie Award for Performance and a 2018 Special Drama Desk Award because their “last-minute entrances into the Signature production of this powerful play ensured it had a happy real-life ending.”
Stephen Adly Guirgis also received the 2018 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Revival. The production was nominated for two Outer Critics Circle Awards in the categories of Outstanding Actor in a Play for Sean Carvajal and Outstanding Revival of a Play (Broadway of Off-Broadway). In addition, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train has just been included on the New York Times‘ list of The 25 Best American Plays Since Angels in America.
I caught up with Sean in Riverside Park to talk about his remarkable journey, overcoming adversity and finding community with LAByrinth Theater Company.
Lia: What would you say was the jumping off point for your formative artistic life?
Sean: I think my artistic journey came in waves. The first wave was while working at a youth theater company when I was in high school called Teatro El Puente. It was a theater company where we were not only Peer Educators, but would also write and perform one-act plays about HIV/STI’s, and other social issues. We performed them all over New York City. They paid me. It was my job. I used to make about $250 every two weeks, which I thought was decent for a high school student who’s part-time job was just writing and acting in plays. But what got me was how this community of artists and educators that I met through this organization helped me get through hard times in my youth. I was basically on my own at the age of 17.
It was also there that I found my voice as a young activist. I even had the opportunity to co-write and co-direct their annual 3 Kings Event for the community at age 20.
It meant a lot, and it was a huge deal since it involved me directing a cast of over 100+students, for a show that would be performed for over 2,000+ people of the community. I remember how impactful the work was. I mean this organization (El Puente) was founded by the Young Lords, and with the help of other activists and artists from the community, they were able to leave this remarkable impact within the surrounding Brooklyn neighborhoods.
My second wave was when I met the artists from the LAByrinth Theater Company. I would say that the LAB was my jump-off because it was there that I understood the craft of being an artist. They taught me that what we do is WORK, that it’s ALL about the WORK, and that we’re of SERVICE to the work. These artists generously took me under their wing, and mentored me. They instilled the many lessons that made me into the artist that I am today.
Lia: What was your first Stephen Adly Guirgis play?
Sean: The first play that I did was Dominica, That Fat Ugly Ho, at the LAByrinth Intensive Ensemble. Stephen’s work blew my mind. I can’t thank Portia enough for that process because, not only did she teach me to “always f***ck shit up”, but she taught me how to do a Guirgis play. When you get the music, his words are just so beautiful. It’s poetry.
Lia: Catch me up on the last four years.
Sean: When we met, I was in the 2014 U.S. premiere of Mohamed Kacimi’s Holy Land, translated by award-winning NY-based playwright Chantal Bilodeau at Here Arts Center.
Prior to Holy Land, I performed in the world premiere of Martin Zimmerman’s Seven Spots on the Sun at the Cincinnati Playhouse.
Around that time I was also doing a bunch of Off-Off Broadway Equity showcases.
I did some regional gigs like Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy in Washington DC.; De Novo in Austin TX.; and Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Water By the Spoonful at Premiere Stages.
In 2017, I did some pretty bad-ass/life changing productions in New York’s Off-Broadway scene like Atlantic Theater’s World Premiere of Tell Hector I Miss Him, by Paola Lázaro; the New York premiere of Seven Spots on the Sun at The Rattlestick and Signature Theatre’s revival of Jesus Hopped the A Train.
I recently completed a run of Water by the Spoonful at the Mark Taper Forum.
OH! And I produced the LAByrinth Theatre Company’s re-boot of Queen Latina and Her Power Posse at The Cherry Lane!
Lia: How did you book Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train?
Sean: I was preparing for this audition for Light Shining In Buckinghamshire at NYTW. I was really excited to do that play because I love Rachel Chavkin, and she’s a genius. I took a break and bumped into Stephen. That’s when he mentioned that they would need to recast the role of Angel.
I said, “I’ll show them how your work should be done” and I get the sides within an hour. I thought, “I just told Stephen I’m going to knock it out of the park, I better do a good job.” So I get to work.
At some point in my prep, Stephen gives me the heads up that there were two actors already being considered because they had performed the role. I had done so much work already and felt dumb backing out. I believed it was worth a shot, and worse case scenario Signature Theater and casting would have the opportunity to see me work. I had 12 hours to memorize the first two scenes.
I go in for my audition. I got a call that they wanted to see me again. Mark Brokaw, the director told me, “You don’t have the part yet. If the other actor doesn’t want to do the play, be ready. You are on standby to step in tonight.” He said he would let me know by 5pm. Stephen texted me that I had the part. I came to the theater, we had our first read thru and I jumped in. Rehearsal began on a Tuesday, Friday was my dress rehearsal, and on Saturday I stepped into previews. I had two shows on Saturday, another show on Sunday and that night was the alumni night performance-the best night of my life!
Lia:What went through your mind when you learned of your Lortel nomination?
Sean: I would never think in a million years that I would get nominated. I feel like my process with Jesus, I felt like it was a play that was incomplete. During that process, I was always asking myself, did I do a good job? I also didn’t know what these awards meant. I was taken aback. I didn’t think I was going to win. I was in the same category as Michael Urie, Namir Smallwood, Peter Friedman and Chukwudi Iwuji!
It was crazy when I learned about the special Drama Desk Award and I was so honored. I froze when I got the e-mail about the Obie’s–I knew about the Obie Awards because of Jojo Gonzalez. If you win one of those, that makes you a New York artist. With the Outer Critics Award nomination, Stephen texted me. I thought, “I’m being nominated next to Andrew Garfield – really?”
Lia: In your Obie Awards speech, you dedicated the award to your mom and thanked Stephen. You also mentioned that she used to take you to see theater. Can you elaborate more about her and how the experience affected your life path?
Sean: She was a single mom. She worked really hard all her life. She wakes up at 4 or 5 every morning and she works until 1am.
The quality time I did spend with her was when we went to church (I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness), or when she would take us out for a fancy night to see theater. Those nights meant so much to her–to save enough money to buy us nice clothing, see theater and then take us to eat at Olive Garden. I didn’t understand why and I still don’t understand why.
Part of the reason I think I became an actor is because she would take us to see these plays. She would make it an event and I knew it meant so much to her.
I remember one time I got into this fit. We went to see Aida. I did not want to see this musical. I wanted to stay home and watch cartoons. My mom bought us clothing from the Gap, which to us was really fancy. But as the night continued, I had such an amazing time. I saw Toni Braxton and Will Chase. Will Chase changed my life. There was something about their performance that was so free. But more importantly, I saw what those performances did for her. And that’s what got me. My mom was an immigrant. She came from the Dominican Republic. These musicals made her feel things. They made her laugh; made her cry in ways I had never seen her before. All I knew was this hard working mom. I felt like I needed her to know that.
I thanked Stephen for a lot of things, not just for Jesus. That man… there are no words. He’s been like a great father figure in so many ways. I will always be grateful for him.
Lia: What was your mother’s reaction at the Obies?
Sean: The Obie Awards ceremony was a long evening. My mother is really religious. I could tell some things really annoyed her. There was an open bar. She saw me drinking and she wasn’t happy about that. She was watching all of these weird people in this concert hall. There were moments when she was impressed – when she saw John Leguizamo there, and then Matthew Broderick. But she was most affected as she watched how people respected me, her son. That left the impression that I might be doing something right. She had to work the next day at 4am, so I gave her the award and she was off to work.
Lia: What did you mean when you said that going to theater at an early age opened you up to other possibilities?
Sean: When you are an immigrant, one thing you instill upon your kids is the sacrifices you went through to give us a better life. I was aware from a young age of the expectations to be a doctor or a lawyer. You have to be good in school. You have to work hard. I saw my mom work hard all my life. I barely saw her. And so I thought that money and schooling was the dream and the goal.
However, I’ve discovered that the dream and the goal is having the luxury to dream. She worked her ass off to buy $100+ tickets to see Broadway’s show that taught me to dream, That’s the biggest gift that she was able to give me.
Lia: Who are your inspirations?
Sean: My mom is my inspiration.
I would also say my mentors, especially: Stephen Guirgis, Ron Cephas Jones, Stephen McKinley Henderson, and Frank Vitolo. Those men helped raised me, and I’m forever grateful to them.
I know I just said his name, but Ron Cephas Jones is an inspiration. That man taught me so much of what I know, and I love him dearly.
My friends are inspirations to me and they feed me in so many ways.
Lia: Are there any directors you would like to work with, theater companies you would like to work with?
Sean: I would love to work with directors like Ava DuVernay, Reinaldo Green. If I were to dream big, I would want to work with Ryan Coogler, I find him to be so impressive. He’s 31 years old and he has such a wonderful career as a black man. I really admire a man who is a visionary like that. He’s a go-getter.
I would want to work with the Steppenwolf Theatre.
I want to do a Dominique Morisseau play! I admire that woman so much. Not only who she is and her work, but also who she is as an artist. It would be an honor to do one of her plays. She’s such an important playwright of our time. She’s such a wonderful artist. Her mind is so on the money about how we should behave and how we should treat each other as artists.
Lia: You are receiving the Clarence Derwent Award from the Actors Equity Foundation.
Sean: It’s crazy. When Actors Equity called me to give me $5000 along with Clarence Derwent Award that was insane to me. You do plays for $250 for the entire run! I’m so honored. Honored and humbled by all of this.
Like Ron would always say “Life’s a bummer when you’re a plumber”. And grateful that I’m an artist.
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.
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