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A Lesson Before Dying

a Drama
CATEGORY : DRAMA
by A play by Romulus Linney based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines

COMPANY : Theatrical Outfit [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Balzer Theatre @ Herren's [WEBSITE]
ID# 3165

SHOWING : October 29, 2008 - November 23, 2008

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

When a young black man in 1940s rural Louisiana is falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to the electric chair, his grandmother pleads with the conflicted plantation school teacher to help her "baby" face death with dignity. As the two men's prison-bound relationship deepens in intensity and intimacy, it shines an unflinching light on injustice, oppression, and each person's choice of response. This powerful, engrossing adaptation taps the Southern roots of both Gaines and Linney to expose the universal human condition and reveal the lesson that it is never too late to learn to live with personal integrity.


CAST & CREW LIST
Sound Designer Chris Bartelski
Set Designer Jamie Bullins
Lighting Designer Rob Dillard
Props Designer M. C. Park
Reverend Moses Ambrose Gordon Danniels
Grant Wiggins Johnell Easter
Vivian Baptiste Chinai J. Hardy
Jefferson Eric J. Little
Sheriff Sam Guidry Bill Murphey
Cast Neil Necastro
Miss Emma Glen Veronica Redd
Paul Bonin Rich Remedios
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production
REVIEWS

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Correction
by Beauty2Blue
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
5.0
Brenda Phillips/Emma Glenn plays the Godmother (not grandmother). [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
And Then We Killed Him
by Dedalus
Monday, November 24, 2008
4.0
Disclaimer: Although the ending of this play may seem inevitable, some may find that my descriptions below contain spoilers. I apologize, but I find I cannot write about this play without them. Be advised!

The Death Penalty.

What is it about state-sanctioned capital justice that arouses such passions in us, such primal fear? It is a peculiarly American paradox that a country that is basically designed to “mistrust” government still allows that government to hold the power of life and death over us, and we’re one of the few non-autocratic countries in the world that does so. We still believe, rightly or wrongly, that some offenses deserve no mercy, some miscreants are best “erased” from our company.

Many of us even dream about being wrongly accused, dread the thought of facing an undeserved final justice. It is one of my own more primal fears. As such, I find books, plays, movies dealing with Capital Punishment especially compelling, especially moving. Such was the case last year with Essential Theater’s wonderful “Fix Me So I Can Stand.” Such is the case now with Theatrical Outfit’s “A Lesson Before Dying.”

Based on the acclaimed novel by Ernest J. Gaines and adapted for the stage by Romulus Linney, this is the story of Grant Wiggins (Johnell J. Easter), an African-American teacher in the Louisiana of 1948. He wants nothing more than to run away, to leave the South that treats him with disdain, that gives his students no future, no chance. Then, he is asked by his mentor, Miss Emma Glenn (Veronica Redd), to visit her Godson in prison. Jefferson (a marvelous Eric J. Little) has been condemned to die for a murder everyone knows he did not commit. Called a “hog” by his own lawyer, Jefferson has given up, is turning himself into the “hog” he (perhaps rightly) imagines the white world considers him.

In essence, Miss Emma wants Grant to teach Jefferson how to die.

What follows is a highly watchable, highly compelling duet, a series of confrontations between Grant and Jefferson that leave both of them questioning their worth as human beings, that leave both of them searching for a place in the spectrum of humanity that is 1948 south. And the remarkable thing about this story is that it is Grant who ends up learning more from Jefferson about what it means to live, if only for a few more days.

And it all leads up to one of the most stunningly theatrical executions you are likely to see on stage. It is especially remarkable in that it is done with no actors, but only with set, with light, and with a sound effect that goes on so long we feel as if a thunderbolt has reduced our own bodies to ashes.

Just to be quibbly, I felt the script had some minor missteps. The character of Miss Emma starts the play with a bang, showing us a strong woman who has been such a part of the lives of the white power brokers she can dictate to the Sheriff and his deputy (William S. Murphey and Rich Remedios). But then she disappears from the play except for a few nondescript visits. A preacher (Gordon Danniels) is characterized with a few stereotypical strokes that “stack the deck” against him. And, Grant is given a married lover, Vivian Baptiste, also a teacher, who contributes little to the story overall, and who was portrayed in an unenergetic, monotone-based performance that I found blandly unconvincing.

Still and all, and quibbles aside, director Jill Jane Clements has mounted a production that is as intellectually satisfying as it is emotionally compelling. I really enjoyed the scenes between Grant and Jefferson, really enjoyed how both characters changed and grew, really appreciated how the attitudes of the white jailers changed through the course of the play.

I also enjoyed the effort put into the design, the faded American flag painted on the back wall, the cramped playing area with separate entrances for prisoner and visitor, the cheap neon effects in the barroom scenes between Grant and Vivian, the sound of the leg chains every time Jefferson takes a step.

And I was really moved by the climax, by the slow efficiency with which the Electric Chair is set up, by the strangely peaceful coda in which the deputy reports to Grant, “And then we killed him.” And I was really moved by the final image, an image that reveals everything we need to know about two characters who could so transform their own lives that even death could be faced as an inevitable part of life.

There is much talk about heroism in the play, about what it takes to be a hero. Jefferson becomes a hero with what Grant teaches him. And Grant becomes a hero with how Jefferson touches him.

Will there be a time when quick judgments and political posturing transcend the need for heroism?

Plays like “A Lesson Before Dying” can only remind us that, somewhere, there will always be someone who will report to friends and family, “And then we killed him.”

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


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My own quibbles by tgillesp
Re the statement that 'It is a peculiarly American paradox that a country that is basically designed to "mistrust" government still allows that government to hold the power of life and death over us, and we’re one of the few non-autocratic countries in the world that does so.' -- please note that the power to punish crime with death lays not with the American government, but with the American people (those 12 angry men and women in the jury box). Compared to the forms of government that had served as examples prior to 1787, it is a definite difference, and a definite repudiation of autocracy, but it's no paradox.

Oh, and a quibble with your disclaimer: the ending of the play doesn't merely seem inevitable, it is inevitable... no other ending is possible (for *any* of the characters); if such a play was to be written, no one would be willing to stage it. This is a script that suffers the twin faults of moral didacticism and 'preaching to the choir' -- it attempts to teach us (with 2x4 upside the head) the things that we already know, but since we get to feel good about ourselves for being morally uplifted by the characters' separate journeys to redemption, we leave the theater believing that we've had an honest emotional experience.

It is a stellar opportunity for actors and directors, however. I've not seen this particular production but have participated in a previous production.
My Soul Stirred...
by KeithKNOWS
Thursday, November 6, 2008
4.0
This stage adaptation by Romulus Linney(from the novel by Ernest J. Gaines) directed by Jill Jane Clements is splendidly acted. Tearful sniffles easily outnumbered the snores at Saturday’s show, but "Lesson" is one of those well-done, virtuous shows that inspire both. If you missed the HBO movie or Oprah’s book club, it’s 1948 in Louisana, an innocent young black man named Jefferson has been accused of murder and is destined for the electric chair, of course, he didn’t do it, but who cares, it’s 1948 before the civil rights movement. Jefferson’s lawyer calls him a “hog”, hoping to sway white jurors about his innocent, due to Jefferson’s low self-esteem he believes the lawyer.(Mr. Wiggins) His grade school teacher, recruited by his godmother hopes to educate Jefferson about his sentence and the consequences. Wiggins feels as trapped as Jefferson, he’s a college educated teacher who feels obligated to give back to a community that he hates. "A Lesson Before Dying" is a stirring evening in the theatre, a play that could serve as a fine lesson to young people who might otherwise become latter-day Jeffersons. And if not that, maybe it will encourage them to pick up Mr. Gaines' book. Recommended for age 16 and above, for adult themes and language. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]
Moving work of racial reconciliation
by uppermiddlebrow
Saturday, November 1, 2008
4.0
Superb performances from the leading men make effective theater of this simple story of a black kid sent to the electric chair. Johnell Easter, Eric Little and Rich Remedios captivate their audience. The old cliche "not a dry eye in the house" applies: it is impossible not to be moved by this Lesson.

We seem about to elect a black President, so it is remarkable to look back just 60 years to how it was for rural Southern blacks.

The characters seem at first cartoonish, and the redneck sheriff and pompous preacherman remain so - art mirroring nature? - but the others make dramatic progress. It's a deeply hopeful play for all races. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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