A Lesson Before Dying
By Romulus Linney based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Produced by Round House Theatre
Reviewed by Tamera Izlar
Read Debbie Minter Jackson’s companion report Race, Injustice, Healing and Hope
The elegant Round House Theatre, with its courteous, friendly front of house staff, did little to prepare me for the cold, raw desperation contained in playwright Romulus Linney’s world of Bayonne, Louisiana, 1948.
Jefferson, a young African-American man, received the death penalty for a crime he did not commit. Desperate to sway a group of all white jurors, his attorney called him a hog. Awaiting execution, Jefferson refers to himself as a hog. Teacher Grant Wiggins will be called on to help educate this young man before his death.
Two massive freestanding brick walls framed the stage. Draped behind one entrance was a larger than life image of Jefferson. Chairs, tables, and file cabinets were upstage left and down stage right. An American flag was placed haphazardly on top of the clutter upstage left. Center stage was a simple wooden desk, behind which teacher Wiggins (KenYatta Rogers) was seated as we entered. His gaze was penetrating, thoughtful, provoking, and at times disapproving.
The lights dimmed, and a brief image alerted us to the year and location. Jefferson’s godmother, Emma Gleen (Beverly A. Cosham), immediately set the stage and the conflict. Before Jefferson faces execution, she wanted Mr. Wiggins to teach him.
Grant Wiggins does not believe he has the wisdom or power to teach Jefferson (Shane Taylor) how to die as a man. We see his internal struggle clearly in Rogers’ adept hands. Throughout the production, he accurately captured the intensive frustrations and eye-opening discoveries of Grant Wiggins. In dialect, he executed his emotions and intentions clearly. A veteran actor, Rogers was able to encapsulate Mr. Wiggins articulately and realistically.
The contrast between Jefferson and Grant Wiggins was impeccable. Dressed in a suit and tie, he spoke about the pandemonium of the school system and candidly discussed his students whom he hated teaching. The educated teacher’s articulation was crisp.
In contrast, Jefferson’s voice was emotional, and thick; his choice of words was lax. Wearing handcuffs, he looked and behaved like a caged animal. Dropping to the floor to devour chicken and biscuits like a hog, his movements were wild and intense. His anger and feelings of blatant injustice brought tears to my eyes. Initially, Jefferson faced the daunting task of shielding everyone from his pain and confusion. Later, he had to release his invisible shield to embrace family and friendship. Mr. Taylor understood the intricate units and beats within the script. As a result, Jefferson is multifaceted and intense. As he moved from a young man angry about life to a young man seeking to learn, discover, and express himself, his tone and movements became lighter and his articulation more pronounced.
Together the performances of KenYatta Rogers and Shawn Taylor were absolutely compelling.
Rachel Leslie (Vivan Baptiste) was equally as compelling. When she enters the storeroom to visit Jefferson, she simply radiates. Doug Brown played the Rev. Ambrose with conviction and compassion. I truly felt his urgent and honest fight for Jefferson’s soul salvation. Jeremy Brown played Paul Bonin, the officer who followed orders yet always believed Jefferson was innocent. His silent observation was active; when he spoke, his character’s motives were clear and well executed. Lawrence Redmond as Sheriff Sam Guidry, was shockingly effective. His character represented the collective minds which imprisoned Jefferson, yet he himself had a moment of compassion.
Director Timothy Douglas developed a canvas in which we could connect aided by Tony Cisek’s set design. Most notably, the limited entrances and exits articulated Jefferson’s feelings of being physically and mentally held hostage and one small window symbolized the vast blue calmness just out of reach, a constant reminder of beauty, hope and salvation. Subtleties in lighting, designed by Dan Covey, aided the play’s transformations, particularly the shadow of a fan spinning slowing overhead in the Rainbow Club and three large windows on the school room’s center wall. Sound designer Jonathan R. Herter, masterfully integrated sound within and throughout the production in ways that both commented and punctuated the action.
Director Douglas effectively engaged the audiences’ imaginations. We lived with the characters and empathized with them. We felt Jefferson’s imprisonment. We watched him step out of his cell without seeing a single cell door open. We symbolically watched Jefferson die and yet live. A modern classic, A Lesson before Dying is visually, aurally, psychologically, and emotionally breathtaking.
A Lesson Before Dying continues through October 14th at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesday, MD 20814. Performances are Wed at 7:30 pm, Thurs thru Sat at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets: $10 – $60 available online or call 240-644-1100.
– Editor’s note: Our thanks to guest reviewer, Tamera Izlar, a professor of Theatre at Howard University.
Debbie Minter Jackson attended the community dialog session sparked b this play and filed a companion report Race, Injustice, Healing and Hope