A Lesson Before Dying Sparks Community Dialog
by Debbie Minter Jackson
The final session of a four-part series organized at Round House Theater explored “race, social justice, and other issues in the play” and involved a stellar panel of presenters – John C. Brittain, preeminent lawyer in the field of civil rights and social justice, Montgomery County Executive the Honorable Ike Leggett, and brilliant director Timothy Douglas and was moderated by renowned scholar, writer, NPR feature news reporter, Juan Williams.
Round House Artistic Director Blake Robison kicked off this new season Sunday night, September 23rd, on a serious no-nonsense note trusting that the theater community will rise to his challenge. Judging by the turn out, he has met his match in a community that recognizes how theater can express aspects of our lives with almost inexplicable power. Organized before the racially charged incidents in Jena, Louisiana exploded on the national scene, the panel was an ideal setting to help understand the basic elements that have been smoldering in such places for years. Also quite telling and timely is that this week marks the fiftieth anniversary since Federal troops escorted black students to an all white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. At a recent commemoration, Terrence Roberts, one of the nine students, says the struggles over race and segregation still remain unresolved.
In addition to discussing race and the criminal justice (sometimes injustice) system, the panelists expounded on such themes as the emotional truths portrayed in the play “A Lesson Before Dying,” the characters’ journeys towards self awareness, the role of class and education, and the often under-appreciated roles of women as nurturers, caregivers, and even life savers. County Executive Leggett was touchingly forthcoming in sharing how details in the play mirrored his own life, born one of 13 children in a small town in Louisiana, not far from and not unlike the little backwater 1940’s town depicted in the play. Brittain also shared his early experiences as a student of Thurgood Marshall with a first assignment in Mississippi working as a public defender dealing with an infamous noose hung outside his door to intimidate. Timothy Douglas seemed to channel all of these reflections, mass recollections and experiences in his masterful directing-one of his many staging ideas that sparked life and vitality into the play was keeping the main character on stage most of the time, even from being wrapped up in an old burlap sack or asleep like a dog under the table. Watching the physical metamorphosis of the character Jefferson from crouching cast-off despondent victim to the writing, caring, giving person facing his impending and yes, unjust execution, is a theatrical wonder. To have the opportunity to hear from some of the most creative and socially involved leaders discuss the issues that created the premise of the play was a treasure.
The theatrical stars seem to be aligned this year with the selection of gripping pieces that deal with the racial divide nationally and internationally, e.g. My Children! My Africa! at Studio Theater and this amazing “Lesson” at Round House Theater. Credit goes to the Artistic Directors of these theaters in taking such bold steps to acknowledge the need to know the history of bigotry and injustice to make way for truth, healing and hope.