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This Broadway review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the
September 27, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights
Review: `A Lesson Before Dying’
The time is 1948. The place is Bayonne, Louisiana.
An all-white jury has just wrongfully convicted Jefferson, a young
black man, for the murder of a white storekeeper. Jefferson was the
only survivor of a botched armed robbery that also resulted in the
death of his two companions. The sentence — death by electrocution
— is the first to be carried out in this small town where an
sheriff is up for re-election. In Romulus Linney’s engrossing play,
"A Lesson Before Dying," based on the 1993 novel by Ernest
J. Gaines, the confrontations between residents of the town are both
significant and sad. Jefferson’s godmother Emma Glenn is determined
to help him find dignity, meaning, and grace in Jefferson’s life
To this end, she enlists two men who are at odds both spiritually
and philosophically. Grant Wiggins, her atheist, university-educated
nephew, who teaches in the crumbling ill-equipped one-room
believes black men have few choices: to die violently, to be brought
down as beasts, or to run.
The Reverend Moses Ambrose, whose faith has sustained him through
the injustices of a white society, wants only to save the soul of
the barely literate Jefferson. The antagonism that exists between
the two men, to whom Emma has fixed her hopes, and its impact on
is the central issue in a play that emphasizes lessons as redemptive.
Wiggins, frustrated by his own personal problems, is, at first,
to help the uncommunicative Jefferson, who has been reduced to
of himself as a hog. During the first meeting with Jefferson, Wiggins
sees the bitter young man get down on his knees and grunt like a hog,
burying his face in the basket of food his godmother has sent.
has adopted this degrading behavior since being called "a hog"
in court, by his own defense attorney.
Although Wiggins, first reluctantly then purposefully, takes on the
challenge to raise Jefferson’s self-esteem and assert himself as a
man, he also questions whether it is possible for black people to
stand tall in a time and a place where they are considered less than
human. The dramatic adaptation, ripe with symbolism, has Jefferson’s
execution occur eight days after Easter. This story is commendably
confined to an arc that follows Jefferson’s ill-fated imprisonment
to his transcendence as a human being. Kent Thompson’s restrained
direction is further empowered by the cast’s fine performances.
Jamahl Marsh, who has performed at the Crossroads Theater Company’s
Genesis Festival and at Playwrights Theater of New Jersey, makes a
stunning impact as the young man who gradually becomes articulate
as well as proud. Isiah Whitlock Jr. is excellent as the teacher who
is torn between his desire to run and his calling to teach. One of
the play’s most affecting scenes occurs toward the end, when an
Wiggins guides his students through prayer on the day of the
John Henry Redwood bellows with an often humorous fervor, but not
without conviction, as the religiously steadfast Reverend. Redwood,
who is also a playwright, wrote "The Old Settler," which
audiences saw a few seasons back. It is nice to see a sheriff, as
effectively portrayed by Stephen Bradbury, not be portrayed as either
dim-witted or cruel.
Aaron Harpold makes a strong impression as the young deputy who is
also changed for the better by what he sees and hears. As Aunt Emma,
Beatrice Winde is as warm as she is resolute in her goal. Winde also
appeared on the McCarter stage in the premiere of Horton Foote’s
the Estate." Although playing a role that is not particularly
revealing, Tracey Leigh is winning as Vivian, Wiggin’s supportive
girl friend. Like the solid play they support, Marjorie Bradley
settings — the storeroom in the Pointe Coupee Parish Courthouse,
a corner table in a nightclub, and the schoolroom have a forthright
The play launches a 20-month celebration by the Signature Theater
Company, featuring all new works from a selection of the company’s
past Playwrights-in-Residence. Although Gaines wrote this novel in
1993, it received a huge new readership more recently when it became
a selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club. The play is a
of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where it was produced earlier
this year, also under Thompson’s direction. HHH
— Simon Saltzman
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