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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

reserved.

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

unsympathetic

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

before

he dies.

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

schoolhouse,

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

Jefferson,

is the central issue in a play that emphasizes lessons as redemptive.

Wiggins, frustrated by his own personal problems, is, at first,

reluctant

to help the uncommunicative Jefferson, who has been reduced to

thinking

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.

Jefferson

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

enlightened

Wiggins guides his students through prayer on the day of the

execution.

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

McCarter

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

"Dividing

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

Kellogg’s

settings — the storeroom in the Pointe Coupee Parish Courthouse,

a corner table in a nightclub, and the schoolroom have a forthright

simplicity.

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

co-production

of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where it was produced earlier

this year, also under Thompson’s direction. HHH

— Simon Saltzman

A Lesson Before Dying, Signature Theater Company at Peter

Norton Space, 555 West 42 Street, New York, 212-244-7529. $47.50.

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