There I was at Prime Stage Theatre’s production of Ernest J. Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying, swimming in tears, thinking that the last time I’d cried so painfully was the 1974 TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. It wasn’t until I visited the web I discovered that Gaines wrote that, too. What did I ever do to him?
Lesson is based on a 1993 novel set in the Deep South. It’s 1948 and a young black man, Jefferson, an innocent bystander at a murder scene, is arrested, charged and sentenced to death. His court-appointed lawyer, in a very backward attempt to spare Jefferson’s life, asks what justice would there be in killing him? “I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this,” he tells the jury.
- Photo courtesy of Laura Slovesko
- Left to right: Wali Jamal, Lamont Walker II, Tracey D. Turner and LaMar Darnell Fields in A Lesson Before Dying, at Prime Stage
His godmother, Emma, is determined to help Jefferson reclaim his dignity and arranges to have Grant Wiggins, a black teacher, talk with him in the weeks leading to his execution. The interaction between the two men forms the bulk of the action.
Playwright Romulus Linney has crafted a very strong adaptation of Gaines’ novel, which plays out theatrically, rather than just a book-on-stage. And Richard Keitel has directed the Prime Stage production with a gripping feel for the material and the storytelling. Avoiding the trap of Presenting Big Themes, his actors instead play their roles with a simple naturalism that, ultimately, illuminates those themes. A Lesson Before Dying is an inexorable, almost relentless, journey to a staggering, heartbreaking ending; Keitel and company make that journey as human as possible.
Lamont Walker II, as Jefferson, gives an amazing performance as a boy on the verge of manhood discovering a world that, cruelly, is just about to be taken away. LaMar Darnell Fields makes us understand the hugely conflicted emotions pulling at Wiggins. Tracey D. Turner and Wali Jamal powerfully portray adults seeking to save Jefferson, and Hope Marie Anthony is a clear-headed presence as Wiggins’ girlfriend. Everett Lowe and Erik Martin find subtlety and nuance in two characters which, in lesser hands, could have been cartoons.
Go … and take Kleenex.