A LESSON BEFORE DYINGby Romulus Linney
Based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines
African American Repertory Theater
Director: Regina Washington
Scenic Designer: Kenneth Verdugo
Light Designer: Nikki DeShea Smith
Sound Designer: Bear Hamilton
Costume Designer: Regina Washington
Emma Glen: Irma P. Hall
Grant Wiggins: Jermel Nakia
Jefferson: Jason Williams
Sheriff Guidry: Bill Jenkins
Vivian Baptiste: Rachel Webb
Paul Bonin: Jack O'Donnell
Reverend Moses Ambrose: Jerrold Trice
Children Voices: Amber Terrace Elementary School Students
Reviewed Performance: 4/7/2013
Reviewed by Elaine Plybon, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The play is set in 1940s Louisiana, well before the civil rights movement began. The action begins shortly after a young man named Jefferson has been sentenced to death in the electric chair for murder. It is a crime he did not commit and his godmother, Miss Emma Glen, becomes determined that he will "die like a man". She enlists the help of another man she mentored, Grant Wiggins, who is a teacher at a plantation, to meet with Jefferson and give him lessons on how to die.
As I walked into the theater, I was immediately impressed with the efforts of scenic designer, Kenneth Verdugo. The proscenium stage effectively encompassed three separate areas. Stage left housed the Rainbow Lounge, a small club with a beaded curtain at its entrance. Immediately next to the club were a small desk, a few old-fashioned student chairs, and a small chalkboard on the wall next to an American flag. The remainder of the stage represented a storage room at the courthouse with an eclectic mix of boxes, chairs, and even a buttermilk churn. It was in this storage room where most of the action would take place, as it was used as a makeshift visitor room for people to meet with Jefferson in his final days. Across the top of the wall were words projected that revealed the setting "Bayonne, Louisiana, 1948". The effort that was put into the design of these spaces was evident and all of the space was used efficiently and realistically.
The next item that caught my attention was the playbill. Reading the bios of not only the cast but also the crew was an indicator of the quality of the show to come. Each person working in this production comes with ample experience to be an integral part of the play. As I read the playbill, the director moved through the audience, handing out tissues. This was very much appreciated by the end of the show.
The role of Miss Emma is played by Irma Hall, who is one of the founding members of the African American Repertory Company. Ms. Hall has had a notable career in film, television, and on stage, having won awards for her role in the movie Ladykillers with Tom Hanks, and having appeared in the television version of A Lesson Before Dying, among other credits. Her style was assured and natural. Every time she was on stage, I leaned forward a little in my seat to take in the nuances of her performance. From the pain in her eyes, to the tone of her voice, and the mannerisms appropriately seen in Miss Emma, Hall expertly set the tone for each scene she graced. I only wish this play had more of Miss Emma. I have had the opportunity to see Hall on stage before, and her appearance alone makes this play worth seeing.
As if that weren't enough, this production had so much more to offer. Costuming by Regina Washington, also the Director, was period and spot-on. Miss Emma consistently wore dresses, shoes, coats, and hats that were both period and age-appropriate. Grant Wiggins, the professor, wore scholarly attire such as a double-breasted suit, and slacks and sweaters. Jefferson wore believable prison garb, and Vivian Baptiste, the love interest of Wiggins, was in a different dress of the period every time she was on stage. This attention to detail was impressive.
Music before the show began consisted of period jazz selections, reminiscent of the location in Louisiana, with a definite New Orleans feel having trumpets and saxophones prevalent. Sound Designer, Bear Hamilton, also enhanced the culminating feature of the evening, the execution, with special effects that brought an uneasy feeling to the audience as we understood the finality of what we were hearing. The use of an elementary school class to provide the soundtrack for the pledge of allegiance, sans the words "under God", was a nice touch.
All of the cast were superb. The flow of the action was smooth and coordinated. The effortless integration into each line revealed the chemistry between this well-chosen cast. Director Regina Washington deserved special recognition for her ability to bring together such a talented group of actors who worked so well together.
Jermel Nakia, in the role of Grant Wiggins, deftly portrayed the troubled teacher, struggling with his own purpose and goals in life, who Miss Emma brings in to help Jefferson. Nakia's performance was very well done, as we watched Wiggins move from a somewhat agitated, reluctant participant to a man searching for meaning in life. His line "I don't know how a man should live, who am I to tell a man how to die?" established this character's purpose in one line. As Nakia moved through his role, it was clear he had spent a lot of time developing an understanding of this character and it was his expert performance that made the true meaning of this play understandable and clear.
Jefferson, played by Jason Williams, is a difficult character to portray. Half of the time he was on stage, Williams was tasked with portraying a man waiting to die, with very few lines. His mannerisms and especially his facial expressions were meaningful and relevant, making the turmoil within this character very clear. As I watched the transition of this man, from broken-down inmate to proud man, the skill of Williams was very clear.
Jack O'Donnell had the role of Paul Bonin, the prison guard. He was on stage most of the time, although rarely a part of the action, as he sat in a corner reading period magazines when people came to visit Jefferson. Roles like this are sometimes the hardest because they require an actor to remain in character with very little assistance from dialogue or action. O'Donnell did a wonderful job of staying in character and his performance in the final scene was a nice surprise, as he gave the audience a deeper insight into the character.
Vivian Baptiste, a young mother who is separated from her husband, was played by Rachel Webb. Webb's performance was confident and strong. Her ability to move from anger to compassion was especially notable.
The Reverend Moses Ambrose was portrayed by Jerrold Trice. Trice had moments when he gave the audience strong representations of the traditional fire and brimstone preacher. His interactions, especially with Wiggins, were natural and fierce, as the character clearly felt powerless to change the events that were unfolding.
Bill Jenkins, playing Sheriff Guidry, was appropriately unlikeable, yet human. We don't want to like a man who is going to ultimately be responsible for another's death, but Jenkins' performance gave us insight into this character that included a resignation to his own part in what was happening.
A Lesson Before Dying has many lessons for all of us, and this production does an excellent job of providing the details of a time gone by while encouraging reflection on our own society today. The African American Repertory Theater is deserving of recognition for their continuing commitment to quality theater. I strongly suggest the drive to DeSoto to see the efforts of this talented cast and crew.
The Corner Theater, 211 East Pleasant Run, DeSoto, Texas 75115
Plays through April 28th
Shows are Friday - Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Saturday - Sunday matinee at 2:30 pm.
Tickets are $20.00 for evening shows, & $25.00 for matinees.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.aareptheater.com. You can also purchase at the door, or by calling the box office at 972-572-0998.