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The Justice Theater Project opened its 2015-16 season with Romulus Linney's adaptation of a novel by Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson before Dying. The play is presented at the St. Francis of Assisi Church on Leesville Road. Directed by artistic director Deb Royals, Lesson is an examination of racial bigotry in mid-20th century Louisiana, where an innocent young black man is found guilty of murder by a jury of twelve white men.
Realizing the futility of his defense, the attorney who is trying to keep young Jefferson alive refers to him as a hog. Jefferson decides that, if this is so, he will behave like one; and he will be dragged to his execution like one. Linney uses a mere seven characters to present his play, which centers on trying to teach young Jefferson how to die like a man.
Jefferson (Gil Faison) has more than a few friends in this Louisiana Parrish. His godmother, Emma Glenn (Rhetta Greene), frets over her godson's behavior and obtains the aid of the local black teacher, Grant Wiggins (Joseph Callender), to try to instill in Jefferson some sense of personal dignity. Wiggins agrees reluctantly, both because of his own ambivalence and the fact that Jefferson himself wants none of it. The young prisoner is adamant that he will die like a hog, and resists vehemently any attempt to tell him otherwise.
The Law is represented here by Sheriff Sam Guidry (Michael Lester) and Deputy Paul Bonin (Sean Wellington). Bonin, although he keeps it to himself, feels personally that Jefferson is innocent. He is, therefore, kinder to Jefferson than is the sheriff, who sees Jefferson only as a duty. The local pastor, Rev. Moses Ambrose (Juan Isler), is trying to lead Jefferson to God in order to save his soul. He sees Wiggins as an impediment; Wiggins has no such beliefs. He only wishes to get his charge to show some signs of self-respect. It is a wickedly difficult thing to do; Wiggins is faced with anger and derision from the sheriff, from the pastor, and most of all from Jefferson himself. Wiggins seeks the aid of his fiancée, Vivian Baptiste (Connie McCoy Rogers), herself a teacher and the only person who believes in her fiancée and what he is trying to do.
Royals stages this play on a set that is designed to show several different locales: the courthouse, Wiggins' classroom, a bar where Wiggins meets Vivian, and an outdoor locale where he meets the pastor. The whole is crammed into an extremely small space, with the audience almost literally in the laps of the characters onstage. The small set makes for some difficult staging; when several people are onstage the traffic patterns become noticeable, and there is very little room to work. But this cast overcomes the cramped quarters and gives a tremendous performance. We are drawn into what is happening onstage; we sense the struggle within Wiggins as he fights both with himself and with Jefferson, who is slowly brought about by his friend's efforts. The whole is an in-your-face, no-holds-barred depiction of impending death, and it is impossible for us to escape.
Callender plays Wiggins as a man at war with himself; every fiber of his being tells him to flee, to escape this place so brutally ruled by the white man. But everyone around him is telling him to stay, to teach, to instill in his students the will to stand and fight. It is what he tries to bring to Jefferson, that will to fight – to go even unto death with dignity and courage. By the time it is execution day, Jefferson has learned his lesson well, and dies with grace.
A Lesson Before Dying was the first play staged by the troupe that would become the Justice Theater Project, back in 2004. The show depicts the cruel reality of backcountry justice and the plight of the black man in mid-20th century America. This play is brutal and stunning, and there is no place to hide. The final minutes of this play are riveting; there was not a sound from this audience until the actors appeared for curtain calls. Deb Royals and her company have created a tour-de-force, a work that shows grace in the face of adversity, and dignity in the face of death. It is an anthem for the Black Man, for the individual; and a banner against the death penalty, so racially slanted and horrifying. The Justice Theatre Project has recreated a play for the ages, a play that screams for the rights of Man and rails against the injustice of institutional killing.
The play continues through Oct. 24. For details, see the sidebar.