Since their positions on education are of blaring interest to Al Gore and George W. Bush, both of the presidential candidates might want to turn themselves into walking promotion campaigns for Romulus Linney's A Lesson Before Dying. The play, which makes a bold and moving statement about the link between learning and dignity, is an adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines' book of the same title, which won the 1993 National Book Critics Circle Award. Yes, members of whose-ever constituency, here's a vote-getting narrative that says in no uncertain terms: It's not power, not position, not clothes that makes the man. It's education.
Gaines' story, which Linney simplifies for the stage but doesn't alter in any radical way, takes place in Bayonne, Louisiana in 1948. A young black named Jefferson has been wrongly sentenced to death for murdering a white man--he was a witness to the crime, but didn't commit it. At the trial, the defending attorney, thinking to draw on the jury's mercy, says his client doesn't deserve to die because he really has no more sense of what's transpiring than a hog would.
The cruel comparison sends Jefferson into a depression that the woman who raised him, the wise and hard Emma Glenn, thinks to end. Her plan is to encourage a teacher, Grant Wiggins, to visit Jefferson in jail during the weeks before he is electrocuted. She hopes that Grant, the first black in the area to attend college and to do so on contributions from his people, will lead Jefferson to see he's a man and not the beast he's been informed he is.
Though Grant accedes to Tante Emma's supplications, he expects to make no headway. He's a man who has lost hope in improving his community's prospects, and is therefore suffering from a spiritual depression he hopes to conquer by getting out of town once and for all. This in spite of a love affair he's carrying on with Vivian, a mulatto divorcee and teacher, who won't accept his defeat.
As Gaines constructs his tale, Grant slowly gets through to Jefferson; the latter eventually reaches the point where he's logging his feelings and observations in a notepad. Even more importantly, Jefferson--though still condemned to the chair--gets through to Wiggins. The teacher, who finds himself being taught by his pupil, comes to see what his mission in his hometown is and must remain. In other words, Gaines' seemingly straight-forward title refers to two exchanged lessons. Actually, it refers to more than two, since Grant's maturation affects the other involved participants--most notably, a preacher who learns something about where the soul is truly located, and Deputy Paul Bonin, who silently watches the unfolding events and is transformed by them.
Although Gaines' invocation of the word "lesson" implies a moralistic tone (which, truth to tell, is there between the lines), he lodges the potent message in a stunning story. His artistry is such that he doesn't simply moralize; he doesn't see things in, well, black and white. He's onto the complex weaknesses and strengths of his dramatis personae. He's especially aware--and, by implication, sympathetically judgmental--of the discrepancies in the attitudes of blacks towards each other. At one point, for instance, Wiggins gets into a barroom brawl with two light-skinned men who've been obstreperously complaining about Jefferson's behavior being detrimental to all Negroes. (Gaines has set his story in the parish where he was a young man, and carefully employs the terms used then.)
Ultimately, the action Gaines depicts is at odds with literary examinations carried out by many other African-Americans on the subject of how second-class citizenship is indisputably scarring. In many works wherein black anger and frustration is delineated, the denouement involves wholesale psychological and physical self-destruction: When there's nowhere else to turn, blacks destroy each other. As a contrast, Gaines--whose theme might be said to be Minority Uplift--creates a dramatic yet realistic environment in which oppressed parties are able to improve themselves and, at the same time, improve the climate for some of those (read whites) oppressing them (read: whites).
Linney does a creditable job placing Gaines' gripping story within the proscenium. Most significantly, he loses none of the emotional impact of the tale. Those not touched as opposing figures come to accept or change each other's viewpoints are hard-hearted, indeed. The rapprochements that occur as Jefferson decides not to be dragged to his end but to walk his last steps make humane points. Everything Emma Glenn insists must happen does happen. And Linney is scrupulous in demonstrating that, though Jefferson must die, a kind of basic goodness prevails in the face of painfully compromised justice. (A late scene in which Tante Emma brings a last dinner to Jefferson hits more plangent chords than a Beethoven sonata.) Linney's handling of the execution--a crude electric chair is placed center stage; sound and lighting effects do the rest--is exceedingly skillful.
Though the dramatist's accomplishments aren't total, this production's deficiencies may be traced more to budget exigencies in today's theater than to the veteran Linney's limitations. His adaptation was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (which is presenting it in Manhattan with the Signature Theatre Company). It's very likely the folks there asked Linney to take a story featuring Gaines' varied people and places and trim it to seven characters and four locales: the prison day room, which takes up most of the stage; a stage-left restaurant table where Grant and Vivian meet; a stage-right schoolroom desk; and a center-stage courthouse bench. This stripped-down design is Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's, and maybe she could have found a better solution for the problems she was given. (Or, maybe not.)
Whatever, Gaines' tale is intact, if somehow compressed. That Grant's students are gone (the audience represents them) matters only when a scene in which they call on Jefferson has to be described rather than enacted. That Grant and Vivian, who have a sex life troubled only by their different visions of his future, spend so much time confined to one side of the stage is damaging, as is the loss of a handful of other people Gaines uses to demonstrate the myriad ways in which prejudice subtly warps the social fabric. Linney has kept the basics but, in keeping them, has come up with a Reader's Digest version of Gaines's novel--an odd outcome for a play that champions reading and writing.
(N. B.: Last year A Lesson Before Dying was turned into an award-winning HBO movie, directed by Joseph Sargent and featuring Don Cheadle, Cecily Tyson, and Irma P. Hall. The economics of film allowed for many more actors and sites, which means this version--available now on videocassette and, thus, in competition with any theatrical presentation of the play--is able to include more of Gaines' action. For instance, the children's trip to see Jefferson is shown. The movie, however, misses out on some aspects that Linney stresses so meaningfully, such as the deputy's weighty presence and the final dinner for four over which Jefferson presides.)
The troupe of actors that director Kent Thompson (who's also the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's artistic director) has collected do superlative duty under his steady hand. Isiah Whitlock Jr., stocky and solid, plays Grant Wiggins as a man fired by fury and his own short-sightedness. Jamahl Marsh doesn't miss any of the transitions to an enlightened citizen made by a youth who starts out deliberately honking over his meal like the hog he's been told he is. Beatrice Winde's Emma Glenn is equal parts steely determination, gauzy bafflement, and three-ply love. Possibly the subtlest performance is turned in by Aaron Harpold, who, as the deputy, has little to say and so must make every sidelong glance and closed-mouth thought count. When he finally gets to speak his late piece--recounting to Grant how Jefferson acquitted himself at the end--he is the embodiment of compassion. Stephen Bradbury, Tracey A. Leigh,and John Henry Redwood also have just the right handle on their roles.
In A Lesson Before Dying, it's Ernest J. Gaines's intention to see that a crucial syllabus is covered. To their credit, Romulus Linney, Kent Thompson and his cast guarantee that the essentials are taught--and taut.