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.)