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The theater will put on the play, based on Ernest J. Gaines’ tragic novel, in observance of Black History Month.
Courtesy of Patrick Kennerly
The cast of Showtimers’ “A Lesson Before Dying” includes (from left) James Wise Jr. as Grant, Tim Kennard as Deputy Paul, William Penn as the Rev. Ambrose, Barbara Sanders as Emma Glenn and Mike Johnson as Jefferson.
Lacy Ward Jr.
Saturday, February 9, 2013
Thousands in the Roanoke Valley, many of them school children, read Ernest J. Gaines’ tragic novel of racism and injustice, “A Lesson Before Dying,” in early 2010 as part of The Big Read , a community reading effort led by Roanoke Valley Reads.
Starting Wednesday, Showtimers Community Theatre will bring the novel to life on stage in honor of Black History Month — the first time the 62-year-old theater has put on a play for the observance, said show director Patrick Kennerly.
The play is one of several Black History Month events happening this month in Roanoke and at Virginia Tech.
Kennerly took part in a reading of the theater adaptation of “A Lesson Before Dying” at Studio Roanoke during The Big Read. “I just fell in love with the play. You can’t really watch that play without being affected by it,” he said.
So last summer Kennerly — a veteran of many past Showtimers’ productions — suggested the play to the Showtimers board. It will be the theater’s season’s opener for 2013.
Adapted by Romulus Linney, the play closely follows Gaines’ story of a poor black man falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to die, and rival mentors — a minister and a school teacher — who influence how he will live out his remaining days.
Burton Center for Arts and Technology engineering teacher Mike Johnson plays the condemned man, Jefferson; Roanoke jazz musician William Penn portrays the Rev. Moses Ambrose; and James Wise Jr. has the lead role as Grant Wiggins, a teacher in a segregated school for black students.
“This is the first play I’ve done that’s been a major drama,” Penn said. “I love the story. All the characters have a lot to say.”
Kennerly acknowledged that it’s not typical Showtimers fare.
“It is a very nitty-gritty, earthy story,” he said.
The play illustrates life under the Jim Crow laws. “It can let people know how far everybody has come in America, not just black people,” Penn said.
Kennerly hopes the Roanoke County community theater will tackle more plays such as this one.
“As a member of Showtimers for quite a few years, I want to help Showtimers make this transition, to become more than just a theatre of light comedy and musicals,” he said.
He’d like to see Showtimers fill the void left when Studio Roanoke folded last year and take on more new plays and controversial subjects alongside the lighter productions.
Show times are 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Feb. 17, 8 p.m. Feb. 20-23, 2 p.m. Feb. 24. Tickets $12; ages 18 and under $5. For more information call 774-2660 or visit Showtimers.org.
Kennerly noted that the play contains strong language, and recommends it for high school juniors and older.
Other Roanoke events
Though not specifically tied to Black History Month, the History Museum of Western Virginia’s “History Is Served” fundraiser, to be held at noon Feb. 17 in Hotel Roanoke’s Crystal Ballroom, features guest speaker Christy Coleman, president and CEO of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar in Richmond, whose talk is titled “Road to Emancipation: From Proclamation to 13th Amendment.” Her talk ties into the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Tickets are $75, reserve by Wednesday. Call 224-1206 for more information.
The History Museum’s regular lecture series for this month will feature Lacy Ward Jr., director of Farmville’s Robert Russa Moton Museum, which commemorates the role Prince Edward County played in ending public school segregation. The lecture happens 7 p.m. Feb. 26 in Christ Lutheran Church at 2011 Brandon Ave. S.W. in Roanoke. Admission $5, museum members and students free. For more information call 224-1206, email email@example.com or visit www.vahistorymuseum.org/.
“Showtime at The Dumas” starts 6 p.m. Feb. 24 in the Dumas Center at 108 First St. N.W. in Roanoke. The musical program will honor the career of Roanoke blues singer Jane Powell. A silent auction will benefit a foundation that memorializes Roanoke bass player Clifton “Boodie” Staples. Tickets $20-$35. For more information call 323-362-2094 or visit 3gsblackhistoryevent.eventbrite.com.
Virginia Tech events
Virginia Tech is hosting several free Black History Month events, overseen by the university’s libraries. At 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday the Newman Library will screen the following documentaries in its second-floor classroom:
At 1 p.m. Feb. 20 in the Newman Library’s commons, special collections librarian Kira Dietz will discuss the influence of black cooking on American cuisine, and Landscape Architecture Program director Brian Katen will show how segregation in Virginia affected recreation.
On Feb. 21, same time and place, history professor Daniel Thorp will share his research into Montgomery County’s black history.
Starting 9 a.m. Feb. 26 the library will host a read-a-thon of “The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead, a novel about the first black elevator inspector in an unnamed city resembling New York.
Additionally, 7 p.m. Tuesday in Squires Colonial Hall, the Black Student Alliance will present a free show by Free Verse, a performance poetry group. A reception follows at 8 to 9 p.m. in the Black Cultural Center, 126 Squires Student Center.
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