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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.
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Showtimers Community Theatre kicks off its 2013 season with a powerful performance of “A Lesson Before Dying,” a tragic play of dignity in the face of injustice.
The play, written by Romulus Linney and based on the eponymous Ernest J. Gaines’ 1993 novel , tells the story of Jefferson, a young black man in 1940s Louisiana, facing execution for a murder he witnessed but did not commit.
Resigned to the inevitability of Jefferson’s fate, Miss Emma, his godmother and surrogate parent, wants to help him face the terrifying end of his life with dignity , something that was not afforded him during his poorly defended trial.
She recruits Grant Wiggins, the teacher at the plantation school, to help Jefferson. Wiggins, whom the black community of Bayonne, La., helped put through college, is less than enthusiastic about the task. His jailhouse visits include enduring the condescension of the smug white sheriff with humility and finding an unwilling and confrontational student in the poorly educated and clearly frightened Jefferson.
Wiggins himself is torn between what he sees as the futility of trying to make a difference, both in his daily classroom and his pilgrimages to the jail, and his desire to escape to a better life away from the bigotry of the Deep South. As a non-believer, Wiggins is also constantly at odds with Reverend Ambrose, whose sole purpose in ministering to the condemned prisoner is to save Jefferson’s soul.
Despite the dark topic of this play (the novel was also chosen as a community Big Read book in early 2010 by Roanoke Valley Reads), there are moments that are tender, funny and inevitably, heartbreaking .
The talented cast, which received an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end of the nearly sold-out opening night performance on Wednesday, brings depth and humanity to these complex characters.
Actor Mike Johnson is brilliant in his portrayal of the doomed Jefferson, taking the character from a state of frenzied fear to quiet and grace and courage. James Wise Jr. is outstanding as Wiggins, a man whose frustration boils just below a surface of civility in a world he sees as inherently unfair.
Barbara Sanders brings a maternal ferocity and steely determination to her role as Miss Emma; William Penn takes the audience to church as the bombastic minister and Aisha Mitchell, as Wiggins’ girlfriend Vivian, provides a steadfast moral compass to guide the teacher’s path.
Fine performances are also delivered by Tim Kennard and Barry Bedwell as the deputy and the sheriff, respectively — members of the white establishment who are also transformed during Jefferson’s tragic journey.
Director Patrick Kennerly has his actors make use of the entire stage, drawing the audience into the emotional drama.
“A Lesson Before Dying,” chosen by the company in observance of Black History Month, is a compelling look at what it means to be a hero, to face even the most unjust situations with grace, and is inevitably a tale of redemption and inspiration.
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