Review: Detroit Repertory Theatre’s Production of “A Lesson Before Dying”

Poster for a lesson before dying, text and a silhouette of a man behind bars

Have you ever watched something that made you feel plugged into something larger than yourself? Has a work of art ever made you feel brand new and reflective about your shortcomings all at the same time? Have you seen something lately that made you feel inspired and lucky that you were alive to witness it? After spending this past Friday viewing the Detroit Repertory Theatre’s production of “A Lesson Before Dying,” in the words of Beyonce “All I can say is YES!”

This beautifully acted play exploring the hardships facing blacks in the 1940s was directed by Barbara Busby (a woman!), written by Romulus Linney (who sadly passed this month), and is an adaptation of the Pulitzer-Prize-nominated book by Ernest Gaines. Set in Bayonne, Louisiana, the play is about the struggle to preserve the dignity of Jefferson, a black man who is wrongfully convicted of murder. During the trial, Jefferson’s lawyer argues that Jefferson is subhuman, a hog, and incapable of coming up with such a scheme. While these labels have a debilitating effect on Jefferson, Bayonne’s black residents also take this defense to heart and develop a stake in seeing themselves and Jefferson as equals with whites. Thus, Jefferson’s aunt, Miss Emma, tasks Grant, an atheist school teacher, with the role of helping her nephew restore his dignity and to overcome the self-hatred drummed into his skull during the Jim Crow era and made explicit during the trial proceedings.

As the play unfolds, the most prominent theme worth mentioning is the role of strong black women. Along with Miss Emma being a catalyst for Jefferson’s change, the play also includes Vivian, Grant’s partner. When Grant is first tasked by Miss Emma to help Jefferson, Grant tries to convince Vivian that they should flee town. Instead Vivian is the voice of reason and stresses that Grant has to fulfill a responsibility to his community by helping Jefferson. She also explains that she cannot flee because her two children from a previous marriage are in Bayonne. Although it is made more explicit in the book than the play, women were legally bound to be within visiting distance of their ex-spouse after a divorce. Vivian’s dialogue exposes the hardships women faced during this era and provides an opportunity to challenge black men who flee their responsibilities. Grant being called to order is truly something to see. The result is that he responds favorably to Vivian’s tough love and it gives him the courage to aid an oppressed black man in his final hours.

So, if you are in the Detroit, Michigan area, put this on your calendar. The play is showing through March 20, 2011.

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