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Hard to say what’s more moving about A Lesson Before Dying at the H Street Playhouse: the growth of the young man at the center of Romulus Linney’s drama or the growth of the stage troupe that’s brought him to life.
Start with the kid. Jefferson (G. Alverez Reid) is strapping, innocent, and doomed from the moment he arrives on stage. He’s in shackles, having been sentenced to the electric chair for a murder he did not commit, and because he’s black, poor, and living in Louisiana in 1948, there’s not the slightest chance that anything about his situation will change before he is executed.
What’s haunting him, though, even more than the death sentence itself, is something that was said in the courtroom. His defense lawyer, sensing that the jury was about to convict his client, snapped in exasperation that he’d “sooner see a hog die in that chair,” and Jefferson has not merely fixated on the notion that he’s been called a hog but also begun acting like one in his cell. He grunts when spoken to, refuses to eat the food his godmother, Miss Emma (JoAnn M. Williams), brings him unless it’s corn (“Hogs eat corn”), and swears he’ll be dragged to his execution kicking and squealing.
This would be a matter of supreme indifference to the local sheriff, but Miss Emma is unwilling to let her godson be degraded by a white society that values his life not at all. Knowing she cannot change Jefferson’s fate, she endeavors to change the manner in which he faces it, by getting a disillusioned local schoolteacher, Grant Wiggins (Jefferson A. Russell), to tutor her godson in the art of “dying with dignity.”
As crafted in 1993 by novelist Ernest J. Gaines and eloquently adapted by Linney, this story of a man without beliefs teaching a man to believe in himself blends the simplicity of a biblical tale with a bracingly complex understanding of America’s racial history. Gaines (who also wrote The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) grew up on a Louisiana plantation during the Depression and has spent much of his career documenting life in rural black communities. In A Lesson Before Dying, he addresses not just the cruelties of the Jim Crow era but also the pressures that two great black migrations from the South placed on those who stayed.
David Charles Goyette’s spare, dirt-road-evoking staging for the African Continuum Theater Company doesn’t lean on those aspects of the story, but it does make sure you’re aware of them. Long before the walls of Timothy J. Jones’ weather-beaten wood setting start revolving to reveal the larger community being affected by this young prisoner’s struggle, the folks on stage have let you see its human face. The flint Williams puts into Miss Emma’s determination to strengthen her community despite the brutishness of John W. Feist’s sherriff tells you much about the racial dynamics of the rural South. So do the skittishness of Bob Lavoie’s cautiously empathetic deputy and the unyielding rectitude of Keith N. Johnson’s minister. And you can see the dawn of a whole era of black feminism in the pragmatism with which the teacher’s married girlfriend (warmly appealling Dionne Audain) urges him to stay the course.
But there’d be no play without the central pair—Russell’s trapped-by-circumstance tutor finding echoes of his own dilemma in the plight of the innocent convict he’s helping to die, and Reid’s initially feral, but ever-more-saintly Jefferson achieving a Zen-like nobility as his end approaches. Watch the faint smile that slowly takes over Reid’s visage when his impoverished, all-but-hopeless character is presented with a $10 radio. Listen to the quiet steadiness with which he says “Thank you” several scenes later to the man he’s been battling all evening. Rich, illuminative work is being done on H Street NE these nights.
I mentioned at the outset that the road traveled by African Continuum Theater Company is scarcely less notable than the one traveled by the protagonists. The troupe has been shuttling from storefront to theater to warehouse for eight years now, and it has occasionally faltered in its development of a production aesthetic along the way. But it has settled into the intimate confines of the H Street Playhouse with an assurance that seems to grow with each show it mounts there. I’ve never seen the company as relaxed and steady as it is in A Lesson Before Dying. If you’ve not yet discovered ACTCo, now is the moment.
I’m going to venture a guess that director Kenny Leon didn’t entirely intend this, but the very best thing about Tambourines to Glory, the rafter-shaker with which his True Colors Theatre Company is introducing itself to Washington, is the way it fits the stage of the historic Lincoln Theatre.
Hughes wrote his gospel-saturated “Hey, let’s start a church” show in 1963, setting the action in a ’50s Harlem that feels a bit like the Damon Runyonland of Guys and Dolls. But watching Leon’s boisterously overstuffed staging at the Lincoln, with its teeming massed chorus and heavy-looking scenery, I kept thinking I’d been transported back to 1922, the year the theater opened as the centerpiece in a U Street nightlife corridor that was sometimes called the Great Black Way.
Kevyn Morrow’s Big-Eyed Buddy Lomax (aka Beelzebub), would be right at home in a show of that era, with his devilish grin, fiery prancing, and front-and-center stage presence. So would a scene-stealing chorine by the name of Margo Moorer, who stomps her way into the audience’s collective heart with the comic braggadocio of a ditty called “I’m Gonna Testify.” As pious Essie and money-hungry Laura, the friends who build a sidewalk ministry into a thriving business that sells bogus holy water (from the tap), Ebony Jo-Ann and Alexandra Foucard are also capable, if somewhat less stellar.
But the evening they all inhabit was written in a slapdash, sloppy manner by Hughes toward the tail end of his career (the original Broadway run lasted just three weeks), and though it played a preliminary engagement in Atlanta two months ago, it hasn’t been shaped much by Leon for this mounting. Composer/keyboardist William Knowles has provided some catchy original tunes, and Patdro Harris finds enough room on Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s building- and sign- and chorus-crammed setting to put cast members through a few rudimentary dance steps. But with characters still spouting exposition well into the second act, and a plot that needs to be casual enough to allow gospel interruptions every few minutes, the show is more period curiosity than satisfying entertainment. CP