By Martin F. Kohn
There are many ways of being condemned. One kind comes in a court of law, and while a death sentence sets events in motion in “A Lesson Before Dying,” there are other forms of condemnation to be considered.
Ernest J. Gaines’ novel and Romulus Linney’s stage adaptation now at Detroit Repertory Theatre are set in a small Louisiana town in the segregated 1940s. Convicted in the robbery-murder of a white man, a young black man named Jefferson (Gabriel Johnson) is facing electrocution, but it’s quickly evident that he experienced the additional condemnation of never having had a chance in life.
During the trial Jefferson’s own lawyer characterized him as barely human, little more than a hog. Jefferson’s Aunt Emma (Barbara Jacobs-Smith), who raised him, disagrees vehemently and asks Grant Wiggins (Harold Hogan), who teaches at an all-black country school outside of town, to visit Jefferson in prison and educate him sufficiently to show the world that Jefferson is a man, not a hog, and allow him to die with dignity.
Because Linney’s play starts after the trial – the novel begins with it – there is the sensation of jumping on a moving raft in the middle of a river, rather than being present at the launch, understanding how and where the voyage began. That can be an effective device, but here it’s disconcerting; so much back-story must be told to bring the audience – and teacher Grant Wiggins – up to speed.
That task is given to Aunt Emma, and in Jacobs-Smith, director Barbara Busby has gifted hands in which to place the story. Jacobs-Smith’s performance evokes rage at an unjust legal system, faith in her nephew, high expectations for Grant and an unwavering belief in doing what is right.
Johnson, as the prisoner, has to make difficult transitions from the rage and depression born of despair to the composure that comes from understanding his own worth as a human being. Although Johnson acts both ends of the equation, we don’t really see how he gets from one to the other.
Just as Jefferson must decide how he’s going to die, Grant Wiggins has to decide how he himself is going to live. Will he keep on teaching the students who desperately need him but are so maddeningly uninterested in learning? Will he stay among his people or choose to leave harsh and hostile South? And how will he deal with his light-one-candle girlfriend when he’s such a curse-the-darkness kind of guy?
Wrestling with these questions, Hogan manages to show us that Grant also has a lesson or two to learn before he dies.
‘A Lesson Before Dying’
Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through March 20. $17-$20. 313-868-1347. http://www.detroitreptheatre.com