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Friday, November 14, 2008

Theatrical Outfit's Lesson Before Dying schools audience on death penalty

The program for

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A Lesson Before Dying takes place in 1948 Louisiana. Sixty years later, as I write this in Georgia on Sep. 22, 2008, in less than 24 hours, Troy Davis maybe put to death by lethal injection fo rhe 1989 murder of Savanahh Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail -- a murder which many believe he may not have commited. For Officer MacPhail, Mr. Davis, for their families, and for all of us, I pray that a day will come when no one would find the treatment of the character Jefferson in Ernest Gaines' novel dramatically plausible -- when there would no longer be an audience for this kind of tragedy. In the meantime, I must have hope, and I have not found another place in which it can be learned other than in this particular classroom.

(Troy Davis received a stay of execution on Oct. 24.)

Although A Lesson Before Dying involves a black man convicted for a crime he probably did not commit, it's not a race to save Jefferson from the electric chair, like A Time to Kill. Nor does it explore the racist Southern legal system of the era along the lines of To Kill a Mockingbird -- the racial injustice of the system is taken as a disheartening given. Instead, it's most like the movie Dead Man Walking, in which an outsider tries to prepare a condemned man to be executed.

In the play, Johnell Easter plays Grant Wiggins, a former schoolteacher for Jefferson (Eric J. Little), who reluctantly visits the falsely convicted murderer during his last days to teach him how to die like a man. Grant and Wiggins, despite their sharp differences in educational status, both suffer from self-loathing abetted by the Jim Crow South. In Theatrical Outfit's creaky but ultimately compelling production (which I'll review in more detail next week), Grant learns to be more of a man in the process of teaching Jefferson to face death with dignity.

The play's second act focuses closely on the procedures of the Louisiana death penalty at the time. A radio plays 1940s standards during Jefferson's final visit from Grant and his godmother, and keeps playing while the courthouse storage room is remade as a place of execution. In a particularly strange touch, the radio plays "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" as guards wheel in the electric chair, and the ease of the song conveys both the peace of the potential afterlife and the callousness of the white power structure in preparing to execute a black prisoner. (It will also remind Coen Brothers fans of The Big Lebowski, which uses "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" to more comedic effect.)  A Lesson Before Dying serves more as an attack on the racism of the system than on the death penalty itself, but conveys exactly how high the stakes can be in a capital case.

A Lesson Before Dying. Through Nov. 23. Theatrical Outfit, The Balzer Theatre, 84 Luckie St. Wed.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. $30. 678-528-1500. www.theatricaloutfit.org

(Left to right) Johnell J. Easter (as Grant Wiggins) and Eric J. Little (as Jefferson).

Photo credit: Bill DeLoach.

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