A near-illiterate black youth, Jefferson, is condemned to death in 1948 small-town Louisiana for a murder he didn’t commit. A white lawyer unsuccessfully defended him by portraying him as an ignorant hog, incapable of responsibility. Jefferson now acts the wordless beast who’ll have to be dragged to the chair. His godmother, old Emma Glenn, who raised him, wants him to die with dignity befitting a man. She persuades Grant Wiggins, who taught him until he dropped out after fourth grade, to keep visiting him during the few months before execution, and teach him to die like an exemplar rather than an animal.
But Grant is disgusted with his lot as a country schoolteacher in the racist South and, like others before him, intends to decamp to a more viable venue. He wants to take with him his girlfriend, Vivian, who teaches city kids and firmly believes in staying put and helping blacks to acquire status through knowledge. Grant must, in the short time remaining, humanize the recalcitrant Jefferson, if only for death, not life. To this end, he must also compete with the rantings of a fanatical preacher, who would Bible-thump the youth into Heaven.
That, in a nutshell, is the play Romulus Linney has fashioned out of a 1993 novel by Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying. A novel dealing with inner conflicts – chiefly the teacher’s – is hard to translate into dialogue and stage action. But Linney largely pulls it off, thanks also to Kent Thompson’s direction, Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s design, and the flawless acting of Stephen Bradbury, Aaron Harpold, Tracey A. Leigh, John Henry Redwood, and Beatrice Winde. As Grant and Jefferson, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Jamahl Marsh are irresistible. Melodrama and tearjerker, perhaps, but rousing theater for sure.