A Well Taught LESSON at Norristown’s Iron Age Theatre

by Ellen Wilson Dilks

“I’m the teacher … and I teach what the white folks around here tell me to teach—reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. They never told me how to keep a black boy out of a liquor store.”

Iron Age Theatre, the resident ensemble at Norristown’s Centre Theatre, embarks on their 2013-2014 season with a production of Romulus Linney’s A LESSON BEFORE DYING, adapted from Ernest Gaines’ best-selling 1992 novel. Directed and designed by John Doyle and Randall Wise, performances run weekends from November 8th to December 1st, 2013. It is interesting as we follow events occurring behind the scenes at the Miami Dolphins—with racial accusations and bullying—that Iron Age presents a story of prejudice and ignorance.

A LESSON BEFORE DYING is set in the “Jim Crow” South of the late 1940s and deals with a black teen named Jefferson, who is convicted of murder and sentenced to death on purely circumstantial evidence. His grandmother (who raised him) asks Grant Wiggins, the teacher at the plantation school, to teach Jefferson to die like a man. Wiggins was afforded a college education by the adults in his community who saved money to send him to school on the condition that he come back and educate the children so they will hopefully have better lives and opportunities than picking cotton. Over the course of several months, Wiggins (disillusioned and angry with conditions in the South) visits Jefferson in a jailhouse storage room; the two forge a new bond and wind up teaching each other what it means to be a man. They also touch the life of a young white deputy, Paul, assigned to guard Jefferson—one can imagine him amongst the Freedom Riders of the 1960s.

Gaines grew up in rural Louisiana, living on land his ancestors once worked as slaves—just like the characters in his novel. He clearly drew on much of his own background to create this story that gained international prestige and a Pulitzer nomination. Though born here in Philadelphia, Linney spent most of his life in Tennessee—where many of his plays are set. It is not surprising he should be the one to have adapted the novel for the stage, with the world premiere being held at Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2000.

Long-time collaborators John Doyle and Randall Wise have staged a lovely production of A LESSON BEFORE DYING, featuring an excellent cast. You can see their firm hand throughout the piece as they gently let the story unfold without ever getting preachy. In addition, they have created a simple, yet highly effective, set depicting a storeroom in the courthouse and the hallway leading from it to the nearby cells. Peripheral neutral spaces serve as Grant’s classroom and other locales. Wise has provided appropriate costumes for each character and Doyle has lit the stage to great effect. Finishing off this creation of the world of the play is Luke Moyer’s powerful soundscape.

Grant Wiggins (Walter DeShields) struggles to help Jefferson (Richard Bradford) prepare to walk to his death like a man in A LESSON BEFORE DYING. (Photo credit: Randall Wise)

As Grant Wiggins, Walter DeShields anchors the piece with a solid portrayal of an intelligent man struggling to cope with a sense of hopelessness, as well as the feeling of alienation from his own people. DeShields brings tremendous dignity and grace to the role, yet he lets the viewer see the anger seething inside of Wiggins, giving us insight into what African-Americans have faced for generations. Liz Priestley is equally strong as Vivian Baptiste, Grant’s girlfriend. A teacher and a divorced mother, she lovingly—but firmly—guides Grant in how to reach Jefferson, who has shut down. Damien Wallace gives a fine performance as Reverend Ambrose, the minister at the “Quarter’s” church. An old-school preacher, he continually challenges Grant’s lack of faith and whether he is the right person to speak with Jefferson. Lenny Daniels is terrific as Miss Emma, Jefferson’s “Nana.” Her performance as a woman who pulls in favors from every white family she’s ever served to get visitation rights to her grandson is heart-wrenching. As Paul—a young man clearly at odds with the way local blacks are treated, Eric Wunsch offers a nicely calibrated performance. The viewer clearly sees the character’s compassion for Jefferson. Counterpoint to this is Sherriff Guidry, a typical “good ole boy.” Dave Fiebert gives a nicely nuanced turn in a character that could have easily devolved into stereotype. Finally, there is Richard Bradford as Jefferson. Bradford is fine as the confused and frightened young man and gradually lets the viewer in—just as Jefferson slowly lets his guard down with Grant. My only concern was with his diction on occasion—there were a number of times when I was unable to understand what he was saying, which is a shame. When dealing with a dialect, one needs to over-enunciate at times in order to make it clear to the listener.

A LESSON BEFORE DYING is a strong piece of theatre—one that everyone should see. I recommend that you make the trip to the Centre Theatre in Norristown and catch this one as soon as you can. My companion and I were thoroughly engrossed the entire time, and it generated great discussion afterwards—and isn’t that what good theatre should do?

by Romulus Linney
Adapted from the novel by Ernest Gaines
Directed by John Doyle & Randall Wise
Iron Age Theatre Company
208 DeKalb Street
Norristown, PA 19401




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