Terrell Dickerson, Dawaun Lawler and Michael Hoekstra in 'A Lesson Before Dying.' / Photo by LifeSlice Photography

Life Lessons in the Death House

VLT opens an adaptation of a prize-winning novel on facing mortality

In Ernest J. Gaines’ 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, a young African American man innocent of any crime is sentenced to the electric chair in 1940s Louisiana. As Jefferson, the condemned man, faces his unfair execution, he insists — playing off a remark by his own lawyer at trial — on acting like a hog. His behavior prompts his godmother to ask a schoolteacher friend to visit Jefferson on death row and teach him to face his own death with dignity.

The novel, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, is loosely based on actual events, though Gaines writes in a 2005 essay it was crafted as a work of fiction.

On Friday, Jan. 20, Eugene’s Very Little Theatre will open playwright Romulus Linney’s adaptation of the story to the stage. Linney’s play premiered in 2000 at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival before moving off Broadway, where the show prompted a critic to write in TheaterMania of the difficulties of translating a talky novel to stage that “Linney largely pulls it off…. Melodrama and tearjerker, perhaps, but rousing theater for sure.”

VLT’s production, directed by Hershell Norwood, has a cast that includes Terrell Dickerson, Zayne Clayton, Stanley Coleman, Michael Hoekstra, Adam Leonard, Dawaun Lawler and Martha Moultry.

A Lesson Before Dying is a timely, enduring story about family, faith, loss, and the beauty of human connection,” Norwood says in a release. “This story is ultimately an uplifting one, enabling each of us to look inside ourselves for what binds us together.”

Romulus Linney’s A Lesson Before Dying opens at 7:30 pm Friday, Jan. 20, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 5, on the main stage at Very Little Theatre. Tickets and more info at TheVLT.com.


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