Terrell Dickerson, Dawaun Lawler, Michael Hoekstra

To Die Like a Man

A powerful production at VLT explores the art of facing an unjust death

A Lesson Before Dying, Romulus Linney’s drama based on the acclaimed 1993 novel by Ernest J. Gaines, is now playing in a heart-wrenching production at The Very Little Theatre. The stage adaptation by the lauded playwright was commissioned in 2001, the same year the novel was banned in Savannah, Georgia. 

In many parts of the country, however, the novel has been taught in high schools. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, to which it is sometimes compared, the tale contains important lessons for people of all ages. For the play, the book’s full roster of richly nuanced characters has been reduced to seven characters, which is often considered the maximum number of actors that most theater producers will want to hire. 

It’s a shame to lose any of Gaines’ finely crafted characters, but the play’s script remains faithful to the essence of the book. The insightful local director, Hershell Norwood, excels at illuminating the virtues and frailties of Gaines’ characters as they face individual dilemmas on their journeys through life. For this production, Norwood is blessed with an exceptionally talented cast, fully dedicated to their mission.

Set in rural Louisiana in 1948, the story focuses on Jefferson, an underprivileged, nearly illiterate young African American man wrongfully convicted of murder during a robbery at a liquor store. He is a witness but not an accomplice. Because of his situation, his elderly godmother, a male school teacher, the teacher’s girlfriend, a preacher, and even the sheriff and deputy become the most important influences in the short time remaining in his life. 

One other character, Jefferson’s lawyer, is equally important. The audience never meets him, but the characters in the play talk about him. In trying to save Jefferson’s life during the trial, the lawyer describes him as someone so simple that he wouldn’t be capable of planning a robbery or murder, and that he is little better than an animal. In fact, sending him to his death would be like sentencing a hog to be electrocuted. A hog wouldn’t know right from wrong. Nevertheless, the all-white jury sentences Jefferson to death by electric chair.

So Jefferson decides to act like a hog, squealing and demanding corn to eat when his godmother, Miss Emma, powerfully played by Martha Moultry, visits him in jail. Jefferson declares he will have to be dragged to the chair like a terrified hog. Horrified by his behavior, Emma demands that Grant Wiggins, the teacher in the local one-room school, teach him how to “die like a man.” Grant, thoughtful and moody in a sensitive portrayal by Dawaun Lawler, protests that he has no idea how to do that. He has his own problems. He hates his teaching job. He wants to leave the South and take his virtuous girlfriend Vivian (Zayne Clayton) with him, while she insists that their duty is to stay where they are most needed and continue teaching.

Grant agrees to make regular visits to Jefferson, especially when he learns how defenseless the young man has been all his life. He worked in the cotton fields from age 6 and dropped out of school in fourth grade. When he witnessed the shooting in the store he couldn’t call the police because he had never seen a telephone before and couldn’t fathom how to use it. 

Grant realizes he wants to help Jefferson die bravely. He and Emma both hope Jefferson will walk to the chair on his own two legs. As a non-believer, Grant at first wishes to protect the young man from Reverend Moses Ambrose (Stanley Coleman), who aims to save his soul. Eventually he agrees that the reverend might offer comfort.

Terrell Dickerson is excellent as Jefferson, at first coiled up in anger and gradually learning more than he ever thought possible. He becomes a true hero to all the members of his community.

The sheriff (Adam Leonard) wants to do everything right regarding the execution, probably mostly to protect his job. We can’t be sure. The deputy (Michael Hoekstra) shows unexpected sympathy and respect for Jefferson and his friends.

Bring a hankie, and if you’re wearing a mask, you’ll learn that it does a pretty good job of soaking up the tears.

A Lesson Before Dying is playing at The Very Little Theatre through Feb. 5; times and tickets through TheVLT.com or 541-344-7751.

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