Racially charged 'Lesson' educates


POSTED: Thursday, April 09, 2009

The year is 1948. The place is Bayonne, La. A young semi-educated black man facing the end of his life has a final choice to make: Will he walk to the electric chair or force the guards to drag him like a “;hog”; to slaughter? Welcome to The Actors Group production of “;A Lesson Before Dying.”;





        » Where: 1116 Smith St., 2nd floor

» When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday (except Easter), through April 26. Also at 3 p.m. April 11 and 7:30 p.m. April 15


» Tickets: $16 ($14 seniors and students; $12 groups of 10 or more)


» Call: 722-6941 or visit www.taghawaii.net




Black History Month has come and gone, but as with TAG's previous productions of plays about the experiences of African-Americans in the 20th century, “;Lesson”; transcends the color line. Yes, the story is about African-Americans rather than nisei or native Hawaiians, but the issues are relevant to Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds. So is the humanity of the characters.

Jefferson, the condemned man, made an ill-fated decision to accompany two acquaintances on a trip to buy some “;apple shine.”; His “;friends”; didn't have enough money to buy a bottle and gunplay ensued. The owner killed both would-be robbers but was fatally wounded. When the police arrived, they found Jefferson standing over the bodies with a bottle of “;apple shine”; in his hand and money from the till in his pocket.

Convinced that a white jury wouldn't believe him, Jefferson didn't tell his attorney what happened. The attorney, in a clumsy bid for mercy, told the jury that executing Jefferson would make as much sense as “;executing a hog,”; and Jefferson decided that he would be a “;hog”; to the end.

Enter Grant Wiggins, one of the black community's best and brightest, who has reluctantly returned from California to teach disinterested black children in a crumbling “;separate but equal”; school. Jefferson's grandmother asks him to teach Jefferson how to face death in a way that will set a positive example for the black community. Wiggins, who says that he doesn't believe in anything and can't wait to get as far away from Louisiana as possible, is persuaded to visit Jefferson.

Two trios drive most of the action. Castle High School senior London Stanton (Jefferson) and TAG veteran Chad Williams (Wiggins) square off in the lead roles of the doomed man-child and the cynical teacher. Katie Gray (Vivian Baptiste) completes that first threesome in the role of Wiggins' “;yellow”; girlfriend, a married woman who forces him to be honest about his strengths and weaknesses.

Mary Ann Shirley-Gray (Miss Emma) and TAG veteran D. Omar Williams (Rev. Ambrose) join Williams in bringing another plot line to life. Should Jefferson prepare for his execution by developing his mind, listening to a radio and keeping a diary? Or should he spend his days and nights reading the Bible in anticipation of joining Jesus in Paradise?

D. Omar Williams displayed such unforgettable comedic talent in TAG's production of “;Romance”; in 2007 that it is impressive to find him every bit as convincing in the dramatic role of the sincere and perceptive preacher.

And as the title suggests, Jefferson is not the only one who has learned important lessons about life by the time he walks to the chair.