The Justice Theater Project’s programs immerse audiences in contemporary issues. The company brings together a diverse community through drama to achieve its admirable goals. Judging its productions solely on theatrical merit would be missing the larger point.
The company’s “A Lesson Before Dying,” about an innocent man’s execution in 1948 Louisiana, is a resounding success, measured by its overall effect. There were audible sobs and heartfelt cheers at Friday’s opening, indicating that the story’s moving themes of injustice and redemption had overcome flaws in writing, direction and physical setup.
Romulus Linney’s script, based on Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, concerns Jefferson, a black field worker who’s been found guilty of murder and sentenced to die. He’s innocent but his inability to defend himself before white authority led to his arrest. His court-appointed lawyer likened him to a hog, a description crushing Jefferson’s self respect.
Jefferson’s feisty godmother, Emma, asks Grant, her schoolteacher friend to help Jefferson face death like a man. Grant reluctantly agrees, although facing his own anger at white injustices. He wants to leave the state but girlfriend Vivian convinces him he’s needed where he is. The ways Jefferson and Grant are each changed by their contentious but ultimately bonding talks make powerful commentary on conditions still prevalent today.
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On Friday, talented actors gave the production gripping impact. Joseph Callender’s Grant made a satisfying journey from bitter and defeated to self-sacrificing and openhearted. His scenes with Connie McCoy Rogers’ loving but clear-eyed Vivian had wonderful chemistry. Gil Faison’s Jefferson was fiercely defiant at first, but his eventual warming to Grant and his final understanding of his situation were heartbreaking in Faison’s riveting portrayal.
Rhetta Greene’s Emma brimmed with such engaging personality it's a shame she didn’t have more scenes. Juan Isler perfectly embodied Reverend Ambrose’s strict views about Jefferson’s religious requirements. Michael Lester’s Sheriff Guidry exuded white privilege and Sean Wellington’s Deputy Bonin made his reluctance to follow orders evident.
Director Deb Royals deserves credit for shaping these actors’ characterizations, but much was blunted by cramped, awkward staging. The elongated, narrow set put many audience members at a disadvantage, with actors too close or too far away, often with their backs to the viewer. The script’s clunky changes of scene weren’t solved well, the time taken dropping the tension. On Friday, act two’s pacing slowed to a crawl, actors mistaking serious intent with long pauses between lines.
Without those problems, the production’s impact could have been even greater. As it is, no eye will be dry and minds will be stimulated, the company’s intended goal.
What: “A Lesson Before Dying,” presented by The Justice Theater Project
Where: Clare Hall, St. Francis of Assisi Church, 11401 Leesville Road., Raleigh
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 16-17, 22-23; 3 p.m. Oct. 18, 24
Tickets: $22 (seniors and college students $17; high school students $10)
Info: 919-264-7089 or thejusticetheaterproject.org