The court system, no matter how fair it purports itself to be, has always been skewed; money complicates things, as does what, exactly, a jury of one’s peers looks like, but the main issue in the system has always been race; look at the book The New Jim Crow, about racial bias in the mass incarceration system, being banned in prisons for just one example.
In the fine, timely play A Lesson Before Dying, we meet Jefferson (Majestic Tillman), a young black man in 1940s Louisiana waiting on death row for a murder he didn’t commit; he had an inept public defender and an all-white jury. His godmother, Emma (Carolyn McLaughlin), desperate about Jefferson’s state of mind, asks a local schoolteacher, Grant (Emmett Ferris) to talk to Jefferson, get him to accept his fate “like a man” – but Grant is experiencing a crisis himself, not loving his job or where he lives and wanting to move on. The two men, through their conversations, learn and grow together as time wanes for Jefferson.
This is an incredibly moving, important and hard-hitting play, with strong performances and direction. Tillman is heartbreaking; his performance is so brave and wise for a young actor and brings so much emotion to the role. I predict great things from him in the future. Ferris’s Grant is the voice of reason, but very human; his scenes with Tillman are touching and true, and his scenes with Kim Wafer, as Vivian, Grant’s girlfriend, are also so grounded; his work here is very realistic and accessible. Women in this production are very well-written; both Wafer and McLaughlin’s characters are strong individuals, and the actresses are both more than up to the task – steely, intelligent and protective of those they love. Andrew Vroman, as Paul, Jefferson’s main guard, gave a quiet grace to his role; his kindness was unexpected and heartfelt. Todd Langley’s Sheriff Guidry has a nice character arc, and Donald Hyman’s Reverend Ambrose brings the fire and brimstone (and humor) in his performance.
The visuals in the final scene were stunning; director Jean-Remy Monnay did a wonderful job overall, but the last scene was an utter gut-punch; we all knew it was coming, but the staging was the perfect touch. I do wish there was a bit more space in the stage area in which the actors could move and play, but the group made do with what they have – and I love that non-traditional spaces are being used more often for area theater.
Playwright Yasmina Reza is quoted as saying “Theatre is a mirror, a sharp reflection of society.” In the charged atmosphere in which we find ourselves living, we have a choice: we can hide our heads in the sand or we can fight back. More and more our local theater groups are fighting back through their play selection, through the mirrors they hold up to us; it’s our job to attend, pay heed to these truths and take their lessons with us when we walk outside the theater doors.
“A Lesson Before Dying”, Soul Rebel Performance Troupe, The First Congregational Church, 405 Quail St., Albany; through April 14; $15-$10; Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission; 518-833-2621; http://soulrebelperformancetroupe.org/