‘A Lesson Before Dying’

White jurors say he did it. The long-time schoolteacher is not so sure. The prison warden -who arrived at the scene shortly after the murder- believes the boy is innocent. His godmother doesn’t seem to care either way-as long as her boy dies like a man rather than a hog.

Rural, bigotry-plagued 1948 Louisiana slipped into the homey GablesStage theater Saturday night for a five-week run of A Lesson Before Dying, the story of Jefferson, a young African American wrongly convicted for a murder he did not commit.

The play is based on Ernest Gaines’ Pulitzer-nominated novel by the same name.

Resignation-the story’s most fascinating and disturbing element-seems to be at the heart of all characters. They all know the boy is clean, but they would be foolish to expect the system to bend over for an insuperable scapegoat: the dirt-poor, inarticulate black boy.

Sheaun McKinney, currently a theater major at Miami-Dade College, delivers an impeccable performance playing Jefferson in his first professional production.

Speechless during much of his first scene, a handcuffed and shackled McKinney shuns words of wisdom offered by his former schoolteacher, Grant Wiggins, played by John Archie, a Carbonell nominee, and the play’s second commendable performance.

When his defense attorney sees his client is doomed and calls him a hog, as a last minute resort to spare his client of the electric chair, Jefferson begins grunting and acting like a hog, often blurting piercing lines to the effect of, “That’s what they said I am, that’s what I’ll be.”

Wiggins, disgruntled by his hometown and the disheartening prospects of his career, is reluctant to spend time with his former student, who now embodies many of his own phantoms.

Emma Glen, Jefferson’s godmother, played by overly dramatic Dorothy J. Morrison, compels Wiggins to visit her godson for supervised visits at the court house jail for man-to-man conversations that ought to prepare Jefferson to “die with dignity-like a man.”

Cast members speak extremely slowly, making dialogue stagnant at times.

Scene-to-scene transitions are clean and smooth, aided by changing lights and old time blues that don’t allow the audience to forget the story’s time and place.

Set designer Lyle Baskin outdid himself with the courtroom jail meeting room, fixed on center stage throughout the entire show, and the narrow bar and unkempt schoolhouse staged on lower platforms to the right and left.

Director Joseph Adler, no rookie on South Floridian stages, is in his fourth season as artistic director of GablesStage, which will soon have a new larger home in an undetermined Coral Gables location.

Playwright Romulus Linney got rave reviews during the show’s New York run for his theatrical snappy adaptation of Gaines’ novel.

Lack of action is the play’s biggest flaw, given that the ending isn’t mind-blowing, and the plot holds few surprises.

By far, the richest moment is the final scene, achieved by Jefferson’s poignant last words, and a startling mix of lights.

A Lesson Before Dying delves into the death row controversy by exploring the loneliness and stigma suffered by convict, and the unanswered haunting questions his loved ones must juggle after the job has been done.

April 9, 2002


The Miami Hurricane

Student newspaper at the University of Miami

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