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Washington DC by Susan Berlin

A Lesson Before Dying

A Lesson Before Dying
Shane Taylor and KenYatta Rogers
A Lesson Before Dying, Romulus Linney's adaptation of the Ernest J. Gaines novel now onstage at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, is compelling and ultimately moving, but it remains earthbound, never reaching the level of transcendence.

With economy of staging, director Timothy Douglas has placed all the action on a single non-representational set designed by Tony Cisek. The setting is 1948 Louisiana, and Cisek's set framed by two high, battered-looking brick walls with one distant window becomes in turn a rural school, a bar and most centrally a jail cell in a courthouse. The angled walls also serve to draw the audience into the action to an almost claustrophobic degree.

Schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (KenYatta Rogers) is sitting at his desk as the audience enters. To him, there's little difference between the school and the jail: he grew up in this parish; unlike most African-Americans of the time, he managed to earn a college degree, but he returned, unwillingly, to help the people he left behind. Vivian Baptiste (Rachel Leslie), the woman he loves and also a teacher, tries to help him understand that any effort is valuable.

Grant finds his cause when elderly Emma Glenn (Beverly A. Cosham) begs him to help her godson, Jefferson (Shane Taylor, whose first appearance is very striking and unexpected). Jefferson's only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but as the only survivor of an incident that left three men dead, he finds himself facing execution. Worse than that, his attorney attempted to spare Jefferson's life by suggesting that the young man had no greater moral awareness than a "hog." Emma is determined that Jefferson understand that he is indeed a man, an individual with dignity, and she wants Grant to help her.

The interactions among the characters are the most interesting thing here. Taylor and Rogers both give intensely physical performances: Taylor the headstrong man fighting against his literal shackles, Rogers psychologically immobilized by anger and frustration, and they play off each other beautifully. In contrast, Cosham and Leslie convey the quiet strength of women who endure, showing their defiance in understated ways behind their outward subservience.

Round House Theatre
A Lesson Before Dying
September 19th October 14th
By Romulus Linney, based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines

Grant Wiggins: KenYatta Rogers
Emma Glenn: Beverly A. Cosham
Paul Bonin: Jeremy J. Brown
Sam Guidry: Lawrence Redmond
Jefferson: Shane Taylor
Vivian Baptiste: Rachel Leslie
The Rev. Moses Ambrose: Doug Brown
Directed by Timothy Douglas
4545 East-West Highway
Bethesda, MD

Ticket Information: 240-644-1100 or www.roundhousetheatre.org.


Photo: Danisha Crosby


-- Susan Berlin


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for D.C.



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