In the Jim Crow-era Louisiana of A Lesson Before Dying, standing in the wrong place at the wrong time is a capital offense. Country bumpkin Jefferson (Keston John) witnessed a botched robbery and stands accused of murder. The public defender worked his sentence down from (implied) lynching to electrocution, and even official belief in his innocence can't save him now. Broken in spirit and heart, he's reduced to the level of the animal his defender compared him to, hoping for sympathy from a jury that has none. Perhaps his dignity might be salvaged, so his godmother and only real parent, Emma (the imperious Elizabeth Porcelli), has one last wish: Bring in the local teacher, Grant (Donté Bonner), to make him be a man, whatever that might mean.
There's much more going on in director Be Boyd's staging of Romulus Linney's text (based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines) than the usual racism and social dynamics that so often fill "Southern" plays. Jefferson lacks money, education and self-esteem, but he eventually sees deeper inside himself and begins to understand the cruel world surrounding him. Grant not only must perform a Sisyphean task he neither wants nor qualifies for, but no one, including his girlfriend, Vivian (Trenell Mooring), will give him a break. As he deals with Jefferson, Emma and the police, you can tell he'd rather be in Detroit or Chicago than this backwater.
Grant summarizes the dilemma of escaping poverty: His community identifies him as smart and invests its scarce resources in him. Yet when he returns, the answer he holds up is Change, and that generates more fear than the worst humiliations of society. He holds open the door, and none of the sheep want to leave. It's easy to see why Sheriff Guidry (Christopher Lee Gibson) likes the status quo, but Grant's toughest opponent is Rev. Moses Ambrose (Dwayne Allen), who prays, shakes and clings to the biggest pillar of racism: God wants it like this, and things will be much better when you're dead. But he doesn't even offer 72 virgins.
I don't think I've ever before seen a play that had the audience weeping openly by the middle of the second act. They were in the grip of a powerful and moving production, heightened by the intimate proximity of the audience to the action. Actor John's portrayal of a lost soul grabs you hard. When his Jefferson runs around the floor in shackles, eating pig-like out of a lunch basket, it about tears you apart that anyone could come to this, guilty or not. This is a brutal, serious drama, and superbly done.
A Lesson Before Dying
Through Oct. 30
Mad Cow Theatre