The African American Repertory Theatre is a small, brave company that's earned a place in the Richmond theater community by virtue of its productions of thought-provoking plays, focusing especially on race. "A Lesson Before Dying" deals specifically with the problems of race and criminal justice in America, particularly in the South. It's timely in light of the media exposure of Louisiana's "Jena 6" and the treatment of the youth involved in that case of racial injustice.
In "Lessons," Jefferson (Darius Epps) is a young African-American male who's convicted and sentenced to death for a 1948 crime in Louisiana that he didn't commit. The play revolves around his relationship with Grant Wiggins, a local teacher who works with Jefferson while he awaits his execution. The theme of the play is poignant but loses its punch because of the slow pacing of the show and a bit of overacting (which may have been the actors' attempts to wake up the audience).
That pace, set by director Derome Scott Smith, is so slow that the actors seem to be listening to each other from headphones, causing a lag in line-response time reminiscent of conversations between Houston and the Apollo crews. Several actors also chose to use strange cadences in their line delivery that became hypnotizing. Each word was spoken as though it were gospel, gumming up the pace even more. The message of the play would be more accessible to the audience if it were accelerated to real life, the actors worked on varying their line delivery and the throwaway lines were allowed to be thrown away.
With the exception of some excessive chain-fidgeting in the first scene, Epps does a nice job of developing Jefferson from disregard to self-awareness as the "lessons" with Wiggins progress. Epps is quite talented and should soon grow into a major player on the Richmond stage.
Logan Conner also makes a good showing as the jailor, Paul Bonin. He shines in a touching scene in which he describes Jefferson's walk to the electric chair.
With this play, AART continues to inspire dialogues on race, crime and morality in America. S
"A Lesson Before Dying" plays at Pine Camp Cultural Arts Center Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through Nov. 18. Tickets are $25. Call 355-2187 or visit www.africanamericantheatre.org.