Saturday, February 2, 2008

A Lesson Before Dying, not to be learned at the library.

Theatre Review: Lesson Before Dying

But first...

I'll get to the play in a minute, but first I have two other smaller items to take care of. This trip was quite illuminating for me, as I had the chance to view the literary access that Decatur residents have in their community. My first stop was Eagle Eye Bookstore, which sells a mixture of new, used, Remainder, and collectible books. I had forgotten how wonderful independent bookstores like this could be, and how essential they actually are, even coming from a large chain of bookstores as I do. I cannot even say that Eagle Eye is in competition with us, because they sell things that are totally different from us. It is a wonderful tool for those looking for books for school projects, especially on other countries and for collages where cutting up the books is necessary. They also have a wide variety of collectible books, especially focusing on southern literature. And I miss the Booksense program, with all their advanced readers and whatnot. However, working at a large chain such as Borders definitely has its advantages as well.

I say that Eagle Eye is essential because my next stop was the Decatur Library, where I discovered how woefully pitiful the Dekalb County Library system truly is. Consider this... I looked up The Great Gatsby on the library's computer. It showed they had 28 copies for all the libraries in Dekalb County. Now, children have been reading this classic for years now in school, and Borders has sold hundreds to students who need them. I did not understand how terrible the library system actually was until I went to the Decatur Library. They are totally unable to meet the needs of their customers. Half of those 28 copies were lost or missing. A simple solution is to be found in the same areas that we get our remainders at work. Simply contact Simon and Schuster, buy from them 100 copies of the Great Gatsby at the price that we got them in the Bargain sale. The books are paperback, cheap, and very useful for the students to take to school with them. Afterward, if those books are lost, you can charge them the full price of the book as new, and save up to buy more. There is no reason why the library system of Dekalb County should not have multiple class sets of every book read in the school systems. It is obvious that the two services do not communicate and that the citizens see little use in going to a library system that has so little to offer. I was frankly dismayed by what I found.
So afterward, I went to the theatre, and, finding it locked, went to Big Lots next door to look around. There I found Lip Balm of the most interesting varieties. Many is the time that I have wanted to walk around wearing Reese's Peanut Butter Cup lip balm. There's nothing like the smell of Chocolate and Peanut Butter to be left on your sweetheart's cheek after a kiss.
Onstage Atlanta's performance of Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying was just as marvelous as their last play, A Turn of the Screw. The actors filled their character parts with personality and vivaciousness that made what could have been stereotypical roles from a cheap Lifetime movie into a truly remarkable performance. For the play, adapted from Ernest Gaines' work, is based on the relationships between the characters. Grant, played by Nathaniel Ryan, is an unsuccessful school teacher who has returned from the glory's of academia to his rural Louisiana home to repay his guardians by teaching the children of the community. A job which he clearly does not enjoy, for he'd rather be imparting his knowledge to students who would rather learn (as would we all.) His relationship with each character is developed very well with sparse dialogue and specific actions and motions. For instance, the relationship between Grant and Rev. Ambrose, played by Nat Martin, delves into the attitudes of the religious upon the learned. And perhaps rightly so, since one of Grant's main tragic flaws is his pride for being an educated man, who is brought down by the seemingly unwillingness for anyone else to learn.

I can identify with this character personally, since I came from the marble halls of academia and tried to teach English to students who could care less. And, granted, I was not a very good teacher, and my need to impart knowledge was squelched by a culture that cared little for learning and less about discipline. But I will save the state of our education system for another time. The one interesting point here is that for these teachers, underpaid, underfunded, and unprovided for, they are not much different than the teachers that teach today's children. But now instead of just a minority group of segregated children, it is now expanded to all children.

In some cases, this play is simply the origin for all "teacher going into run down schools and overcoming all odds" movies, but in this case, it is not only the students who learn. The conflict between Grant and his need to escape into the world of academia (which I yearn to do often), is settled by Jefferson's reversal of lessons shortly before his execution. In this case, A Lesson Before Dying has two meanings. Not only does Grant teach his doomed student to be brave and die with dignity, but Jefferson teaches his mentor to live with dignity. There is a parallel of heroism here.

It impressed me in the way that Antjuan Taylor, who played Jefferson, was able to play the 14 year old student so easily, and with an accent that worked wonderfully, with bluntness and simplicity, but with a growing sense of wisdom as his ideas were focused by pen and paper. It provided humor in times when laughter was needed, and gave an otherwise simple plot line depth and richness. You feel as if something is to be gained from him, that the Catharsis is not simply faked, for a few tears and commercials every 5 minutes as on cable, but there is a genuine message here.

Probably the part with the most inner conflict was that of Paul, played by James Lentini. But unlike his fellow characters, his conflict was shown by movements, usually off the stage, or between set changes. The indecision of interrupting that first meeting between Grant and Jefferson, the gradual change of escorting Jefferson out of the door from violent criminal to helpless boy, the change of heart that seems to occur when he's just sitting there listening. He has learned as much as Jefferson just for being in the room. And we come to respect him for that, even though he says little until the last few minutes of the play.

Finally, a personal note, because their are children I have known that have been punished needlessly by the systems that regulate their care. When I walked out of the theatre, my mind went to my family in Milledgeville, whose son is now in some Alternative program for juvenile criminals solely because they have no where else to put him. All for the injustices that the people around him have caused him. And yet, as far as I know, he still remains strong. I have told Lee many times to hang on, to battle against the wrongs done to him, and that he will win, eventually. Life is so unfair, and I've never known anyone stronger or braver than he is. This is a book, or in this case, a play, that should be shown not only as a reminder of the many battles African Americans have faced in their struggle against society, but also to those who have been beaten down by life, by family, by DFCS, by anyone who would do an injustice to an innocent child. It would build their self-esteem, show them that even when the darkest hour comes, they still have a chance to shine.

No comments:

Post a Comment