Just because a story is familiar doesn't mean it can be glossed over. The stage adaptation of "A Lesson Before Dying," by Romulus Linney from Ernest J. Gaines's novel, tells an inherently powerful story of the impending execution of a wrongly convicted young black man in 1948 Louisiana. Yet its thinly drawn characters and overly simplified plot prevent that power from being more than sporadically felt in African Continuum Theatre Company's season-opening production.
It's a few weeks before 17-year-old Jefferson (G. Alverez Reid) is going to be sent to the electric chair. His attorney has tried to save him from the death penalty by dismissing his humanity and ability to reason, saying executing him would be no different from sending a hog to slaughter. And so Jefferson takes the description to heart and bitterly begins believing himself to be no better than an animal.
Jefferson's elderly godmother, Miss Emma (JoAnn M. Williams), entreats a family friend, Grant Wiggins (Jefferson A. Russell), to counsel Jefferson before his execution and attempt to restore his pride so he can "die like a man." Grant is a college-educated teacher in the fictional rural town of Bayonne, but his commitment to his students is paper-thin. He resents the sense of obligation he feels to stay in the "hellhole" town and help the kids; he's also reluctant to get involved with Jefferson, as his death sentence seems to reinforce the notion that Grant's efforts won't do the area's disadvantaged youth any good.
Grant does begin to visit Jefferson, who at first refuses to look him or Miss Emma in the eyes and turns down his godmother's treats, offering rationalizations such as, "Hogs don't eat no candy." Jefferson is also counseled by the Rev. Ambrose (Keith N. Johnson), who takes exception to Grant's secular mentoring as well as his higher education.
Reid is a standout among the cast in Linney's juiciest role. His Jefferson cuts a striking and sympathetic figure, whether he's falling to his knees to snort and crawl like the hog he initially insists he is or, later, reading the rudimentary entries of a journal Grant has persuaded him to keep. Russell, too, does nice work as the conflicted counselor; Linney allows the character, who at first comes off like a bit of a whiner, to show his certainty and fortitude as a teacher in classroom scenes in which Russell addresses the audience as his students.
"A Lesson Before Dying's" supporting characters, however, rarely move beyond their one-note agendas: The reverend, for example, is instantly defensive with Grant and says little beyond criticizing Grant's college degree and the nature of his discussions with Jefferson. Grant's girlfriend, Vivian (Dionne Audain), exists only to insist he help Jefferson, though her reasoning consists mainly of "You must!" Miss Emma, too, comes off as a mere caricature, the doting but steely old lady who can easily guilt people into doing what she wants.
The drama's flaws do diminish in Act 2 -- though, unfortunately, so do some of the actors' Louisiana accents -- as the plot becomes more focused on the interactions between Grant and Jefferson. And ACTCo's production excels in creating a mournful atmosphere. The set on the small H Street Playhouse stage consists simply of a wood floor and matching background planks; at first the only embellishment is a sketch of a black man, but as the play progresses, the planks are turned to reveal other portraits of black families, standing witness to Jefferson's too-familiar plight.
Also, when not involved in a scene, Williams and Johnson provide musical accompaniment, singing psalms and spirituals in gorgeously plaintive voices. These touches show that although "A Lesson Before Dying's" message of meeting oppression with dignity may be unassailable, it's the details that make it worth telling.
A Lesson Before Dying, by Romulus Linney. Directed by David Charles Goyette. Set, Timothy J. Jones; lighting, Dan Covey; costumes, Reggie Ray; sound, David Lamont Wilson. Approximately 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Oct. 10 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.africancontinuumtheatre.com.