We all learned many valuable lessons after having the privilege of seeing A Lesson Before Dying the play at The Warehouse Theater based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines. The powerful and moving production left my family slightly numb as we headed for our traditional pizza after every Warehouse Play. The silence was broken after John’s question at the dinner table, “Can you tell me any inconsistencies in the play that you noticed?” I was amazed at the tiny details my children had picked up on that went totally unnoticed to me as I was quite caught up in the emotion of the story. Brett (15 years old) quickly announced, the radio, the batteries, the generator to name a few of the things that were not quite in line with the 1940’s time period.
The ice was broken and the remainder of the night was spent discussing the plot and theme of the play in every detail. The next day my mother called specifically to ask how we enjoyed the play much to my surprise. She remembered my telling her that we planned to see the Saturday night production and read the review in the paper. Mom was quick to tell me that the storyline reminded her so much of the 1947 lynching of Willie Earle in Greenville. And, like most of my Mom’s stories, I’m best to just listen! As I have gotten older (no chuckles here please!), I’ve come to enjoy my mother’s stories and they hold a particular interest to me since my father’s passing. The time is coming when the chance to hear the tales will be gone. She recalled how she remembers distinctly hearing about the death of Willie Earle and the tale of what he’d been accused of… killing a taxi cab driver. Mom said she remembers feeling so certain that he was innocent. Living in Easley, my mother was at the center of the rumor mill and the place that this murder occurred since it happened in Pickens County along the Liberty-Pickens Highway. She was a sophomore at Easley High School at the time and everyone was discussing the events. Willie Earle, assumed guilty because of his race, was hunted down and driven out of the Pickens jail and killed by a mob of taxi cab drivers. Labeled the largest lynching in the United States, it also was a turning point for Greenville as it launched Greenville’s civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s and gave Greenville a national reputation. A.J. Whittenberg, a Greenville activist, stated, “It was the fertilizer for growth.”
How amazing that my children were fortunate to attend this production of A Lesson Before Dying and catch a glimpse of what life was like in the south for a black man in the 1940’s. How ironic that my mother was a part of such a similar story where a black man was wrongfully killed of a crime simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and because of his race, he was never given opportunity or support to state his case. Now the trial for Willie Earle never occurred, but the trial for Jefferson might as well not have… the outcome was both the same.
The Lesson for Jefferson was multi faceted in that he learned to feel compassion for others and to accept love and understanding towards himself while learning what it means to be a man in such a complicated world. The setting, costumes, and characters themselves were all staged so perfectly to blend together in what I believe to be a true portrayal of what must have been seen, felt, and heard in that time. Whether Bayonne, Louisiana or Greenville, South Carolina, we should all enter The Warehouse Theater and allow ourselves the chance to step back in time to a place that did not allow equality and judgment based on race and stature of the period. You definitely will walk away wondering if today our society has changed.
Reviewed by Pamela McAbee Hoyt