Arts Review: A Lesson Before Dying

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The weight of society’s pervasive shadow – the reality of indifference, apathy, and social injustice – can be stifling and altogether suffocating for those individuals with hopes of progress, change, and equality. Romulus Linney’s play, A Lesson Before Dying, based on the novel by Ernest Gaines, introduces some of the frustrations associated with an egregious act of discrimination, while encouraging focus and determination in light of experiencing the inevitable setbacks and obstacles of racism.

Set in the Jim Crow south of Bayonne, Louisiana, 1948, a young black man, Jefferson (Kalif Troy), is wrongfully accused of a crime he did not commit, convicted by an all-white jury, and consequently sentenced to death. In a desperate struggle to find Jefferson some inner peace, his godmother, Emma Glenn (Sabreen L. Gunsby) beckons Jefferson’s grade school teacher, Grant Wiggins (James W. Ijames) to talk some sense and dignity into her godson. In the ensuing months prior to Jefferson’s execution, Wiggins and Jefferson develop an intricate relationship.

Perhaps one of the more shocking aspects of the play is the character Paul Bonin (Arleigh Hughes), the prison officer assigned to oversee Jefferson and Wiggins’ meetings. Bonin is sympathetic and helpful, despite being a white man. Why? “Well, I just don’t think he did it,” Bonin said. Overhearing the discourse of the proceeding meetings, Bonin is presented with an excess of evidence, clearly vindicating Jefferson’s guilt. Nevertheless, Bonin does little more than straightforwardly cooperate with Wiggins and Jefferson.

While A Lesson Before Dying suggests the futility of defeating the established systems of underlying societal injustices, the play’s message is not one of despair. Rather, it is one of triumphing over despair and stressing the critical value of fighting day after day, despite encountering strife.

“When we look at the world and see all of the injustice and everything that wants changing, we are paralyzed by the enormity of the task. It is easier to accept the status quo than to resist the unexpected. It is easier to blame others for our shortcomings than to take responsibility for our actions. It is easier to say it can’t be done than to try and fail. If only we could see that with a little more effort and a little courage, a great change is possible,” Director John V. Bellomo said, in the director’s note.

A Lesson Before Dying will continue to show throughout this week, Mar. 20 – 25, at 8:00 p.m., with a 2:00 p.m. matinee performance on Saturday, at the Temple University’s Randall Theater, located at 2020 N. 13th Street. Tickets are $13 and are available at the Liacouras Center Box Office, located at 1776 N. Broad St, or online at, or Charge-By-Phone at 1-888-OWLS-TIX (1-888-695-7849). For more information, call the Temple Theaters Information Line at 215-204-1122 or visit

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