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In Romulus Linney’s, A Lesson Before Dying, Linney highlights the abounding inequalities and obstacles African American people faced on a daily basis in society and government in the South during the 1900’s. Romulus Linney was a white man born in 1930, in Philadelphia, but raised in North Carolina and Tennessee. Linney attended Oberlin College for his undergraduate work and continued his education at Yale School of Drama for his Masters Degree (Fleming ).After his education and being drafted into the army, Linney did an adaptation of Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. Ernest Gaines was an African American man who grew up in slavery and used his personal experiences as inspirations for his work (Babb).
Linney conveys Gaines’ message by telling a story of a local black man named Jefferson. Jefferson was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of a white man; far from an abnormal occurrence for the time period. The characters, Grant Wiggins, the local school teacher, and Miss Emma, Jefferson’s Godmother, are given the opportunity to visit Jefferson while he awaits his death in a jail cell. Mr. Wiggins and Miss Emma choose to take advantage of that time to change Jefferson’s attitude towards his life. On the surface, Jefferson is the individual who is in need of Grant Wiggin’s help in order to find himself again, but as the play progresses, one is caught straying from the idea that Jefferson is the one in need of help, and rather is directed to the notion that Jefferson, instead, acts as a catalyst for each character’s self-discovery.
During the exposition of the play, Linney uses the trial scene as a perfect gateway to expose the psychological effects of racism on a person and also as a basis for the play to follow. Jefferson was not doubting his manhood, until the trial, where he fell victim to racism within in the legal system. “What justice would there be to take this life? Justice, gentlemen? Why, I would just as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this.”(Lesson Before Dying 7). While representing and defending Jefferson in court, Jefferson’s lawyer refers to him as a “hog” after various presentations to the jury of evidence that would prove Jefferson’s innocence. The change in strategy made by the lawyer was done to adhere to society’s preconceived beliefs of black people and win the case by personifying Jefferson as animalistic and incapable of planning a murder. The lawyer’s strategy failed and caused an extensive shift in Jefferson’s psychological state. Jefferson, after the trial, acted as if he was a hog; asking for corn and walking on his hands and knees. Without the trial, Jefferson would have never had the psychological turn-around and would have never needed Mr. Wiggins. Linney wrote all of the characters as dynamic characters, but Mr. Wiggins is one of the most dynamic characters in the play.
Mr. Wiggins is written to represent the inner struggles of what African Americans went through; deeper than the struggles Jefferson represents. Throughout, the audience members gathers that Mr. Wiggins was sent to college by a collective contribution from their community, with the intentions for him to come back and educate the younger generations. The education Mr. Wiggin’s sought was supposed to enhance his quality of life, but in an ironic turn of events he developed a hatred for the white man and a distance from his own community. When confronted
by Miss Emma and his Aunt Lou, Mr. Wiggins denied their requests, reasoning that there was nothing that he could do for Jefferson. Although it is not until the end of the play that Jefferson reveals his true feelings, Linney utilizes the entire play to show the readers the copious amounts of significant moments that lead up to the ultimate breakthrough between Jefferson and Mr. Wiggins.
Jefferson’s transformation is evident in that Mr. Wiggins helped him realize that he is a man, not just another racial stereotype. Mr. Wiggin’s transformation is more subtle. In the beginning of the play, Mr. Wiggins is portrayed as a deeply reticent and detached, slightly cold, educated black male who sees himself as useless in his community because nothing will change; white’s will always have the power. While working with Jefferson, Linney gives the reader multiple opportunities to pick up on subtle occurrences throughout that lead up to Mr. Wiggins learning from Jefferson, learning that things can change; people can change. Throughout, Mr. Wiggins did not believe society could change in any way, people would never be able to leave his community, or that he could help Jefferson, he constantly saw life as a continuum that was not capable of change, until Jefferson. Jefferson showed Mr. Wiggins that he was able to make a difference and change was possible, which inevitably increased Mr. Wiggin’s self-confidence and led to a little soul-searching, resulting in his self-discovery that he can be the difference that enacts change.
Due to the fact that Jefferson was able to ignite something in Mr. Wiggins, that had a butterfly effect on all the characters and story. Mr. Wiggins played a large role for each character overall; he was the connecting link between the idea of change and the action of change for his community, starting with his students.
A Lesson Before Dying has many focal points that one is able to discover and explore, making his play such a captivating one to watch. The many focal points may make it difficult to follow exactly where the story line is, but even with that minor difficulty, it forces the reader to take a step back and think about what is going on. Linney did not incorporate many characters into his play but, each character is impacted, or affected, by the two main characters, Jefferson and Mr. Wiggins. Overall, A Lesson Before Dying, at first glance, is a simplistic play about discrimination and racism in The South in the 1900s, but when looked at deeper, Romulus Linney’s use of characters and the dialogue between them is a driving force to categorizing A Lesson Before Dying, as a muckraking play that can be used to reveal the underlying effects of racism, segregation, discrimination in The South.
Jefferson: Scene before execution/First interaction with Grant
Monologue: Jefferson walking up to the electric chair.
“I dunno how I got into this position. Everythin’ happened so fast. Brother, Bear, and I were all laughin’ havin’ fun and then there was gunshots. I didn’t know why they pulled out them guns, but I couldn’t move after it happened. Who was gonna believe the black man standin’ over a white man’s body? I wish I never got in that car. I wish I never went in that store. If I hadn’t done that I would not be here now. Mr. Wiggin’s did right by me though. I still dunno why he decided to help me or how he did it, God maybe, but he helped me be a man again. That lawyer callin me a hog messed me up, but I’m walking to this chair to prove to the white folks that they don’t got no power over me.”
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