Courtesy Patrick Kennerly. The cast of Showtimers’ “A Lesson Before Dying” (l-r): : James Wise, Jr. (Grant), Tim Kennard (Deputy Paul), William Penn (Rev. Ambrose), Barbara Sanders (Emma Glenn), and Mike Johnson (Jefferson).
Thousands in the Roanoke Valley, many of them schoolchildren, read Ernest J. Gaines’ tragic novel of racism and injustice, “A Lesson Before Dying,” in early 2010 as part of The Big Read, a community reading effort led by Roanoke Valley Reads.
Starting Wednesday, Showtimers Community Theatre will bring the novel to life on stage in honor of Black History Month — the first time the 62-year-old theater has put on a play for the observance, said show director Patrick Kennerly.
The play is one of several Black History Month events happening this month in Roanoke and at Virginia Tech.
Kennerly took part in a reading of the theater adaptation of “A Lesson Before Dying” at Studio Roanoke during The Big Read. “I just fell in love with the play. You can’t really watch that play without being affected by it,” he said.
So last summer Kennerly — a veteran of many past Showtimers’ productions — suggested the play to the Showtimers board. It will be the theater’s season’s opener for 2013.
Adapted by Romulus Linney, the play closely follows Gaines’ story of a poor black man falsely convicted of murder and sentenced to die, and rival mentors — a minister and a schoolteacher — who influence how he will live out his remaining days.
Burton Center for Arts and Technology engineering teacher Mike Johnson plays the condemned man, Jefferson; Roanoke jazz musician William Penn portrays the Rev. Moses Ambrose; and James Wise Jr. has the lead role as Grant Wiggins, a teacher in a segregated school for black students.
“This is the first play I’ve done that’s been a major drama,” Penn said. “I love the story. All the characters have a lot to say.”
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