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A Lesson Before Dying — Discussion

When Ernest Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying was published in 1993, the book was hailed as "an instant classic." It appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for months and later won the National Book Critic Circle award. It tells the story of Grant Wiggins, an African–American teacher who has returned to his hometown to work at a run–down plantation school in the late 1940s. He is called upon to bring learning and pride to Jefferson, a young black man who is sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit. Steppenwolf's Arts Exchange presents Romulus Linney's adaptation of this important novel as its first production of the season. Artistic associate Curt Columbus spoke with Edward Sobel, literary manager and director of the production about some of the themes that resonate for him. Curt Columbus: Talk to me about the teacher–student relationship in the play. Ed Sobel: What is remarkable about the relationship in the play is the way in which it calls into question who is doing the teaching and who is doing the learning. So even though the stated relationship is that Grant is Jefferson's teacher, in the end of it all, Grant ends up learning just as much from Jefferson. It's an exchange of wisdom, rather than just a one–way dumping of knowledge. CC: Do you see that as being part of any good student–teacher relationship? ES: Certainly, that's been my experience both as a teacher and as a student. One of the reasons that I'm so attracted to the play is because Romulus Linney, who did the adaptation, was my playwriting teacher. I would say that most of what I understand about how a play is put together comes from his classes. So, it's actually really gratifying to be continuing that circle, now that I'm getting a chance to present his work to a group of students. CC: Why is this play particularly important for students now? ES: Well, even though it is set in the late 1940s, I think it has a lot to say about now. I think that our students will readily identify with Jefferson — the sense of alienation that he feels, the sense of disempowerment, and the parameters that are set on his possibilities. I also think that they'll recognize in Grant, a teacher who is questioning his own commitment to teaching, that moment when someone doesn't know what more they have to give to their students. Finally, the question of capital punishment is certainly part of the fabric of the play. And that's an issue with which we've been grappling in the last couple of years, particularly in Illinois. And so, the overt–political frame of the play is really current. But what draws me most to this play is the student/teacher relationship between Grant and Jefferson, and the way in which we can learn from anyone, even the people we're supposed to be teaching. Committed to the principle of ensemble performance through the collaboration of a company of actors, directors and designers, Steppenwolf Theater Company's mission is to advance the vitality and diversity of American theater by nurturing artists, encouraging repeatable creative relationships, and contributing new works to the national canon. The company, formed in 1976 by a collective of actors, is dedicated to perpetuating an ethic of mutual respect and the development of artists through on–going group work. Steppenwolf has grown into an internationally renowned company of thirty–four artists whose talents include acting, directing, playwriting, filmmaking, and textual adaptation.