Throughout the early- to mid-20th century, hundreds of often innocent African-American men were executed for crimes such as burglary and rape. Many of these capital cases were decided by all-white juries in county courts throughout the South. There was often no appeals process, and the death sentences were carried out by individual counties.
Such is the fictional case of a young African-American man named Jefferson in the Ernest J. Gaines novel, A Lesson Before Dying. Adapted for the stage, A Lesson Before Dying features Kareem Nemley as Jefferson, who is arrested in Louisiana in the late 1940s for a murder he did not commit. A Lesson Before Dying opens Friday on a stage that uses the altar steps in the sanctuary of Raleigh’s St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.
The play is being produced by The Justice Theater Project, a newly established theatrical group that was the brainstorm of two Catholic women who are St. Francis parishioners. Megan Nerz and Deb Royals birthed the idea over a cup of coffee. With some cash support from the church’s “Arts for Justice” ministry, the pair got the ball rolling in January when Royals, a highly regarded director with the Raleigh Ensemble Players, recruited several professional actors and actresses from around the Triangle to join the cast without a promise of compensation.
Friday’s show is free, but the group will pass a hat for donations, says Nerz, who is promoting the play as a way to get people to join the effort to lobby the General Assembly to pass a moratorium on executions. Following the show, the cast and production crew will engage the audience in a “Talk-Back” forum, inviting people to participate in a discussion about the issues raised in the play.
“We think that the theater is a way to bring an issue to people that is sometimes not as confrontational as other venues or other events,” Nerz says. “Our goal is really to help people walk away thinking about something; reconsidering their preconceived notion, their going-in assumptions about things.”
The Arts for Justice ministry has also invited to the show state representatives who are considered swing votes in the effort to get the moratorium passed in the state House. A moratorium resolution passed the N.C. Senate last year, but it never came to a vote in the House.
“We really are trying to facilitate the coming together of people who are kind of on the fence or those who oppose a moratorium,” Nerz says. “We’re trying to get some of those legislators who are for the death penalty to come and to listen and to hear and to be moved. I think theater moves people at an emotional level, and I think to change attitudes you have to reach that emotional level, because unless you tap into a person at that level I’m not sure you ever really transform them in a significant way.
“You can put all the facts and the figures in front of people, but unless you reach them at their core–unless you reach their hearts–I don’t think you really make a difference, and I think theater helps you get there, and I think it helps you get there faster and I think it helps you get there in a really compelling way.”
Helping to promote the play is St. Francis parishioner and defense attorney Mary Pollard, who represented Alan Gell, a man who was sent to North Carolina’s death row after evidence proving his innocence was hidden from his trial jury. Acquitted in a second trial, Gell spent nearly nine years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. While Jefferson’s fictional case is set more than 50 years ago, Pollard says people facing the death penalty today still suffer under a system that is arbitrary and capricious.
“It’s absolutely still a flawed system,” Pollard says.
For play director Royals, who was honored by Spectator weekly as one of the five best playwrights in the Triangle, this is not her first stab at integrating theater and the human condition. She has used her professional skills for projects in both men’s and women’s prisons. She has also worked with the homeless at the Raleigh Rescue Mission, where women adapted their creative writing for the stage. In the summer, Royals operates a theater camp for youth that includes children of the poor.
Royal says she has always tried to link her artistic gifts with her faith journey by “serving others and developing ways of speaking and using talents to love other people and develop and see those talents in other people and have them then do the same and grow from this experience that you share together.”
Also working for peanuts on the project is set designer Thomas Mauney, whose credits include the Titanic exhibit at The N.C. Museum of Science. Nerz hopes to pay Mauney about $150 for his time, and perhaps $100 to each of the show’s seven performers.
Becca Nerz, Megan’s 17-year-old daughter, is serving as the play’s assistant director. A junior at Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons High, Becca, who plans to major in theater in college, says the play combines two things that are very important in her life–the effort to pass a moratorium on executions and her love of theater.
In addition to the death penalty, another important theme of the play is race, Becca says. The racial stereotypes in Jefferson’s case, she says, “are still here now.”
Down the road, Royals says she dreams about more productions for The Justice Theater Project that will address other topics such as homelessness, domestic violence, environmental problems and educational inequality. The plan is to provide a voice for marginalized populations, she says.
Royals dreams big. She hopes The Justice Theater Project can become a national role model for similar endeavors. She’d also like the project to empower marginalized people and perhaps lead them to employment in the project.
“I would love to see it develop into its own entity that serves this entire diocese, our entire state, and to set a precedent nationwide,” Royals says. “This is the only way I know of speaking because it’s all I’ve ever done my whole life. It’s a way for me to speak about it, to make it thought-provoking or maybe even challenge peoples’ preconceived ideas.”