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Interview: Denise O'Neal Talks Directing A LESSON BEFORE DYING for Pearl Theater

The Pearl Theater opened their production of A LESSON BEFORE DYING, which plays through this Sunday, February 26, a little over a week ago. So naturally, I decided to talk to the show's director, Denise O'Neal, yesterday.

Lucky for this time-management impaired reporter, A LESSON BEFORE DYING is evergreen. The play, adapted by Romulus Linney from Ernest J. Gaines' popular novel of the same name, deserves consideration on and off the stage.

The play, set in 1948 Louisiana, centers around Jefferson, a goodhearted but uneducated young black man condemned to death for a crime he did not commit. But the story could easily be centered around Emmett, a chubby, stuttering teen executed in 1955 Mississippi. Or set in 2014 Ohio, where Tamir, a sweet-faced boy, who faced his judge, jury, and executioner on the playground in the span of two seconds.

Like O'Neal, quoting Alphonse Karr, says below: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose." The more things change, the more they stay the same.

You took a long break from directing, right? What made you come back?

You're right, actually. I didn't realize how much time had passed. For the past two years, I have been busy producing the Fade To Black play festivals and watching it grow into something great. A LESSON BEFORE DYING got me back into directing. I directed INTIMATE APPAREL with the Pearl Theater in 2014-2015. In 2016 I came back because I was given the opportunity to work with a great community theatre again, and this time choose the play I would direct. I made good use of the opportunity and selected the most poignant piece I could.

What about A LESSON BEFORE DYING spoke to you?

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," [said] Alphonse Karr. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Unfortunately, because of our present socio-economic and racial climate, the story told in A LESSON BEFORE DYING is still relevant. The killing of innocent (yet clearly ignorant) young black men still plagues our nation. It is frightening to see that Blacks receive 60 percent longer sentences for the same crimes other races commit. Too often the sentencing of a black man results in his death (systematically with subtlety or literally with audacity). They are shameless executions, which is exactly what Jefferson received. What drew me into the play was seeing how this condemned man accepted his mortality with dignity, in the face of insurmountable legal injustice. It is a testament of what courage looks like and a lot of wisdom can be taken from that.

It's a theory of mine that the treatment of black people in America -- slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality, we could go on and on -- is so often outside the bounds of the thinkable that only melodrama can serve it. How do you stay true to the story in play like A LESSON BEFORE DYING without the audience waving it off as unrealistic or perceiving it as exaggeration?

It was very important to me to make sure the actors were intimately, and intrinsically if possible, connected to their character; so much so that they would know if I were to ask them: In a situation like this, what would this character do? It was important because once this deep connection is made, everything that poured out of them on stage was natural and believable. At the end of every show, many audience members cried for Jefferson. It's hard to watch a flower bloom only to see it trampled on.They had been touched by his humanity and his unjust fate. I made the commitment to myself to tell this story with a few new "twist and turns" that would make each character journey relatable.

HIDDEN FIGURES added a fictional heroic white male character to soften the racial reality of the time. Does A LESSON BEFORE DYING, the play, do this? Is this something you considered as a director?

Yes, I have. The play was actually written by a white playwright, Romulus Linney. He was friends with Ernest Gaines and gained permission to adapt his book into the play. I often wondered how the tone of the play would have been if it were written by a black playwright, but at any rate, it was a wonderful piece. I had very personal reasons why I needed to take the flow of the play and make it stand out from the rest; it really wasn't an option to do otherwise. I am happy to say the casts' performances shined through every night! The liberties we took were respectful and supportive of the story and seemed to draw empathy from the audience.

There is another production of A LESSON BEFORE DYING currently playing [at Encore Theatre] in Houston. Did you take this into consideration when making your choices?

I did. It seems that great minds think alike, but it is a wonderful thing anytime a theatre presents the African-American experience on stage. The cast and I wish them well and hope they are successful in their production endeavors. Houston is blessed to have such widespread coverage of this excellent play.

Okay, so I realize now that many of my questions have been about the difficulty of directing. What went smooth? Where did you find joy in the process?

The smoothest ride came from working with my cast and stage management. I have to admit, I have been blessed (maybe even spoiled) to always have the most amazing talent working around me. I've learned to appreciate the beauty of collaborative efforts in directing. The cast and I evolved together making the whole greater than the sum of parts. I enjoyed this.

Denise O'Neal is a director and playwright as well as the executive director of Shabach Enterprise/Watch My Groove Entertainment, a non-profit organization that seeks to support African-American community outreach and advancements through theatrical arts. She also heads the FADE TO BLACK FESTIVAL, a Texas Commission on the Arts supported event held each year to celebrate new works by African-American Playwrights.

A LESSON BEFORE DYING continues through February 26. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at 14803 Park Almeda Drive. For tickets and information, please call 832-459-4674 or visit $16. Discount available for students and seniors.

Photo courtesy of Pearl Theater

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