Drama portrays harsh realities of the South pre-Civil Rights

Richard Bradford takes the role of Jefferson in “A Lesson Before Dying.” - submitted photo

In a backwoods Louisiana jail cell in 1948, Jefferson, a young Black man, waits to die in the electric chair. Called a hog by his attorney for a murder he didn’t commit, he decides to act like a hog swearing he’ll have to be dragged to the chair. And so begins a searing drama titled “A Lesson Before Dying,” produced by Iron Age Theatre and running at the Centre Theater in Norristown through Dec. 1.

In the drama, based on the powerful novel by Ernest Gaines, the condemned man’s aunt, who raised him, browbeats a Black school teacher named Grant to teach Jefferson to die like a man. Grant hates the South and dreams of leaving, but as the only educated Black man in the area, feels pressured to make the most of the situation.

“This story is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s,” says director John Doyle “In many ways little has changed. Many young Black men are still unfairly condemned and in a harsh penal system with no hope, their community still economically and socially locked out.”

According to local actor Richard Bradford, who takes the role of Jefferson, this story gives a unique look at the status of African Americans in the South after World War II and before the Civil Rights Movement — a Jim Crow South seen through the eyes of a formally educated African American teacher.

“I was raised by my grandmother who taught me to be socially conscious,” Bradford says. “She taught me that the world needs change and if we don’t have people willing to work for that change, then we’ll all eventually destroy ourselves.

“No matter how big or small the cause,” he continues, “everyone can get involved somehow, whether by marching, voting or protesting. Everyone cam take a stance for change.” Bradford, who studied acting at Freedom Theater before moving on for more education at the Stella Adler School in New York, says that desire to see social justice come about was one of the reasons he decided on an acting career.

“I decided on acting because I knew it would give me a chance to tell a story and help get out the message of social issues to others. It also gave me a chance to delve deeper and understand my own history.”

Studying with Johnny Hobbs at Freedom Theater sealed the deal for Bradford. “Johnny made me fall in love with acting and pushed me to go further with it. Looking back, I’m so glad I took his advise.”

Having appeared in several Iron Age productions, Bradford hopes there will be even more in his future. He also hopes there might be film and TV in his future as well.

“In fact, five years from now I’d like to be sitting at the SAG Awards, either being awarded for my work as an actor or for something I’ve written and produced. Actually, I just want to keep on doing what I’m doing in whatever capacity.”

For times and ticket information, call (610) 279-1013.

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