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Lexington Players tackle bold, important performance in ‘Who Will Sing for Lena?’

Celina Colby | 5/4/2017, 6 a.m.

The Lexington Players performed Janice L. Liddell’s “Who Will Sing for Lena?” at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown last week. The one-woman show is based on the true story of Lena Baker, an African American maid who was wrongfully convicted of the murder of her white employer, Ernest Knight. She was executed by the state of Georgia in 1945 in what was the first — and last — time the state government electrocuted a woman.

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For more information about “Who Will Sing For Lena?” visit: http://arsenalarts.org/archived/who-will-sing-for-lena/

The script doesn’t tiptoe around the subject matter. The show opens with Baker sitting on the floor playing with a deck of cards. “Mama’s twin cousin was lynched almost a year ago to the day I was born,” she begins. “Mama never knew I — and every cullud girl born that year — was only suppose to live to be thirty-three.”

In the titular role, Jessica Washington unravels the story of Baker’s tumble into an unhappy fate. Unguided and in need of money, Baker forayed into prostitution, a practice that led to a relationship with Knight that was at first taboo, then violent.

On both race and gender levels, the show resonates eerily with the present. Baker was convicted by an all-male, all-white jury. That image bears a stark resemblance to recently circulated photos of President Trump and his white male staff signing the global gag rule restricting women’s access to abortions and other reproductive services. The show’s subject matter, too, speaks to the present through its depictions of victim-blaming in cases of sexual assault. From the electric chair to the hospital room, the sexism and racism exposed in this story are still deeply woven into our justice system.

“Who Will Sing for Lena?” is a bold choice for the Lexington-based community theatre group, which has a history of more conventional performances. The show is uncomfortable, in all the right ways. The depictions of violence, rape and death are unsettling, but Baker’s life was no picnic, and the Lexington Players courageously pull the story out from under the rug.

In 2005, the Georgia Board of Pardon and Paroles pardoned Lena Baker post-mortem. The same year, Liddell debuted her play in a simultaneous world premiere, performed by select actresses in different parts of the globe. The coup-style launch was a powerful reminder that pardon or no, Baker suffered extensively and unnecessarily during her life. In addition to spreading the truth about Baker’s life and wrongful conviction, the play provides a center-stage solo role for actresses of color. In this way, the show paves the road in another highly discriminatory arena: the theater.