Who Will Sing For Lena
nytheatre.com review by Judith Jarosz
July 28, 2006
Many people (myself included) had not heard of Lena May Baker until it made national press when the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles posthumously pardoned her on August 15, 2005. Baker, an African American maid, was and remains to this day the only woman to die in a Georgia electric chair. Hers is certainly a story worth telling.
This one-woman show opens with Lena seated on the mostly bare stage playing cards, then braiding her hair while greeting the audience and talking about her life. She continues her narration of her life from a dirt poor five-year-old sweating in the cotton fields, to her death in a Georgia electric chair on March 5, 1945. With few stage pieces and a handful of props, performer Lady Altovise movingly portrays Baker as she moves through her pre-teens when her mother is "selected" to cook and clean inside a white person's house, a major step up from the fields. There is a stint singing, dancing, and running an after hours joint with friend Lizzie that morphs into prostitution. "They paid real good money...what was I supposed to do?" This eventually gets her busted and sent for 6 months to a workhouse with maggoty food and people giving birth on the dirt floor. She is grateful: if they had known that she had white costumers, she would have been lynched.
Then comes the fateful day in 1944 when Mr. E. B. Knight, a white mill operator in Cuthbert, Georgia, breaks his leg and needs a nurse. Lena's mom, who is known in the county as the best at nursing folks back to health, is approached for the task. By this time Lena has three children and no husband. Her mother sends Lena to work for Mr. Knight while she stays to take care of the grandchildren. The relationship is never smooth with the abusive, alcoholic Knight, and Lena is sexually exploited but stays on after his leg is healed. "I had three babies to feed." One day Knight savagely rapes Lena in the kitchen. Later, after being locked in the mill overnight with no food, Lena tells her boss that she is quitting her job. He says he will kill her first, threatening her with a gun. Lena somehow gets the gun and fatally shoots him when he raises a branding iron to kill her.
The show is tightly directed by Tezra Bryant, with versatile costume pieces by JoAnn Hosh and a set of black box pieces by Toni Zambardi. The electric chair looks very authentic and scary. No one is credited for the simple lighting. Lady Altovise does a good job of talking directly to the audience and keeping them involved. She is a robust, likable performer, who moves well and has a strong singing voice. Rape scenes are always tough, and hers is brutal and effective.
It's not clear where Lena is when the play begins. Is she just hanging in heaven (or hell) playing cards? I wish she would come back at the end and give the show some sort of tag.
Even though she went to the police herself and told them it was self-defense, an all-white, all-male jury convicted Lena May Baker of the first-degree murder of E.B. Knight during a one-day trial. Her white court-appointed attorney in her defense called not one witness. Baker was 44 years old when she was electrocuted.