By Daniel Skora
The story of Lena May Baker, executed by electric chair in 1945, is a heartbreaker, not only because Baker was condemned to death after killing a man who had repeatedly abused her sexually, emotionally, and physically, but because America, the land of the free and the home of the brave was neither free nor brave for all peoples in the state of Georgia in the first half of the 20th century.
The Matrix Theatre Company is presenting “Who Will Sing for Lena”, playwright Janice L. Liddell’s highly emotional and deeply disturbing stage adaptation of a story that was neglected by the American consciousness for decades. Liddell’s script, which is performed as a one woman show, is brutal in its honesty. Baker was held against her will and beaten and raped by a man for whom she worked as a caretaker and domestic. In one final confrontation, with her own life seemingly in jeopardy, she shot and killed Ernest Knight with his own pistol. Baker was subsequently found guilty of first degree murder by an all male, all white jury in a courtroom run by a judge with the nickname “Two Gun” because of the pistols he kept on the bench by his side.
“Who Will Sing for Lena” is a one woman show, but the presence of her assailant is felt throughout the play. Not much of Baker’s ordeal is spared in the staging. The brutality of rape, the violence perpetrated against her, and the fear and hopelessness of a woman with no one to turn to are all graphically portrayed. And less the outcome of the story be ever in doubt, an electric chair sits patient and stoical at one end of the stage throughout the play.
Ashley M. Lyle turns in an accomplished performance as Baker, in this, her professional debut. Hers is a compassionate and deeply moving performance that affects in many ways. Together with Liddell’s highly charged script and Casaundra Freeman’s unfaltering direction, Lyle’s performance makes for a truly memorable theatrical experience.
Among Baker’s last words were these: “What I done, I did in self defense, or I would have been killed myself. God has forgiven me. I am ready to go. I am ready to meet my God.” Brave as she was and as dear as life must have been to her, there is the sense that much of Baker’s life must have been so excruciatingly painful that not only was death not to be feared, but was a welcome occurence as well. And that perhaps is the saddest part of Lena May Baker’s story.
“Who Will Sing for Lena?” runs approximately 80 minutes and is performed without intermission. Director Freeman also serves as sound designer. Set design is by Christina Killmar, costumes by Katherine Nelson Hanley. Lighting design is by Amy Schneider with props and sound engineering by Megan Buckley–Ball. Stage manager for the production is Sarah Drum.
The show runs through December 10th. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 1.313.967.0599 Mon-Fri 10:00a.m. to 5:00p.m., one hour before performances, or going online at www.MatrixTheatre.org. The Matrix Theatre is located at 2730 Bagley St. in southwest Detroit.