Lexington Players to represent the United States at the World Amateur Theater Festival
In 1944, Lena Baker was working as a maid in Cuthbert, George for a man named Earnest Knight. Baker, a black woman, was abused and held in near slavery by Knight. One evening, Knight attacked Baker, threatening his life. During the fight, Baker shot Knight in self-defense, killing him. Baker reported the incident immediately, but was taken into custody anyway.
An all-white, all-male jury rejected Baker’s self-defense plea and found her guilty of capital murder. In March 1945, Baker became the first and only woman to be electrocuted in Georgia.
Today, after more than 70 years, Baker’s story is illuminated. A one-woman show entitled “Who Will Sing for Lena? is internationally acclaimed for The Lexington Players, a city-based community theater company. The show was written by Janice Liddell.
After winning a long string of awards over the past few years, the Lexington players will travel to Monaco later this month to participate in the World Theater Festival World Amateur Theater Festival than the representatives of the United States.
This prestigious festival has been held every four years since 1957, and only 14 other theater groups have been accepted besides the Lexington Players. They will perform on Wednesday August 18 and Thursday August 19 at the Princess Grace Theater in the heart of Monaco.
A long trip
For The Lexington Players, this marks the culmination of more than a decade of hard work, said founding member Sal Jones. Jones, who is also the director of “Who will Sing for Lena?” has seen this production every step of the way.
“We feel like ‘the little theater company that could,’ honestly, win national championships and be chosen for that as well. It’s going to be wild, it’s going to be awesome,” Jones said.
Jones helped found the Lexington Players in 1994, he said. Since then, the organization has grown. It now produces four shows per year as well as various children’s productions through its Youth Stage program. This growth has occurred despite having to relocate multiple times, Jones said. Lexington players have spent time at Hancock Church, Cotting School, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, and other local venues.
“We’ve always been that little theater group, up against bigger ones in Arlington, Burlington and elsewhere. We managed to survive,” Jones said.
Michelle Aguillon has been heavily involved in The Lexington Players and other community theater programs for decades. She has seen with her own eyes the evolution of the program since meeting Jones and his involvement around 1995. Aguillon is part of the team that goes to Monaco.
“Storytelling is important, it reflects our time, what is happening in our culture,” she said. “Reflecting this to the public is vital, to remind us that we are all on the same page, we all face joys.”
A personal connection
This particular production of “Who Will Sing for Lena” dates back about 12 years, according to Jones. While attending a community theater festival, he recalls noting that there were very few shows with black people involved, either on stage as actors or behind the scenes. So Jones was drawn to a production of this particular show that was put on by a theater company in Oklahoma, he said. He won every major festival award, and Jones knew he wanted to make a version of his own. It was a risk, Jones added, because he was mostly experienced in comedy and it was intense drama.
Jones’s mother is from Georgia, not too far from where Baker lived. It added an extra layer of personal meaning to him, further cementing his desire to fit him.
“When we went to these festivals, you would never see any shows produced, directed or performed by black people. It just doesn’t happen a lot. My mom comes from that environment and it’s really important to show strong black women. “Jones mentioned.
Of course, a one-woman show relies heavily on the actress playing Baker, and finding the right fit for the job was difficult, Jones said. It took him years to find the right fit. Many actresses were drawn to the show, but found it to be a very difficult role due to the subject matter and the need to portray sexual assault in this story, Jones said.
Jones eventually landed on Jessica Washington, who still takes the stage as Baker.
“She found it therapeutic to do that scene, but it was difficult for her too. It was very difficult, but she got away with it,” he said.
The show premiered in Lexington in 2015, and audiences were immediately impressed with Washington’s performance. Jones entered the show in various competitions across the country, and more and more people wanted to see it. It won top awards at local and regional festivals before eventually winning the American Association of Community Theaters (AACT) National Top Prize in 2019, according to Jones.
This story, Aguillon said, has gained resonance and urgency in recent years.
“This is what I love to do, what actually happened. It resonates no matter when you do it, but especially over the last couple of years, especially after what’s going on with Black Lives Matter and this kind of brutality that’s always with us, “she said.
Shows that win the national AACT award tend to be approached by the World Festival of Amateur Theater, according to Jones. The Lexington Players applied and beat other companies across the country for an invitation to Monaco.
The COVID pandemic has hampered, delaying travel and forcing Lexington players to adapt. Luckily for fans, they staged a production at Arlington Friends of the Drama and streamed it live for viewing online.
Earlier this summer, a note arrived from Monaco. The festival was back and The Lexington Players was scheduled for two shows. So plane tickets have been booked, bags have been packed, and a small theater company will soon be representing Lexington on a prestigious international stage.
“It’s a once in a lifetime thing,” Aguillon said. “It’s amazing that this is happening to us right now.”