REVIEW: Thoughtlessly executed, thoughtfully portrayed — “Who Will Sing For Lena?”

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Between hyperactive newsfeeds and the constant salvo of screens, modern attention spans are anemic reminders of what they used to be. But  in a darkened, backroom theater in Aurora last weekend the eyes and minds of the audience at the Aurora Fox Arts Center were fixated on Adrienne Martin-Fullwood and the harrowing story of Lena Mae Baker.

Lena-ArtworkIf you’re not familiar with Baker’s story, don’t sweat — you’re not alone. Convicted of murder in 1945, she became the first, and only, woman ever to be put to death by electric chair in Georgia. Baker, a black woman, was accused of fatally shooting her abusive lover-turned-captor, a story an all-white jury had no hesitation in confirming in a trial that lasted less than five hours. Though the state eventually admitted Baker’s actions were self-defense and granted her an official pardon in 2005, the case stands as a paradigm of 20th century injustice and inequality.

“Who Will Sing for Lena” by Janice Lidell walks viewers through Baker’s turbulent life, from her childhood in rural Cuthbert, Georgia, to her eventual execution, and all the tribulations in between.

A woman hampered by alcoholism, prostitution, and physical and sexual abuse, portraying Baker is a daunting assignment for any actress, especially considering it’s a one-woman show. Martin-Fullwood charges at the role at full force, delivering a bold and relentless performance that oozes energy and charisma — a must for any solo
performance.

Though she was the only one on the intimate stage, it certainly did not feel as if Martin-Fullwood was the only participant in the play. She performs the roles and lines of a variety of characters such as her mother, the judge who sentences her and most notably and masterfully, her repugnant abuser, E.B. Knight. A powerful and emotionally jarring scene from the play is the extreme abuse between Baker and Knight, which Martin-Fullwood uses expert physical presence and stage awareness to masterfully pull off by herself. Director Libby Arnold and producer Susan Lyles’ background in stage combat no doubt had an influence on Martin-Fullwood’s robust ownership of the stage. The end of the scene leaves the audience wanting to jump onstage and strangle an invisible villain, exclusively due to the actress’ ability to bring the male character to life, and give him a visceral presence that feels all too real.

On top of single-handedly tackling an array of characters, Martin-Fullwood asks for and receives plenty of aid from the audience of about 70, an almost inevitable occurrence in a theater where even those in the worst seats are no more than 30 feet from the stage. The script asks a slew of rhetorical questions, which members of the audience often gladly answer with head nods or a subtle “mm-hmm.” This relatively open dialogue between actress and audience makes for an incredibly intimate atmosphere and showcases the authenticity of the performance. And although Martin-Fullwood committed her share of mistakes, from stumbling through or searching for a specific line to floating in and out of a very transparent, faux-Southern drawl, her report and trust with those watching seemed to forgive any shortcomings.

That same honesty and sincerity with which Martin-Fullwood communicates with the audience is how the production scores on so many levels. The performance is raw and completely shameless, exactly what a story such as Baker’s requires. The attention she demands from the audience forces you to buy and ease into such a tragic and uncomfortable moment in
history.

All and all, Martin-Fullwood is an emotional tour de force, courageously leading the audience through a story that needs to be told. Her delivery is less-than-perfect at times, however her sincerity and fearlessness more than make up for it. Remind yourself of what it’s like to commit your attention to just one subject and check out this brave, personal performance.

“Who Will Sing For Lena?” 

Through  August 3, Thursday – Saturday 7:30 p.m., Sunday 2:00 p.m.

The Aurora Fox Studio Theatre, 9900 E. Colfax Ave.

Tickets start at $20 

Call 303.739.1970  

Visit andtototoo.org for more information.

3 out of 4 stars