More than Just a Conversation: Review of Who Will Sing for Lena?

Content warning: discussion of rape and sexual assault

“He raped me. He raped me. He raped.” These lines are repeated throughout the short play “Who Will Sing For Lena?” which was presented Feb. 12 at Bates College in recognition of Black History Month.

The play relays the story of Lena Mae Baker, the only woman to be executed by the electric chair in Georgia. Lena tells of how she grew up in Cuthbert, Ga. and was eventually tried and executed. She addresses the audience directly several times which makes the play all the more personal. Her story is especially relevant in today’s time of the #MeToo movement; Lena was executed because she, in self-defense, shot and killed the man who raped her repeatedly during the several years she worked for him.

An especially poignant moment in the play is after Lena describes being raped over a table. Lena is quiet, she grabs the edge of a chair she clutches her abdomen, and lets out a scream that can only be described as bone-chilling. It echoed throughout the theatre.

Imagine the scream you might make if you suddenly came across your murdered family. It is a scream of a woman who has been defiled, taken advantage of, and raped. It is the scream of a woman who can’t go on any longer, but must, because dying isn’t an option. It is the scream of a woman who is alone.

Lena returns home the first day after she was raped, and her mother tells her that she better get back to her employer, Mr. Knight, because Lena has three small children to take care of. And that’s what Lena does. She continues to work for Mr. Knight as he repeatedly forces himself on her.

One night, Mr. Knight comes to Lena’s house and forces her to stay in a mill that he owns. A fight ensues between the two of them and, in an act of self-defense, Lena shoots Mr. Knight. A jury composed entirely of white men sentences Lena to death after four and a half hours. The plays ends moments before she is to be electrocuted.

“Who Will Sing for Lena” is one woman play and the actress was none other than Bates very own Jessica Washington ’13. Washington is currently getting her MFA at the Actor’s Studio in New York, a notable graduate being Bradley Cooper.

The play is especially hard for Washington to perform. She was in tears after the performance was over. Her acting and the production of the play as been noted as it has won the National Overall Outstanding Production by the American Association of Community Theatre (AACT): Outstanding Achievement in a Leading Role by Jessica Washington by (AACT) national competition: The Outstanding Theatrical Moment by the  (AACT) national competition,  and the Audience Choice, People’s Choice Favorite Actress by (AACT).

After being asked in the Q&A how to take what was learned from the play and continue the conversation Washington answered that “Conversations only go so far . . . a conversation is just brainstorming.” Washington then explained how she was a founding member of the popular Martin Luther King Jr. Day performance of SANKOFA after noticing that there “wasn’t much going on on campus as it related to diaspora . . .and [she and her friends] wanted to introduce culture. . . it started as a conversation, but [they] didn’t just leave it there.”

The way to make change, Washington is saying, is to actually act in some way. Conversing isn’t enough anymore. If you want to make change, make it.