March filled with Big Read events

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March is filled with events related to the Big Read Roanoke Valley, and co-chairs Lucy Lee and Ann McCallum believe that there is something for everyone.

The Big Read is a nationwide program created by the National Endowment for the Arts. Every year, a different piece of literature is selected, and everyone in the area is encouraged to read the book. Then, events are planned to complement the novel.

All of the Big Read's March events are related to the book "A Lesson Before Dying." Photo by Kristin Adams
All of the Big Read's March events are related to the book "A Lesson Before Dying." Photo by Kristin Adams

While other localities in Virginia have held Big Reads before, this is the first year that the Roanoke Valley will be participating. The Friends of the Roanoke County Public Library organization obtained the grant for the Big Read, and are coordinating the events. This year’s book, “A Lesson Before Dying,” is about a young African American man in 1940s Louisiana who is sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. The book involves themes of capital punishment and race in America’s deep south, as well as how someone should live knowing he is about to die.

The Big Read Roanoke Valley has received plenty of attention since it was announced in 2009.

“It’s very heartwarming to see so much interest in something like this,” Lucy Lee said. “People keep saying that people don’t read…but we’re getting a lot of interest in this.”

This enthusiasm is extremely important, according to Lee.

“The bottom line is how many people come to our events,” Lee said. “If we ever want to do something like this again…we need to prove that we had a successful event.”Lee and her co-chair, Ann McCallum, will be keeping good documentation of the number of people at the events.

They are not too concerned about poor attendance, however. People seem to be excited about the Big Read, if the sold copies of “A Lesson Before Dying” are any indication.

“Bookstores have told us repeatedly that they’ve sold out and have to buy more,” Lee said.

The libraries have also purchased more than 50 copies of the book, yet they are elusive as well.

All of those reading the book should have numerous events to choose from in March. The Big Read’s planning committee has scheduled over 20 programs, all dealing directly with the book.

“We didn’t start out to have this many events,” Lee said. “All of a sudden, they all just started coming together.”Lee believes that the great assortment of choices means that there is something for everyone to enjoy.

While a writing contest ended on February 26th, and Virginia Western Community College began their festivities on February 1st, the official Big Read will kick off on February 28th with a concert.

“This kickoff will be pure fun,” Lee said. “It will get people ready for the events.”

Roanoke Symphony Orchestra director David Wiley, along with two members of the Orchestra, will be putting on a special performance at the Jefferson Center at 4:00. The music will reflect the period of the book, and will include songs such as Ragtime, Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” and Hollins English professor T.J. Anderson III will read his poetry.

“It is actually a special performance David Wiley put together just for the Big Read,” Lee said.

This event is the only one the Big Read is charging for, and it will cover the expense of the musical performance. Tickets are $20, and those interested are asked to call 345-2550 for tickets.

The Kickoff Event at the Jefferson Center is only the start of the festivities, however. Just days later, the Big Read will begin a brown bag lecture series called Sin and Soup. This four-part lunch series will be led by five different ministers, one of whom is from Northern Virginia; the others have local ties. Held mostly in churches, the ministers will discuss different aspects of the book, and how they relate to religious issues.

“The thing that holds these things together is that, because they’re ministers, they’re going to focus their talks on religion,” Lee said. “I think anybody interested in the subject matter should go to all of them, to see how the different ministers deal with the subject matter in the book.”

Another more theatrical event is a staged reading of the play, held at Studio Roanoke on March 6th.

“I think that’s going to be a pretty riveting event,” Lee said.

Space is limited, but the tickets are free, and can be reserved by calling 343-3054.

On March 13th, Roanoke College visiting professor Cheryl Hopson will give a talk at the Tanglewood Barnes and Noble, entitled “Reading Biracialism and Identity in ‘A Lesson Before Dying.’”

“She’s really excited about this talk,” Lee said about Hopson.

Another college professor, Keith Clark of George Mason University, will discuss black southern manhood at the Roanoke Higher Education Center on March 20th.

“That’s a really relevant topic, even today,” Lee said.

Clark is an associate professor of African American Studies at George Mason University, and is well versed in the subject.

Radford University professor Mary Atwell is an expert on capital punishment, having written several books on the subject. She is holding a talk entitled “Justice in Black and White” at the Gainsboro Library on March 25th.

“She’s an excellent speaker,” McCallum said.

McCallum is excited about one event in particular: a writing workshop held by local author and journalist Dan Smith. The “Valley Business Front” editor will explore the role of voice in “A Lesson Before Dying” at the Blue Ridge Public Library on March 16th.

“I’m very eager to go to it,” McCallum said. “Dan will do a great job. He just loves writing so much. He gets so enthusiastic about it. He’ll be a great teacher.”

Another event which McCallum and Lee are excited about is the viewing of the film. On March 27th, two teachers from Community High School will offer their commentary on two different films, one of which is “A Lesson Before dying.”

“The film is outstanding,” McCallum said.

Lee agrees with McCallum.

“I think it’s as good as the book, and I don’t usually say that,” Lee said.

The film will be shown without commentary at the Gainsboro Library on March 22nd. Gainsboro Library is also hosting a story time called “The Skin You Live In,” on the morning of March 23rd.

Lee and McCallum are also excited about all of the schools who are participating in the Big Read. Approximately 2,200 high school students in Salem, Roanoke City, and at private schools are reading “A Lesson Before Dying.” Much of the credit for this achievement goes to Deb Landgraf, the Schools Coordinator for the Big Read.

Colleges are also participating in the events, and Lee and McCallum are thrilled about it.

“We asked colleges to do something on campus, but that’s about all we said about it,” Lee said. “It’s phenomenal how they’ve gotten into it, and planned things themselves.”

The event McCallum and Lee are pushing the most is a talk by Roanoke College professor Dr. Todd Peppers, held in the college’s Pickle Lounge on March 7th. Peppers, along with Eastern Virginia resident Laura Anderson, wrote a book about juveniles affected by the death penalty. Anderson was the high school teacher and spiritual advisor for a Virginia juvenile who was executed for murder. The book, entitled “Anatomy of an Execution,” follows the juvenile from his crime, to his appeals, to his execution, and explores the intricacies of the death penalty system.

Lee accidentally happened on Peppers’ book, which was released in November, but feels that it has many thematic similarities to “A Lesson Before Dying.”

“[It] has such a great parallel to our book,” Lee said. “And the fact that the co-author is coming is an added bonus.”

Virginia Western Community College also took the Big Read idea and ran with it.

“They’re making a pretty big effort on campus,” Lee said.

On top of a February 1st kickoff, Virginia Western is holding a panel titled “The Ultimate Sanction: A Commentary on the Administration of Justice in ‘A Lesson Before Dying.’”

On March 31st, the Community College is hosting a Jazz Poetry event, where live jazz will accompany the reading of poems based on the themes from the book.

Hollins University is also getting into the Big Read. On March 31st, Hollins is sponsoring Patrice Gaines, a motivational speaker and former “Washington Post” reporter. After spending time in prison for drug abuse, she eventually founded the Brown Angel Center, which assists formerly incarcerated women in gaining financial independence. Her talk is titled “The Short Distance From Follower to Leader.”

With all of these events, everyone in the Roanoke Valley should find something in which to participate.

“All indications are that we’re going to have a whiz-bang month of March,” Lee said.

For more information about the events, visit bigreadroanokevalley.org/events.