Knox County Public Library, Friends of the Library, Clarence Brown Theatre, and the Public Defender’s Community Law Office are joining forces on The Big Read


A common experience of a story can bring a community together to help face its truths. Knox County Public Library is pleased to partner with Clarence Brown Theatre, Friends of the Library, Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office and other agencies on The Big Read presenting A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines during Black History Month and beyond.


The novel has a long history of championing social justice. Fiction has the singular ability to embody social ideas in a compelling narrative that possesses both emotional and intellectual power. A Lesson Before Dying offers a painful yet inspirational tale of institutional injustice and personal redemption. It addresses the biggest theme possible—how one affirms life in the face of death.


Events for the six-week program include book discussions, the stage adaptation by Romulus Linney at the Clarence Brown Theatre’s Carousel Theater, a concert, lectures, film screenings, and a book drive. The Big Read will kick off at noon on February 5 at the Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office and will continue through March 13 with more than two dozen events.  A full schedule of events can be found at

“Any time we are able to bring our community together to discuss big issues, we win. The Big Read is a great opportunity to do that through the lens of a book. I’m excited that we are able to partner with so many great organizations to make this happen,” commented Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett.


About the book:

Set in Southern Louisiana in the late 1940s, Gaines tells the story of an uneducated young black man named Jefferson, who is jailed for a murder he didn’t commit, and Grant Wiggins, a college-educated native son of Louisiana, who once taught Jefferson at a plantation school. In a little more than 250 pages, these two men named for presidents discover a friendship that transforms as least two lives. Both men teach each other lessons they need to face their very different futures.

The novel offers relevant perspectives for our own community as issues of social justice for black men occupy increasing space in the cultural and political conversation.


Schedule of events:


Screening: Dead Man Walking

Starring Susan Saradon and Sean Penn, this 1995 film tells the true story of a man facing execution and Sister Helen Prejean’s efforts to help him find peace. Introduction by Penny White, UT Law Professor and expert on capital punishment

Sunday, February 7, 2 p.m.

Lawson McGhee Library

500 W. Church Ave

Free and open to the public


Lecture: “Race, Poverty and the Death Penalty – Then and Now”

Dr. Stephen Bright, president and senior council of Southern Center for Human Rights and Yale Law School Professor

Supported by the Mildred Haines and William Elijah Morris Lecture Endowment Fund

Thursday, February 11, 7 p.m.

McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture

1327 Circle Park Drive

Free and open to the public


Screening: Say it Loud!

A documentary featuring rare historic footage of African American life during Knoxville’s civil rights era. Introduction by Louisa Trott, film editor and co-founder of Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound

Sunday, February 21, 2 p.m.

UT’s John C. Hodges Library Auditorium

1015 Volunteer Boulevard

Free and open to the public


Community Leaders Forum

A panel of community leaders will explore the themes of social justice, racial inequality, human dignity and personal redemption as presented in A Lesson Before Dying with an eye towards the modern realities in Knoxville.  Panelists include:

Deputy Chief Nate Allen, Knoxville Police Department
Pastor Daryl Arnold, Overcoming Believers Church
Andre Canty, Highlander Center
Ralph Hutchison, MLK Commission
Reggie Jenkins, UUNIK Academy
Kwabena Miller, Community Outreach
Avice Reid, Sr. Director of Community Relations, City of Knoxville
Mark Stephens, KCPD Community Law Office


Tuesday, February 23, 4 p.m.

Knox County Public Defender’s Community Law Office

1101 Liberty Street

Free and open to the public


Concert/Lecture: Spiritual Songs – The History of the Negro Spiritual

Dr. Naima Bush explores the history of the development of the Spiritual with acapella demonstrations and original music contained within it. Using storytelling, audience participation, poetry and music, this program traces the roots of this original American art form from its beginnings in West Africa and its apex on Southern plantations to its influence on modern music.

Wednesday, February 24, 6  p.m.

Beck Cultural Exchange Center

1927 Dandridge Avenue


Book Discussions (Free and open to the public unless otherwise noted by*)



Monday, February 8, 6:30 p.m.

Lawson McGhee Library

Faciliated by Elnora Williams


Tuesdays February 9 and 23, 6 p.m.

South Knoxville Elementary – Great Schools Partnership Community School

Facilitated by Lorie Matthews

Light dinner included. RSVP 577-7976


Tuesday, February 16, 4 p.m.

Knoxville Station

301 Church Avenue

Facilitated by Michael Grider


Monday, February 22, 10 p.m.

Bearden Branch Library

100 Golf Club Road

Facilitated by Ross Jackson


Wednesday, February 24, 12 p.m.

YWCA with Union Avenue Booksellers

420 Clinch Avenue

Facilitated by Avice Reid


Thursday, February 25, 11 a.m.

Sequoyah Branch Library

1140 Southgate Dr.

A light lunch will be served

Facilitated by Ginna Mashburn


Thursday, February 25, 5 p.m.

Beaumont Elementary – Great Schools Partnership Community School

1211 Beaumont Avenue

Dinner will follow discussion

Facilitated by Indya Kincannon


Sunday February 28, 4 p.m.*

Wine and Cheese book discussion at Claire Serrell’s home

Friends of the Library, members-only

RSVP: 215-8775


Thursday, March 3, 1 p.m.

Halls Branch Library

4518 E. Emory Road

Facilitated by Mary Pom Claiborne


Monday, March 7, 6 p.m.

Cedar Bluff Branch Library

9405 Cross Park Drive

A light dinner will be served

Facilitated by Ginny Weatherspoon


Clarence Brown Theatre events

To purchase tickets for the Clarence Brown Theatre’s production of A Lesson Before Dying, visit or call the Box Office at (865) 974-5161.


A Lesson Before Dying

A play by Romulus Linney based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines

Directed by Andrea J. Dymond

February 24 – March 13

Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre

Tickets are on sale now at the CBT Box Office or online 24/7.


Pay What You Wish Night 

Wednesday, February 24, 7:30 p.m.

Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre

Making theatre more accessible to everyone in our community and beyond, patrons will be able to attend this performance of A Lesson Before Dying for any amount they choose. Tickets may be purchased Feb. 24 at the CBT Box Office from 12 to 7 p.m.
Cash in full dollar amounts is accepted and limited tickets are available on a first come, first served basis.


Post-Performance Salon Discussions 

Tuesday, March 1 and 8, following the 7:30 p.m. performance

Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre

Post-performance Salon discussions will be audience-driven, providing patrons and community members the opportunity to discuss their thoughts, experiences, and issues raised after attending the performance of A Lesson Before Dying.


CBT Family Feast 

Wednesday, March 2, 6 p.m.

UT’s Natalie L. Haslam Music Center

In an effort to promote the fading practice of family dinners and to reach out to our underserved community members, the Clarence Brown Theatre is offering drastically reduced $10 tickets to a performance of A Lesson Before Dying and a pre-performance buffet-style dinner. The only stipulation is that patrons must attend as a family unit, however that may be defined. Limit 6 tickets per family. Recommended for mature middle schoolers and up.


Season for Youth Student Matinees

March 2, 4, 9, and 11 at 9:30 a.m.

Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre

These specifically designated performances will offer nearly 1,400 middle and high school students the opportunity to attend A Lesson Before Dying for only $6. Additionally, the Clarence Brown Theatre will provide study guides and promote a follow-up activity. Recommended for mature middle schoolers and up.  More information at:


Sunday Symposium with Dr. Michelle D. Commander

Sunday, March 13, following the 2 p.m. performance

Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre

Dr. Michelle Commander will lead a post-performance discussion on the play and its themes. Dr. Commander received her Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California. She teaches courses and conducts research on twentieth and twenty-first century African American literature, cultural studies, diasporic literatures, and Black social movements.


About The Big Read

The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. The Big Read aims to encourage reading for pleasure and enrichment by providing citizens with the opportunity to read and discuss a single book in their communities. The grant for The Big Read 2016 was awarded to Friends of the Knox County Public Library.

Community Partners:

Beck Cultural Exchange Center

Friends of Literacy

Great School Partnership/Community Schools

Knoxville Area Transit

Knoxville Area Urban League

McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture

Police Advisory & Review Committee (PARC), City of Knoxville

Save our Sons, City of Knoxville

Union Avenue Booksellers

UT College of Law

UT Commission for Blacks

UT Libraries

Vice Chancellors Office for Diversity & Inclusion

Youth Leadership Knoxville


Mary Pom Claiborne

Knox County Public Library

(865) 215-8767