A Louisiana native, Burl Cain served from 1995 to 2016 as Warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. His innovative corrections methods have led to a significant drop in violent incidents, which has received much media attention, including features by The New York Times, TIME, and Charlie Rose.
Actress Ruby Dee (1922-2014) grew up in Harlem, New York. As a student at Hunter College, her Broadway debut came through a walk-on part in South Pacific. She went on to appear in more than 100 plays, films, and television shows, including her Oscar-nominated role in American Gangster (2007). She played Nanny Crawford in the 2005 television adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Born in 1933 on a plantation in Point Coupee Parish, Louisiana, where his family had worked for five generations, Ernest J. Gaines is the author of several books, including the novel A Lesson Before Dying (1993). His 1971 novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, was made into a celebrated TV movie, winning five Emmy Awards. Gaines is a Writer-in-Residence Emeritus at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, where he taught for more than two decades.
Dana Gioia, the former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is an acclaimed poet, critic, and literary anthologist. His third collection of poetry, Interrogations at Noon (2001), won the American Book Award. He has also written collections of essays, including Can Poetry Matter?: Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992; 2002) and Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture (2004). In 2015, he became the California State Poet Laureate.
Ash Green (1928-2012) retired in 2007 as Vice President and Senior Editor at Alfred A. Knopf, after working nearly 50 years in publishing. He edited three of Ernest J. Gaines's novels — In My Father's House (1978), A Gathering of Old Men (1983), and A Lesson Before Dying. Green also edited books by Walter Cronkite, Andrei Sakharov, and Gabriel García Márquez, among many others.
Romulus Linney (1930-2011) published novels, short stories, and more than 70 plays, including the stage adaptation of Ernest J. Gaines's A Lesson Before Dying (2000). He was the founding playwright of Signature Theater in New York, and won many awards, including two Obie awards, two National Critics Awards, and three DramaLogue Awards.
Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Sister Helen Prejean is a Roman Catholic nun, one of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille. She is a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Her 1993 book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in America was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and served as the basis for a major motion picture (1995) and an opera (2000). Her second book is The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions (2004).
Actor and director KenYatta Rogers can often be found in the theatres of the Baltimore-Washington, DC, area. A professor of theatre at Montgomery College in Maryland, his areas of expertise include Shakespeare and African American theatre. In Bethesda, Maryland, he played the role of Grant Wiggins in the Roundhouse Theatre 2007 production of A Lesson Before Dying by Romulus Linney based on the novel by Ernest J. Gaines.
An award-winning actress of stage and screen, Cicely Tyson grew up in Harlem, New York. After beginning her career as a model, she turned to acting and won respect with her performance in the film Sounder (1972), as well as in the television adaptations of Ernest J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and A Lesson Before Dying (1999).