Nat Turner: Following Faith


Review by Mavis Manus

Playwright Paula Neiman has chosen to tell the whole story of Nat Turner, leader of a daring but doomed slave revolt, from the time of his birth to the date of his death in 1831. Most contemporary playwrights would deal only with a corner of Turner’s life, utilizing (for economic reasons) a cast of, say, six or seven actors. Neiman, obviously, likes to think big. Not only does her play span thirty years but it requires a cast of fifteen actors, many of whom play multiple roles.

It’s fair to say, then, that NAT TURNER: FOLLOWING FAITH is an epic work, an historical drama conceived and executed on a grand scale.

The play, now in a world premiere run at Theater/Theatre, was directed by Dan Martin, among whose acting credits are stints with the famed Negro Ensemble Company in New York. Only a seasoned pro like him could have tackled such an immense project and brought it off so well. The man deserves some kind of an award.

The same goes for NAT TURNER’S cast, led by Tarnue Massaquoi (as Turner), Asante Jones (as the narrator, Gabriel Prosser), Darius Dudley (as Hubbard, Nat’s spiritual father), Sade Moore and Baadja-Lyn Ouba (Nat’s mother and grandmother, respectively). The rest of the large, talented cast should not be slighted either; they are simply too numerous to identify here. Credit should also be paid to the production’s technical team, especially set designer Vali Tirsoaga, costume designer Mauva Gacitua, lighting designer Sammie Wayne IV, and sound designer Jaimyon Parker. Together they have found a way to turn Theatre/Theater’s stage into a Virginia ante-bellum plantation replete with big-house porch, cotton fields and slave quarters, all of which are later transformed into a battle-field, a court house and even the gallows upon which Turner met his demise.

The story Neiman tells, in rich, poetic language, is a powerful and heart-breaking one, a tragic piece of American history which should never be forgotten. The child of a young woman who was raped by her “master,” Turner showed great intelligence and charisma from the start, only to be denied the opportunity to use his gifts by his white overlords, who preferred that he remain a field hand.

Frustrated at every turn in his life, Turner continued to read everything he could, especially the Holy Bible, many of whose strictures he took to heart, especially the ones from Exodus (“I will deliver thee from bondage”). That’s exactly what he tried to do when he assembled a band of sixty blacks–a “slave cavalry”–and led them into battle against the local slave-owners, thinking this would encourage the hundreds of thousands of southern slaves to join the revolt and kill their venal, brutal masters. This desperate attack on the slave system ended in failure (partially because Turner was betrayed by one of his own men), but as Neiman points out, the seeds of black pride and militancy were planted. The final result of that insurrection was emancipation and freedom.

This story summary doesn’t do justice to the scope, depth and complexity of NAT TURNER, or to its power and importance.

(Theater/Theatre, 5041 Pico Blvd. 213-529-5153 or turner)