Written by Nathan Alan Davis; Directed by Gavin Lawrence; Le Shawn Banks as Nat Turner; Nate Burger as Thomas Gray and a prison guard.
This is a troubling play and I mean that in the best way. We are being challenged on our history on our society and in our beliefs…and are being pushed out of our comfort level…as I said…in the best way.
We meet Nat Turner in prison. It is his last night before being hung for his role in a slave rebellion. And we experience his interactions with two white men in his last hours. One is an attorney, Thomas Gray and the other, one of the jailers tasked with supervising Nat’s time in prison.
Mr. Davis presents us with a messianic Nat Turner…not the bitter angry man we might expect from someone in his position. A number of times he references the actions of Noah and compares them to his actions…as actions guided by the hand of God. Mr. Davis says that there is support for this messianic vision in the historical documentation.
And Nat is also charismatic. He certainly has affected both of the white men that he interacts with in the play. The jailer obviously has a great deal of empathy for Nat and is distressed by his coming execution. And he states several times that he will not be on duty when Nat is called to the gallows and exhibits real relief for that ‘luck’. But he has done some things to ease Nat’s suffering while imprisoned…and Nat often refers to him as ‘friend’. Although this night the jailer says that it is not right to call him, friend…and I wonder if that has to do with their relative social strata or his sense of helplessness in the face of Nat’s death.
Either way, in the conversations you realize that the jailer knows that his position in society isn’t that far from Nat’s other than he isn’t enslaved…but trapped in his station nonetheless.
Nat repeatedly requests that the jailer attend the hanging, something that he is loathe to do. But Nat says that he will look for him in the crowd. It seems their connection is deeper than the situation would seem to suggest. But after several requests, I don’t think we ever end with a consensus.
I can’t say enough about Le Shawn Banks depiction of Nat Turner here. He captures the messianic fervor and charismatic bent of the character that Mr. Davis has provided for him. He easily shows Nat’s enthusiasm for the word of scripture and his thorough knowledge and then moves to his humanity in his conversations with the jailer.
And then we have Thomas Gray, an attorney who is writing Nat’s story. Mr. Burger moves from the emphatic jailer to the slick attorney with just the simple move out of frame and back. Mr. Gray has most of Nat’s story completed and he is waving around the pages of dictation throughout his discourse with Nat. But tonight, on the eve of the hanging, he hopes to get Nat’s confession and his knowledge of other planned uprisings as the crowning piece for his story.
Nat initially is having none of it…and finally runs Mr. Gray through a few hoops before he agrees to talk. One of the themes that Mr. Gray uses to convince Nat that he’s a good guy is the fact that he sold his slaves. Says it several times. But from the lines between the lines, it would appear he sold his slaves under economic duress rather than altruism. And if you didn’t keep slaves because you found slavery a hateful institution, wouldn’t you free your slaves?
But here he is, although not a slave owner nor Nat’s owner…prepared to make money off of Nat Turner by copyrighting and selling his story.
There is a little side note here other than the slave vs. free…but the relative relationship between the two free white men based on their own stations in life. And that contempt seems to move in both directions between the jailer and the attorney.
This is a challenging play. The American Players Theatre did an outstanding job presenting it as a virtual Zoom production. Le Shawn Banks was simply incredible presenting the different personas of Nat Turner in his interactions with the other two characters. How he managed to do that within the limits of the computer frame with just the text and his face and a few gestures is a class in acting in itself. And again Nate Burger presents multiple characters in a play with ease and grace and clear story telling. I look forward to seeing both of these gentlemen on a physical stage in the future.
And someday I would like to hear Gavin Lawrence explain how a director goes from blocking out a physical play in space and sets and costumes and then so effectively pivots to Zoom…and so incredibly and succinctly tells this moving story.
This virtual presentation was performed live by APT on November 13, 2020 and was then available for viewing on PBS Wisconsin through December 31, 2020. It is part of their series of readings written by BIPOC writers, and created by BIPOC artists. It deserves to be exhibited again in the future, sooner rather than later!