General Nat Turner, the Black Spartacus in a new play

LOS ANGELES – Nat Turner was a far greater revolutionary than his fellow Virginians George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Not only did he – unlike them – not own slaves, but he was indeed a slave himself who heroically rose up against his white “masters” in 1831 at Southhampton County, Virginia, in what was probably the most successful slave revolt in American history.

I’ve been an admirer of Turner since I was a boy, when I first read about him in William Styron’s 1967 The Confessions of Nat Turner. So I eagerly looked forward to the premiere of Paula Neiman’s Nat Turner: Following Faith. I wish I could tell you that this is a classic Turner movie – or play, as the case may be. But it’s not – alas, I regret to report that this play does not live up to the promise of its premise. Just as many felt Styron’s controversial Pulitzer Prize winner was flawed, Neiman’s interpretation is likewise problematic.

I usually champion creative, imaginative approaches to form, whether onscreen or onstage. However, the trouble with Neiman’s script is that she lets her storytelling style get in the way of simply telling an already extraordinarily compelling story. Her play uses a series of cinematic-type techniques – flashbacks, flash forwards and the like. This is not only confusing and distracting but it over-intellectualizes a real-life saga that is at its heart emotional. You don’t have to be a Marxist theorist to figure out that slavery is wrong – this is primarily passionate, not cerebral, subject matter. A straightforward, naturalistic narrative would have better served this riveting, historical story.

Neiman’s Nat is depicted as a sort of seer on a spiritual quest in the prophetic religious tradition. Fair enough – but other aspects of her interpretation of Turner are troublesome and perplexing. Like Styron, she projects lots of psychological complexities upon the slave rebel. If Styron, as I recall, imbued Turner with a heavy dose of jungle fever for the slave owner’s hoop-skirted Southern belles, Neiman does something even more dubious: She makes “General Nat,” as he was nicknamed, lose his nerve. During much of the extremely violent rebellion he inspired and led, onstage he shrinks from doing the bloody deeds he has agitated that his fellow slaves perform in the fight for their liberation from bondage. (That is, ruthlessly kill even “whitey’s” unarmed women and children.)

To compound matters, although Turner was both able to read and renowned as an orator, as the title character Liberian actor Tarnue Massaquoi appears to repeatedly stumble over his lines. At a time when the Black Lives Matter and Rise Up October movements, et al, are resisting the despicable slaughter of often unarmed African Americans by police and vigilantes, this play portrays the Black Spartacus as having cold feet and sometimes being inarticulate.

I asked Neiman after the premiere where she got the idea that General Nat had a failure of nerve. Admittedly, from a dramatic point of view in a, say, Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams type of play stressing characters’ psyches, this would be a subtle, nuanced touch. Be that as it may, Neiman admitted there was circumstantial evidence suggesting that, perhaps, Turner might have frozen up and been unable to kill at first – but this was her supposition and interpretation. This strictly subjective version of events would be somewhat akin to Dalton Trumbo ending the 1960 movie Spartacus by having Tony Curtis stand up, point at Kirk Douglas, and tell the triumphant Roman army “He’s Spartacus!” in order to save his neck.

Again, at a time when not only ordinary African Americans are coming under attack, but even prominent Hollywood celebrities like Quentin Tarantino, merely for using their First Amendment right to speak out about police brutality, America’s oppressed need heroic role models to encourage them to stand up and speak out strong.

To be sure, during this two-act epic directed by Dan Martin that clocked in at about three hours on opening night, Following Faith does have a few scenes and performances that are inspirational. For me, the play’s best moment was when a newly freed slave named, methinks, Lucy (the Playbill says Nancy) gratefully thanks General Nat for having her vicious master slain and liberating her. The emancipated woman, beautifully portrayed by Sade Moore (who told me after the show that her character was based on an actual historic figure), then goes on to join Nat Turner’s rebellion.

Another standout in the cast of about 15 is Jaimyon Parker who plays Will, a slave from another plantation who throws his lot in with the aspiring rebels before the revolt begins. Once the insurrection gets underway Will proves himself to be a stalwart revolutionary, who – as Malcolm X would later say – fights for Black freedom “by any means necessary.” No matter how bloody the deed, the enraged Will is willing to do it.

While this may sound bloodthirsty to some readers, the fact is that in the cruel, oppressive antebellum South slaves had little nonviolent recourse to resisting the terrors and horrors imposed by the white supremacist system, other than perhaps running away. Just consider this simple, trenchant point: More Americans died in the Civil War than in any other U.S. war. The conflict to end slavery proved to be the USA’s most violent conflict, even up to today. (And yet, as noted, the repercussions of the slave trade and human bondage still reverberate.)

Phrederic Semaj also does a great job as the enslaved Hark, whose body is bent and misshapen – until General Nat’s rebellion sweeps ol’ Virginny. In the second act he is rather cleverly able-bodied as he joins the revolt: The revolution turns one-dimensional man into three-dimensional man and woman. Semaj also has a great singing voice that makes you feel the spine-tingling old Negro spirituals. Terry Woodberry as Moses has superb elocution, while Asante Jones (who appears on the hit TV series Scandal) also has a great voice.

But I had no idea that Asante Jones, who narrates the drama, was supposed to be Gabriel Prosser, another actual historical figure who tried to lead a different slave insurrection. And at no time that I can recall does the almost 180-minute Following Faith bother to inform the audience the years when the real life events being depicted on stage took place. Either this is sloppy storytelling or a really clever device by the playwright to suggest that the occurrences of circa 1831 are not that dissimilar from what’s going down some 184 years later. (Judging from the quality of the writing I suspect which one it is.)

Much has been made about the TV and cinematic surge in Black images and subjects. On the big screen films like 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Selma and Straight Outta Compton have emerged, while on the small screen programs such as Empire, Black-ish, Scandal, etc., are trendsetters. Is there a similar phenomenon taking place on L.A.’s stages?

In addition to Nat Turner: Following Faith, last year another drama about Black luminaries, One Night in Miami, depicting Malcolm X, singer Sam Cooke and footballer/actor Jim Brown with heavyweight champ Cassius Clay as he prepared to change his name to Muhammad Ali, was presented at the same theater. On Nov. 7 the Fountain Theatre opens South African playwright Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. Last August, the Fountain also presented the stage adaptation of Claudia Rankine’s poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric. In 2014 the Stella Adler mounted 1969, about Black Panther-type militants, while singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson was lauded in a Robey Theatre gala and depicted in a one-man show at the Mark Taper Forum. Meanwhile, L.A. theaters such as Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum and A Noise Within pursue non-traditional casting, with multi-culti casts performing classics, from Shakespeare to Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, which is currently on the boards at ANW.

In any case, if there is such a Black-themed theatrical trend, Following Faith is part of and reflective of what’s going on in our culture now. Unfortunately, it does not do General Nat and his courageous unshackled followers justice. Having said that, it may be worth seeing for theatergoers interested in the subject matter, especially those who know little about one of the most electrifying moments in American history: When way down yonder in the land of cotton, the last boldly decided they shall be first. At least this play, flawed as it may be, shines a light on those unforgotten, brave freed slaves who declared in 1831, straight outta Southhampton, that yes indeed, Black Lives Matter, and Justice too – or else!

Nat Turner: Following Faith plays Thurs. to Sat. at 8:00 pm and Sun. at 2:00 pm until Dec. 6 at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles 90019. For info: (213) 529-5153; http://buytickets.at/natturner.

 

 


CONTRIBUTOR

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.

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