Who Was Nat Turner?
History tells us on August 22, 1831, a Virginia Southampton County slave named Nat Turner led a rebellion of his peers on a rampage that killed 55 of their white neighbors—men, women, and children—before the Virginia militia arrived and routed the rebels. On November 11, 1831, Nat Turner was hanged for his role in the uprising. But his name lived on as a dire warning to slave owners, even as it was an inspiration for their slaves.
Nat Turner’s story has intrigued many writers, beginning with Thomas Gray, the lawyer who wrote down Nat’s confession in his own words from jail.After the confession helped convict Nat at his trial, Gray published it as a pamphlet, “The Confessions of Nat Turner.”
Now, using Gray’s “Confessions” as a primary source, Norfolk-born writer and theater producer P.A. Wray has retold Nat Turner’s story in a one-act play which weaves history, folk tradition, and her own imagination into a unique vision of the slave rebel’s destiny.
Playwright P.A. Wray writes:
Why come to see a play on Nat Turner?
Why now? Why Nat Turner?
There’s a cult of violence that surrounds the tension between black and white in this country – it was there during slavery times and has gone on long after.
It continues today and appears to be escalating.
And so, this is an important time to look back at our shared history – to shine a light on the roots of the anger and the cult of violence – to get the light underneath to the uncomfortable underbelly of slavery, racism, discrimination and marginalization so rational people, people of good will can deal with it.
Why Nat Turner’s Story is Important
He is perhaps the most controversial, divisive and least understood character in this shared history of ours. If we can find and share a more humanized image of this man and his actions – we may find the path to follow to tamp down that cult of violence.
So why a play – because words and images are important when changing hearts and minds
The Role of the Word in the Fight
What is the role of the word –
the preached word, whispered word
written or published word –
in the fight for black freedom?
Spoken word was a radical act of defiance and hope –
it provided a bridge between and among captives –
it strengthened them.
It was used against whites –
used in protests, used against the wrongs of whites, and
for the rights of blacks.
Spoken on the ships, spoken in the fields, spoken in defiance –
it told the truth about white oppression
and black suffering.
It also told the truth about the power
of the black will.
Spoken in the face of death –
it gave strength, courage and hope.
The honest, defiant, encouraging black word –
was indeed – a radical act.
There were also the words of the prophets written long ago –
words that were no less dangerous than
the black word to white oppression.
Prophetic words used honestly to inspire
the oppressed to seek freedom.*
Nat Turner, a man of words –
black words, prophetic words.
Words against oppression and for freedom –
inspiring words – for rising up.
A man destined . . .
(*Credit: my rendering of the words of Vincent Harding in, There Is A River: The Black Struggle for Freedom)
Selected Past Performances:
- The Virginia Fringe Festival in Norfolk;
- The Earl Hamner, Jr., Theatre in central Virginia
- The American Theatre in Hampton, Virginia
The Video below was produced at a performance at the Wayne Theatre in Waynesboro, Virginia:
Nat Turner’s Last Struggle
February 2 & 3, 2019 @ 7PM/2P
Wayne Theatre Waynesboro, VA