Patti Wray’s first encounter with the story of Nat Turner was in 1968. At the age of 16, she was attending a (white) Turner family reunion in South Hampton County — which she was only interested in joining because she was allowed to drive her grandmother’s new blue Chevy convertible. While there, she discovered a group of her younger cousins laughing and carrying on around the remains of an old tree stump. Laughing and high-fiving, they informed her that here was the remains of the tree upon which Nat Turner was hanged.
Wray’s first reaction was horror at her young cousins laughing about the death of a man, a man she thought had been a family member. Laughing when they informed her Nat Turner had been a slave who had killed white people. Her next reaction was anger – that they knew something she didn’t; she had never heard about any Nat Turner in her school. The images she created in her mind at that site – never left her.
Much later, as a writer, the story of Nat Turner, the slave, began to intrigue her. All the stories told about him seemed to be driven by one bias or another. He was portrayed as either a saint or a murderer. In Thomas Gray’s, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” Wray read, “On August 13, 1831, Turner along with more than forty slaves set out to the Travis’s household where they killed the entire family when they were sleeping. They then visited the neighboring houses and continued killing the white people they encountered.”
So the facts were clear, but the motivations needed exploring. Wray realized Turner was a man born into slavery who realized no man should be a slave. He latched onto certain scriptures, was inspired by Exodus and believed his destiny was to free his people.
Wray eventually transformed the confessions into two dramatic one-man shows with the same basic story — a monodrama in which Turner, over the course of an hour transformed from a bright, eager child to a preacher, to a man beset by visions, to a man bent on leading a rebellion to free his people from slavery.
The effect on audiences has been surprising. The African-Americans present had often previously viewed him as a martyr. They left the experience with a more textured view of Nat Turner, the man. Nat Turner may have had worthy intentions but his unraveling under the dogma and the conditions he was subjected to became clear.
More surprisingly, the Caucasian members of the audience echoed that response, as well as Wray’s second reaction to the story. Why didn’t I know anything about this? Why wasn’t it taught in school? They, too, had come to see Turner as a man driven by his circumstances, some might say thrust into a kind of religious fervor, by his oppression and even by the Bible from which he preached.
But the most telling response to the play occurred at a reading of the play at the American Theatre in Hampton, Virginia. As part of a monthly series of readings presented at the theatre by Jeff Stern and the Virginia Playwrights Forum, Nat’s Last Struggle was scheduled for January 2 of 2015. Nat is a demanding role and a top local actor, Beatty Barnes, had agreed to do the role.
AT 2 in the afternoon with a performance scheduled at 7, Barnes became ill with a stomach virus; he couldn’t leave his house. After a futile search of actors who were familiar enough with the role to perform it, only one was left. He was a top area actor, well-known in the community for a number of brilliant performances. He was intimately familiar with the play, having seen it twice and written reviews.
\There was only one problem. He was white. Skip ahead past all of the agonizing over D. D. Delaney playing any African-American character, let alone this one, forget all of his trepidation and doubt, forget the reluctance of the artistic director of the American theater. There were a number of reasons they were reluctant to cancel. And, after all, they said, how many people were going to turn up on a cold January night to experience just a reading, not even a full performance, of a play in Hampton, Virginia that had had one small advertisement.
The answer was: plenty. Chairs had to be added to the room. There were people standing at the back when chairs became scarce. And they were almost all African-American.
And a white man, a very white man, in fact, stood up to read the role of Nat TurnerThe anger in the room was palpable. Wray sat three rows back and closed her eyes, hoping no one would realize she was the playwright. The man in front of her nudged his wife and started to stand, as if to walk out. She patted his arm and he sat down, but his shoulders were hunched and tight, his eyes focused on his knees.
A couple of things saved that night. Delaney was a consummate actor. And the African-American community in America, by and large, has endured far more insults than any society or religion requires. And so, they helped give power to the testament of this play, Nat Turner’s Last Struggle.
When Stern finally asked the audience about the elephant in the room—how did you feel seeing a white actor read the role of Nat Turner, the man in front of Wray finally spoke. “When I first saw him get up there, all I could see was red. I wanted to go but my wife wouldn’t let me. So I just shut my eyes and wouldn’t look at him. But I could still hear. And the words got to me. Those words were so powerful. And suddenly I just saw Nat Turner—not black, not white—just a man who had hoped and suffered and died.”
While no one would voluntarily cast the role of Nat Turner with a white actor, that necessity brought home a truth about this play and its counterpart Nat Turner’s Last Struggle: Finding His Way Home, which adds an additional “character” adding live song and drums to the play. Somewhere in our society is a buried truth, a commonality, a kinship which binds us all if only we know where to look for it.For those who know theatre, it is not surprising that a dramatic reading in a theatre built to serve a community brought the first few tendrils of commonality to the surface.
Reference The Confessions of Nat Turner – https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/turner/turner.html
Nat’s Last Struggle https://havescripts.com/product/play-script-nats-last-struggle/