Nathaniel “Nat” Turner was born into slavery. At his birth, his mother tried to kill him, wanting no son of hers to be brought up as a slave. When she failed in her attempt, he went to live with his grandmother. Turner taught himself to read and was regarded highly by other slaves, to whom he preached the Bible, and also by the white community. He studied the Scriptures, eventually coming to feel that he had been singled out as a leader.
Believing he was being commanded by God, he organized other slaves and free blacks to spread terror throughout the white South,
His actions set off a new wave of oppressive laws prohibiting the education, assembly, and movement of slaves. The result of his actions had the effect of strengthening proslavery, antiabolitionist attitudes that persisted in the region until the American Civil War (1861–65).
In this play about slavery, P. A. Wray has Nat Turner looking back over his life and failed fight for freedom for slaves as he awaits his execution.
This one-man play has, as its foundation, information contained in the confessions Nat Turner gave to Thomas R. Gray while in his jail cell. During the trial, the confessions were read to the court and Turner admitted to their truth when asked by the magistrate. Other sources of information include Southampton County Historical Society Living Library – Nat Turner, newspaper reports, and interviews.
Many scholars today agree that the most direct route into the mind of Nat Turner is through these confessions. In Nat’s Last Struggle, Wray adheres to much of what Turner was recorded as saying regarding his childhood, his life as a slave, his relationship to God, and why he led the revolt. In dramatizing and fleshing out this story, Wray turns to folklore and her own imagination. She makes no claim that this is a scholarly piece or biography, just a writer’s exploration of an important and fascinating historical character.
From the Play
At rise NAT TURNER speaks to us from the other side.
NAT TURNER: The last thing I remember, was a rope around my neck – and the crowd cheerin’ and jeerin’. When it came time and I was left suspended in the air . . . I just let it go. I didn’t fight it; I didn’t kick or struggle . . . I just let it go. I didn’t want any more of their hateful world . . . so I let it go. When the light went out, it went fast . . . and then there was that darkness . . . darker than anythin’ I’ve ever known. (Beat) And now I’m here, with this damned blood still on my hands.
(looking at his hands)
I’m responsible for this blood; I’m responsible for so much blood . . . . (He panics and paces nevrously)
Why’d you do it, Nat? Why’d you kill all those people? Why’d you kill Massa Travis; he was good to you, you said so yourself? Why’d you kill Missie Whitehead; she was so young, kind and friendly to you? Why’d you do it Nat?! Why’d you do it?
(He stops pacing and becomes calmer. He speaks to his God)
These questions Lord, are burning on my brain, like this blood is burning on my skin. Is this it Lord, am I to burn? Or will you listen; will you hear your servant’s plea? Will you listen to how it was Lord, will you listen to me? Then afterwards, I will stand before You, as my only true judge.
(Lights fade. African drum music is played. Lights rise, on Nat Turner to one side – in the center is a large cube/block)
These things that happened, had to be; they started long ago in my infancy, with my mother . . .
(African drums and chant music plays a few moments as he moves slowly to the block. Nat is now going to present his story – or his confession to his Lord. At times he speaks directly to God, other times he is just putting it our there as he remembers things, he also at times, appears to be speaking to himself as he has epiphanies. The actor should avoid appearing to be telling his story to the audience)
She was carrying me in her belly when she arrived here from Africa. I was swellin’ in her when she went from Jamestown to Suffolk. (he steps up on the block)
That’s where she was placed up on a block and sold into slavery. She became the property of one, Benjamin Turner. He took her from Suffolk to his farm near Jerusalem; that’s where I was born. (Beat) My mama; she didn’t know nothin’ about being somebody’s property, she didn’t know about being somebody’s slave. She won’t no slave back in Africa; no, she was no slave.
(He steps down)
She came over here with the marks of royalty on her arms and face; marks of color put in under her skin; marks which meant she was someone special. My mama had come from a place where she had been free; but she wasn’t free no more. (Beat) I guess as the months passed and as I grew in her stomach, she began to realize what being a slave meant. At some point, I guess, she made up her mind that I was not going to be a slave. That her son, was meant to be someone special, and she was not going to have him born into slavery . . . Yeah, she made up her mind all right . . .
My Mama, tried to kill me when I was born, but I lived. By the way she acted, everyone knew she would try again; they knew she was determined to keep me from being a slave. So to keep me alive, Mr. Turner took me to live with an older slave couple, who lived in a ol shack near the furthest edge of the farm. Yep, they put me with them, so’s my mama wouldn’t kill me. (Beat) That’s really somethin’ for a man to realize, somethin’ for a man to struggle with in his mind – to know that your mama tried to kill ya. But I knew that she only wanted what was best for me, and that was to be free – she knew what that was . . .
Here I am mama, this is your son, and- I- am- free!
(He takes a few moments before continuing)
I guess you could say mama knew; sometimes it takes blood to make you free. Well, that’s somethin’ that I learned too; I learned it at my grandma’s knee.