INDIALOGUE

Crossing History’s River
NATHAN ALAN DAVIS with Ken Weitzman

Nat Turner in Jerusalem

Nathan Alan Davis’s plays are captivating amalgams; they evince a versatile, philosophical, and complex artist. One of his early plays, Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, for instance, mixes hilarious, exuberant poetry with a classic, Joseph Campbell-esque hero’s journey in which Dontrell sets off to the ocean deep to recover the bones of an ancestor who jumped to his death from a slave ship. 

Nat Turner director Megan Sandberg-Zakian and playwright Nathan Alan Davis. Photo: Jenny Anderson.

Nathan has written many plays since then and each one of them is remarkably distinct in form, content, and style. I first met Nathan when he was an MFA student at Indiana University where I ran the playwriting program. I’ve eagerly followed his work since. His most recent play, Nat Turner in Jerusalem, will have its world premiere at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) in September. The play takes place in Turner’s jail cell the night of his execution. Nathan and I met up recently before a rehearsal at NYTW.

Ken Weitzman (Rail):Was Nat Turner and the Southhampton, Virginia, “insurrection” of long-time interest to you? Was it reading the book, Thomas Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, that set this play in motion? [Gray was a white Virginia lawyer who turned his jail-cell interview with Turner into a book.]

Nathan Alan Davis: Nat Turner had been on my mind for some time, but I didn’t have the conscious intention to write a play about him. I actually didn’t know much about him other than the fact that he led an uprising. When I finally sat down to read The Confessions I was really taken by it. There’s something mysterious and powerful at work in that document.

Rail: Can you say more about that, your experience of it as mysterious and powerful?  

Davis: Well, first and foremost the language is captivating. It’s written in an elevated, poetic style that recalls a religious text. I was also very moved by the details given of Nat as a person: by the fact that he seemed to have innate gifts and undeniable charisma—and by his resolute conviction even after the rebellion was put down, and even as he faced his imminent death. Gray’s preamble includes, I guess, a predictable analysis. He describes the rebellious slaves as bloodthirsty, cowardly savages and says that Nat’s (presumably inferior) mind has been corrupted by “endeavoring to grapple with things beyond its reach.” But then the body of the confession, with Gray interpreting the voice of Nat Turner, begins like this:

Sir,—You have asked me to give a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late insurrection, as you call it—To do so I must go back to the days of my infancy, and even before I was born.

There is so much contained in that opening sentence. Most essentially, I think, the purposeful reframing of the prevailing narrative of the events. Nat makes it clear that “insurrection” is not his terminology and that if we want to understand what happened and why we will need to look at a much larger picture. It feels like an invitation into a new way of seeing the world.

Rail: Does it speak to you in general, in terms of what you’re attracted to in content and/or style?

Davis: This is the first time I’ve written a play based on specific, historical source material, but yes it does resonate strongly with what I’m into artistically. As you know—because you mentored me through the process—one of the first plays I wrote was Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea, which also deals with the legacy of slavery in America, albeit from an entirely different angle. Also The Confessions has a mystical bent, a poetic tone, and the elements of nature factor in significantly—these are things that seem to be characteristics of my plays whether I consciously aim for them or not. I felt deeply connected to the material when I first read it. Still, this is a new kind of play for me in terms of process and form. I had a fellowship at NYTW last year (the 2050 Fellowship), and that was a very safe and supportive place to experiment the way I needed to for the project. The fact that they stepped forward to produce it so quickly was a very welcome surprise.

Rail: Once you decided to write about Nat Turner, or this relationship to Thomas Gray, did you wrestle with fidelity to your research or did you feel free to fictionalize?

Davis: Oh, there has been much wrestling. It’s been very fruitful. I was sure from the outset that I did not want the action of the play to be a proposed reenactment of the confession itself. Eventually the situation I settled on was a fabricated final meeting between Nat and Thomas on the night before Nat’s execution. That, I think, frees the play somewhat to be what it wants to be in this moment as opposed to a history lesson. But most of the details given in the play about the characters—and especially the events of the insurrection—are part of the historical record.

Phillip James Brannon, who is playing Nat, has been studying Nat Turner for a long time. So when I asked him to be part of a workshop back in March he was already more than prepared, and I’ve been able to lean on him quite a bit. Rowan Vickers—who is playing Thomas and has been involved since March—bought a bus ticket and made his own pilgrimage to Southampton county last month. Megan Sandberg-Zakian, who is directing the production and has been in conversation with me about the play since before I even wrote a draft, has done extensive research and even had a personal interview with [Nat Turner scholar and author] Kenneth Greenberg. He had some very revealing insights that have helped tremendously. So as a team we’re all very immersed in the history and have embraced it. I’ve spent long stretches of this process not writing at all and giving the research time to germinate.

Rail: And, though you suggest the answer to this, I’m going to ask it more explicitly: Has your approach, process, and/or writing changed from your time at Indiana University, to Juilliard, to post-Juilliard?

Davis: I’m very fortunate to have done those programs back to back. It’s hard to put my finger on how my writing or process has changed because it was changing throughout those five years (and I hope it will continue to). I think I’m more comfortable with myself as a writer for the stage than I was before I started—and so maybe I waste less time worrying than I used to. Now I’m more aware of the fact that any play I write is something that’s been growing in my subconscious for probably quite a while. And I think I’m better able to identify when a given creative spark is actually worth pursuing as a play. I don’t know if you remember this, but at the end of my first year at IU, when Kelly Lusk and I were telling you what we wanted to work on for our second-year productions, I brought up this really stale idea for a play that I had written a first act of the previous summer and wanted to complete. You said something very benevolent, but the subtext was “Really?” So I felt like I had to dig a little deeper. Then a week or two later I brought up the idea for Dontrell… and you just nodded and said, “Good.” So to have that kind of guidance and the ongoing conversation about new plays and theory in our seminars—and all of that built around the actual experience of having our plays in production—was really perfect for me.

Going from there to Juilliard and moving to New York with Elizabeth (my wife) and our kids—all of us squeezing into a one-bedroom apartment—and having to write so much, so quickly, was like being thrown into the fire, in a sense. I wrote five plays in two years, and in that time I was able to hear/discuss early drafts of probably around fifty new plays from my colleagues in the program. Being immersed in that—and in the world of New York theater in general—was in and of itself an enormous education. Marsha Norman and Chris Durang, in addition to their insights about our writing and knowledge of the craft, were very generous in their willingness to share their experiences—the ups and downs of their careers. All of that in combination was really invaluable.

Now I’m in a new reality in that I don’t have the structure and safety net I’ve had for the past five years. I don’t know what effect that will have on my writing or process, but I’m excited to find out.

Rail: Lastly, Is there an excerpt from the play you’d be willing to include here that, in some way, has the DNA of the play embedded in it?

 

[The following excerpt from Nat Turner in Jerusalem is from relatively early in the play.]

NAT

My grandmother used to say that if you cross a river and then you come to that river again, you have not crossed it right the first time.

THOMAS

A wise woman, I am sure.

NAT

Thomas Gray and James Trezevant and James Parker and Thomas Gray again. Thomas and James and James and Thomas. These are the rivers of my Providential twilight.

THOMAS

If you say so I shall not argue.

So long as you answer the river’s questions.

NAT

THOMAS

There was the slave named Gabriel, thirty some years ago.

NAT

The year I was born.

THOMAS

1800?

NAT

Yes, that very year.

THOMAS

As was I.

 

NAT

Is that so?

THOMAS

It is.

NAT

Gabriel blew his trumpet.

And out we came.

THOMAS

Ha! Yes.

Well, no, not really. But that’s very funny.

NAT

And here we are.

THOMAS

Inarguably we are indeed here.

NAT

So there you have it.

 THOMAS

Did word of Gabriel’s conspiracy inspire your own?

NAT

I do not know.

THOMAS

NAT

The knowledge of it was in the air.

And still is.

Once something is in the air you can’t help but breathe it in.

It becomes a part of you. And then you breathe it out.

And now your own substance is mingled with it.

THOMAS

That is a very confusing answer.

 

NAT

The simple answer is

I do not know.

THOMAS

Yes, let’s stick with that.

NAT

As you would have it.

THOMAS

And as to these other, smaller uprisings. These recent instances in / North Carolina—

NAT

I know nothing of them, sir.

THOMAS

Be patient, now. Be polite. They happened more or less at the same time / as your—

NAT

Unbeknownst to me.

THOMAS

So you have said.

NAT

The wind blows and the leaves are stirred.

THOMAS

NAT

What good does it do to ask one leaf what the others are up to?



Nat Turner in Jerusalem, by Nathan Alan Davis, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, runs September 7, 2016 — October 16, 2016 at New York Theatre Workshop. Scenic Design by Susan Zeeman Rogers; Costume Design by Montana Blanco; Lighting Design by Mary Louise Geiger; Sound Design by Nathan Leigh; Fight Direction by Thomas Schall; Dialect Coach Dawn-Elin Fraser. For tickets and further information, visit https://www.nytw.org/.

 

IN DIALOGUE was created by Emily DeVoti in October 2001 as a monthly forum for playwrights to engage with other playwrights in print. Since then, over 140 playwrights have been featured. If you are a playwright and would like to write a column, please contact Emily at theater@brookynrail.org.

 

Contributor

Ken Weitzman

KEN WEITZMAN’s plays have been produced at Atlantic Theater Company, Denver Center, Humana Festival, Indiana Repertory Theatre, among others. He currently teaches dramatic writing at Stony Brook University.

ADVERTISEMENTS