Revising Nat Turner

The afterlives of first drafts

Nathan Alan Davis
Phillip James Brannon performing a scene from Nat Turner in Jerusalem

Phillip James Brannon in Nat Turner in Jerusalem. Photo by Joan Marcus. Courtesy New York Theatre Workshop.

In july 2021, at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, I had the great fortune of attending Monica Youn’s craft lecture “Generative Revision: Beyond the Zero-Sum Game.” I experienced the lecture as, among other things, a call to recognize that the various iterations of a piece of writing—the different forms it might take at different times—can coexist and enliven one another. These different versions need not be looked at merely as rungs on the ladder toward the eventual “authoritative” or “best” version of the text.

During Youn’s lecture, I found myself contemplating the various past and potential versions of my play Nat Turner in Jerusalem, which premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016. It was a profound and palpable relief to consider these earlier versions not as unrealized sketches or false starts but as alternative renditions of the story my play sought to tell, no less true than the one that ultimately reached the stage. I was able to fully appreciate, for the first time, the different forms the play had taken on as I worked to produce it.

Nat Turner in Jerusalem is a play that, most essentially, deals with faith. I don’t mean that I wrote the play as a meditation on the meaning of faith, or on the various ways that faith manifests or shapes our lives, or on the challenges faith poses for individuals and communities. If those ideas are illuminated by the play, all the better, of course. But what I mean, really, is that the concept of faith—the proving, the seeking, the wavering, the absence, and the returning of it—originates and galvanizes the action of the play.

I find great solace in viewing my various attempts at writing a play... as lights illuminating one another.

The human being Nat Turner, best known for leading a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, was, in fact, a preacher. Before he was executed later that year, Turner was visited in his jail cell by attorney Thomas R. Gray, who recorded and titled their interviews in a document published as The Confessions of Nat Turner, now part of the public record. While we can reasonably assume that the desire for freedom was a motivating factor of the slave rebellion, Turner’s own account, as transcribed by Gray, focuses primarily on supernatural and spiritual causes; Turner saw himself as an agent of God’s will. According to Gray, Turner was assured of himself and his cause even after his capture and his uprising’s defeat. When he claimed that he had seen signs in heaven promising victory, Gray asked him whether—given the rebellion’s failure and Turner’s pending execution—he had since come to believe he was mistaken. Turner’s reply: “Was not Christ crucified?”

There are many obvious reasons to doubt the authenticity of Gray’s characterization of Turner (he is relatively transparent in his embellishments), but I do not doubt that his attempt to convey Turner’s words and thoughts was an honest one. Many of the statements attributed to Turner in the Confessions are so particular and so anomalous (his account of seeing “hieroglyphic characters,” “numbers,” and “forms of men in different attitudes” in the leaves of trees, for example) that their contrivance seems highly unlikely. If or to what extent Gray personally felt the desire to be fair to Turner as a matter of respect for him as a human being is impossible to know, though some of the subjective comments he makes suggest that he was, at the least, impressed by him.

The premise of my play is that Gray returns to Turner’s prison cell on the eve of his death for one final interview. While this particular meeting is a fabrication, I wanted to fabricate a dramatic possibility in concert with, and largely constrained by, reported history. In other words, the action of the play, to my imagination, could have plausibly happened and served to inform the ultimate content and form of the Confessions document.

My initial draft of the play explored Turner as a man entirely exhilarated and spiritually intoxicated. Not only was he unafraid of death, he welcomed it as a joyful martyr. Here is Turner’s opening monologue from the first draft. He begins the play alone in his prison cell, talking to a pile of rags.

nat: Let no one ever tell you you are rags.
For you are chosen.
Men will mock you, saying you are weathered.
But what do they know about the weather?
Nothing at all.
To them it is either hot or it is cold.

I was interested in organizing the play around Nat changing one set of rags for another. In one sense, the change of clothes is an exercise in futility, which speaks to the direness of Nat’s situation as a prisoner who will soon be hanged. In another sense, by endowing the rags with a sense of dignity, he invites us to see them as he does: greater and mightier than their material conditions and appearance would seem to warrant, much like the figure of Nat Turner himself.

And they think the rain is only for the crops.
Can you imagine?
All that rain, just for crops.
Just to make plants grow and nothing else.

Who else has worn thee, friend?
Prisoners come in many stripes. Thieves. Prophets: false as well
  as true. Madmen. Murderers. Deposed kings.
I do not doubt that you have worn them all.

Turner’s questions to his rags, which he will soon wear, invite the audience to consider what type(s) of prisoner Nat Turner himself might be.

It is sunset.

(Nat places the rags in the beam of sunlight.)

Have you ever seen a sunset just like this?

I do not think I’ll sleep tonight, my friend.

What would you do
If your ship were docked on the shores of eternity,
And the anchor could not be lifted; it had to wait till morning?
Oh, my friend.
Do you know how much I long to lose that anchor,
And hoist my sails
And take to that Great Sea in the dead of night,
And bend my gaze to the horizon line
Where stands the gleaming city of my Lord,
Whose gates of moonlit pearl I see flung wide
For my approach?

But no.
The anchor holds till morning.
God’s foot is on it.
I can’t die till morning. Forgive my soul
That it stirs wakeful on the pier for sunrise.

The petty devils will pro’lly make me wait
Till afternoon.
They’ll want my execution with their lunch.

But morn till afternoon don’t feel long.
There’s things going on.
The night, that’s long. That’s nigh ungodly long.

Should I get dressed now?
No. Morning, morning.
But stay there, friend, and take that light. Take my last sunset.
Hold it for me for tomorrow.

(Nat lies down.)

(The sound of a door opening and then closing.)

(Thomas Gray enters. He holds an unlit lantern in one hand and a briefcase in the other.)

this version of turner the character
will always be dear to me. He expresses purely and simply the longing of the soul for God and the spirit that animates saints and martyrs (or, depending on the beholder’s point of view, zealots and fanatics). But the play also needed to dramatize the possibilities of the human-to-human exchange that might have happened between Nat Turner and Thomas Gray, and this beginning left little room for that exchange to develop. What could be the stakes of their meeting if the only thing between Turner and what he now desires most—a martyr’s death—is the passage of time?

When the monologue ends, Turner is lying down, waiting, basically, for his death. Gray’s entrance is thus little more than an inconvenience and interruption; it can’t ultimately contain a substantive challenge. The fact that Turner doesn’t need anything from Gray makes Gray’s task much harder, but it also turns Turner as a character into kind of a cipher for the audience.

Given the choice I had made (and which I never questioned) to set the play on the night before Turner’s execution, and given the above characterization, I was in a bind. There was a real risk that Gray, who enters the play still unresolved about his task as the recorder of Turner’s confession, would become the character the play dramatically revolved around, while Turner (notwithstanding that he was the title character and the impetus for the whole project) would be relegated, ultimately, to Magical Negro status. I wanted to avoid a situation where Gray’s character held the lion’s share of the play’s psychic complexity.

Thus I found myself in a longform conversation with the production’s director, Megan Sandberg-Zakian, who had been with the play from its earliest beginnings, about how to make this all work. One day Megan identified and articulated the simple truth that I had been overlooking: people who are known for their enormous faith often describe experiencing moments of incredible doubt.

This was the key insight that would allow an audience to connect with the title character for a sustained evening of theater. If he were experiencing a moment of profound spiritual doubt, Turner would have needed Gray, prevailing upon him to help prove, save, preserve, strengthen, defend, and recover his own faith before the approaching hour of his death.

The version of the opening monologue that we opened the play with is this:

nat: Do you see, my friend?
Thy Lord hath not forgotten thee.
Let no one ever say you are a chain.

In this version, Nat speaks to the chain that is shackling him, rather than to a pile of rags. This roots the character in a more concrete and less spiritualized physical reality, one more readily accessible to the popular imagination.

You are chosen.
Men will mock you, saying you’re old and rusty.
Saying you are weathered.
But what do they know about the weather?
To them it is either hot or it is cold
And they think the rain is only for the crops.
Can you imagine?
All that rain. Just for crops. Just to make plants grow and
  nothing else.

It is sunset.
Have you ever seen a sunset just like this?
Is this one more beautiful than all the others?
Or do I see it better,
Because I know it is my last? My friend,
What a wonderful thing to see
And what an awful thing to know.
The sun will set over the hill.
Then it will be the moon’s turn to keep watch over Jerusalem.
And tomorrow,
All of Virginia will come to the gallows to watch me die. 

Here again, as compared with the earlier version, Nat is placed more firmly and definitively within his immediate circumstances. It is clear from the outset that he is near the hour of his death. The implied question is, How is he going to deal with this?

My friend, were you listening when the judge pronounced
  his sentence?
“You will hang by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead!”

According to the historical record, Nat’s sentence read, in part, “The judgment of the court is, that you be taken from hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the hours of 10 A.M. and 2 P.M. be hung by the neck until you are dead! dead! dead! and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”

Why did he sentence me to death three times?
Does he think I’m great enough to live three lives and die
  three deaths?
Then he’s mistaken.
When I am preaching, friend, I must appear great.
When I testify to others of the miracles of God and the signs
  the Lord has shown me
I forget my wretched self
And so I appear great.
But friend, who can I speak of God to now? 

The other characters in the play, Thomas Gray and the Guard (played by the same actor), become the answer to this question.

What do you call a preacher whose congregation
Is his chains and shackles?
What do you call a general who is the last survivor of his army?
The mighty commander of absolutely no one.
Is this the same loneliness that Noah felt?
If it is, where is my ship?
Where are the sails I can hoist?
Where, oh Lord, are your rains, your storms, your floods,
  your meteors?
Have I misread the hour?

In this version, Nat is contending primarily with his doubt, rather than with his unrequited, but soon to be remedied, longing for death.

You’ve placed a window within these prison walls
And even here you’ve shown me Heaven.
But how can I go there with peace tomorrow
If my work on earth has come to nothing?

(Nat Turner scoots farther into the light.)

The light, in some ways, comes to represent the presence of the Divine in the play. But it is Nat’s interpretation of and interaction with the light, and not anything supernatural that the light itself does, that exemplifies the spirit of faith.

in this version, when Gray enters,
Turner interprets his arrival as providential. Gray is there to try one last time to get further information out of Turner before the execution, a need that Turner exploits to prove to Gray, and thus to himself, that his actions were in fact orchestrated by Heaven. Turner’s spiritual doubt is the opening through which the audience can now enter his reality.

After I had achieved some distance from the production of the play, I began to wonder if I was too eager to solve what seemed to be flaws in the play’s design. Had I, in my eagerness to get the play “right,” been too quick to come away from my initial instinct to make Nat Turner the happy martyr? If I had fully embraced that direction for the character, what might the play have become? Perhaps more strange? More unruly? More interesting? More powerful?

But after hearing Youn’s lecture in July, looking at the situation more broadly and freed from zero-sum assumptions, I began asking some different questions: When under the very real pressure to choose a direction for the production, why did I choose the direction I chose? Why did those choices feel the most correct, in the context of the play’s world premiere? A partial answer: I tend to write about things that I find inscrutable in some way. Yet at the same time I’m very excited by the idea of a play as popular entertainment. Feeling an audience’s visceral engagement with my work is important to me. It’s an enormous challenge to follow the logic of creative impulses that must, in some ways, remain mysterious, while also holding on to a sincere desire to entertain and delight an audience that as a collective body has no inherent reverence for such impulses. And that challenge, perhaps as much as the subject matter of a given piece, is what inspires me to write, and to keep writing. I find great solace in viewing my various attempts at writing a play not as progressively less imperfect failures but as lights illuminating one another—and illuminating my way through that deep and ever deeper darkness where the truth resides.

Nathan Alan Davis is a playwright whose works include The High Ground (Arena Stage), Nat Turner in Jerusalem (NYTW), Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea (Skylight Theatre), and The Wind and the Breeze (Cygnet Theatre). He is a lecturer in Theater at Princeton University.
Originally published:
December 1, 2021


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