Out of the Woods: Nat Turner in Jerusalem

Posted November 11, 2020

Nat Turner Group Web

APT's latest series of "Out of the Woods" play readings continues this Friday with Nathan Alan Davis' Nat Turner in Jerusalem. We recently talked with Director and APT Core Company Actor Gavin Lawrence about what it was like diving into the different facets of Nat's story, and producing this play for APT. 

It’s often said that history is written by the winners. But to split that hair, history is truly written by those who hold the power. After all, the perceived “winner” can vary greatly depending on the perspective. Which brings us to Nat Turner. As you may know, in 1831, Nat Turner led a slave rebellion during which more than 50 people were killed, most of them white. At the time, the event was seized upon as a rallying point for both slaveholders and abolitionists. And after his capture, before he was executed, Nat Turner told his story to a white lawyer, Thomas Gray, who published that confession.

While those are the very basic facts, perspective is a different story. Actually, multiple stories. We’re going to take a look at two of them – one written by Thomas Gray in 1831, and one written by Nathan Alan Davis in 2016.

Core Company Actor and Nat Turner in Jerusalem director Gavin Lawrence explored Gray’s document, titled “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” saying “Reading the document helped me understand the conflict in the play, and what each person wanted. The metaphor in how enslaved people were treated by white Americans allowed me to pit that contradiction against what the lawyer was saying, to Nat, which was ‘How could you do these horrible and dreadful things?’ And the confession basically gives us the answer.“

Nat Turner in Jerusalem provides us with a chance to explore a significant historical event, and its controversial leader, with new eyes and new questions about the context. We explored the many facets of Nat Turner’s story in a recent chat with Gavin.

APT: Can you talk a bit about your approach to the play, and the relationship between Nat and Gray?
Gavin Lawrence: Well, what I did not want was to have an audience come away feeling – as the white people in the 1800s did – that Nat was a lunatic. And I wanted to make sure that we understood that this was a man who was led by his faith, and led by messages he truly believed he received from God. I wanted people to understand the strength of his convictions.

With Nat, we see a human being who is about to be executed, but who is completely faithful that he did what God told him to do. And I think with Gray, who published his confession, Nat sees the opportunity for his cause, and for the cause of Black people, to be shared with a larger community and with the country through his story. And the debate that he has with Gray over the course of the play really is about the brutality of slavery versus the brutality of the revolt, and which one engendered which.

APT: Nate Burger played two characters: Gray and the guard. Can you talk a bit about Nat’s relationship with those two men, and how they differed?
GL: I feel as though Nat was trying to get something out of both of them, and also trying to give something to both of them. Thomas Gray, a lawyer, was, in an interesting way, more desperate and more needy and more deprived of what he needed for his peace of mind and his wellbeing than the guard. You think it'd be the other way, because Gray’s an educated lawyer, but he's struggling. Now, they're both white men and the guard has his own prejudices and his own kind of narrow way of looking at things.

But what Nat had in common with the guard was faith. And they actually had a moment of spiritual awakening where they both, I think, got something from each other; there was a human moment that took place between these people from such different backgrounds. And I think that's something that Nat couldn't necessarily have with Thomas Gray. I think also, kind of the larger picture is about class similarities and how they give us reasons to come together. I think that was one of the things that playwright was showing us in this play - you have this white man who supposedly is privileged, who supposedly is educated and has all the things that a white man would need to be successful in that time, and yet he’s desperate and hungry for something that he couldn't get.

APT: Could you talk about the design on this production and how it came about?
GL: Well, I wanted to find the best way to tell the story. And as a director, I always think musically. So after I read it the first time, I found myself wanting to create threads of music to get us from one scene to the next – music that spoke to what was taking place in the story and that also kind of spoke to the times.

So, I let that lead me in terms of how we would perform each scene. Because there isn't a lot of action – there’s a lot of language, a lot of great writing, and to that extent, it works on well on Zoom. But it could also easily get kind of static. So I really wanted to try to create a mood that allowed us, as an audience, to place ourselves there, and to feel like we were in the world with these people, and really like a fly on the wall, taking in what was going on. [Editor’s note: The fabulous Alys Dickerson (Macbeth 2019) and Jamal James (She Stoops to Conquer 2019) were originally slated to perform the music, but due to quirks of technology and our current times, it didn’t work out, and Gavin composed the music himself!]

APT: Where did you get the idea for the illustrations? What do they accomplish for the story?
GL: As soon as I realized that music would be a part of it, I thought, I would love to support the transitions with some drawings of things that help tell the story. Which I had not thought of before, but it felt like it would work. And Casey [Hoekstra, an actor at APT in 2016 and 2017] does these amazing drawings, and I thought this style would work for this. And I think for Zoom, it helped.

And I also wanted to make sure that because, you know, the rap against Nat Turner from white people was that he was so brutal to women and children, and I wanted a reminder that that violence grew out of the same kind of brutality being inflicted upon us – our women, our children, the destruction of black bodies, the destruction of families. So I found that to that end, Casey's drawings really helped tell that story.

APT: Can you talk a bit about the cast and their work on this play?
GL: They're amazing. La Shawn [Banks, who plays Nat Turner] is a master of language. Like I said before, the play could have been kind of static. That inertia didn’t happen because his energy and his skill with the language was so strong. And I know that it wasn’t easy for him to choose to do this, being in chains as a black man, being in that kind of physical position, for a white theater and for an audience that is going to be primarily white. But because it was APT, because of his commitment and connection to the theater, he chose to do it.

And La Shawn is a man of faith, right? And so I felt that, for him, he was able to lean on that to help create this portrayal of this matter was so much larger than life. And that was the thing we talked about at the beginning was that Nat knows. There's no doubt in him. There no fear in him. And I think La Shawn was able to like lean into that in a way, and I think he did an amazing job.

And Nate Burger. Man. It's amazing. He makes it seem so effortless. And he has such courage. He just jumps right in. And so, I mean, for me, he made my job so much easier just because he was willing to go there right away to help me find what worked, what didn't. I've never directed Nate before, and he just made it a lot of fun.

APT: Anything you’d like to add?
GL: Yeah. I think I would love to know actually if a white audience and a black one just read this play, what they would think. Because I think, unfortunately, too many times when we're given the same information in the same way, how we take it really falls in line with who we are in terms of our race, and in terms of our ethnicity. I find that to be the case.

The Details
Watch here on the PBS Wisconsin website beginning November 11, 7:00 pm CT

Nat Turner in Jerusalem
By Nathan Alan Davis
Directed by Gavin Lawrence

Featuring La Shawn Banks as Nat Turner, and Nate Burger as Thomas Gray & the guard.

Stage Manager: Jacqueline Singleton
Voice & Text: Michael Morgan
Original melodies performed and recorded by Gavin Lawrence.
Illustrations by Casey Hoekstra.