I first read about Nat Turner in my grade school history book. I learned he’d been a slave who had lead a revolt, and that he’d been hanged. The textbook explained that Turner had written a famous screed, Confessions of Nat Turner, published after his death. It was information I had to memorize for when test time rolled around.
Turner was a literate man of rare intelligence, a devout Christian who evolved into a messianic preacher in the slave community. Some of his followers believed that he had a pipeline to heaven, as did Turner.
When a solar eclipse occurred in the summer of 1831, he took it as a sign that God wanted him to act. He and his followers went on a rampage, killing 55 white people — men, women and children. The powers-that-be retaliated by executing 100 to 200 black people, many innocent of any crime.
Nat Turner: Following Faith, Paula Neiman’s nigh three-hour-long play (with intermission), attempts to fill the gaps in what knowledge we may have about this historic personage, dramatizing the events of record and adding a conjectured account of Nat's (Tarnue Massaquoi) relationships with his mom, grandmother, father, followers and wife.
The play aims to remind us of the terribleness of slavery and to zero in on the irony of a man of faith who, driven by cruelty and injustice, champions horrendous acts.
The episodes in Nat's life are double-framed, first by a storyteller (Asante Jones, who intrepidly handles the tortuously talky text) and second by depictions of his trial (its conclusion foregone), where tearful and outraged witnesses testify repeatedly to the merciless slaying of women and children.
Director Dan Martin stages what is in many ways a superlative production, with an accomplished supporting ensemble who (with a single exception) etch even the cameo roles with clarity and skill. Their disciplined talent goes a very long way towards compensating for this overwritten and sometimes pontificating melodrama, whose repetitive scenes and didactic moralizing belabor the obvious.
The excellent performances include, but are by no means limited to, Baadja-Lyn Ouba as Turner’s salt-of-the-earth African grandmother, and Terry Woodberry as his resolute father, who dispenses wisdom to his child before disappearing on a dangerous quest for freedom.
As Nat, Massaquoi projects a sullen anger when a more fiery presence might have served the story better.
Scenic designer Vali Tirsoaga’s sand-colored backdrop and strategically placed foliage reflect a Biblical ambience that imparts tragic scope to the story. Designer Sammie Wayne IV’s top-notch lighting, Jaimyon Parker’s nuanced sound and Mauva Gacitua’s spot-on costumes contribute to this class act production of a flawed script with a worthy theme.
Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.; https://www.tickettailor.com/checkout/view-event/id/35918/chk/71fa/; through Dec. 6.