The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Defending the Slaughter
“Nat’s Last Struggle”

Like many of us, I suppose—African-American or otherwise—actor George T. Davis III thought of Nat Turner as a hero for his famous 1831 armed rebellion against slavery in Southampton County, VA.

But that was before he was offered the role of Nat in “Nat’s Last Struggle,” playwright P.A. Wray’s one-act, one-man drama which opened in preview on August 15 prior to a run the last two weekends of the month at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk.

Once he read the script, Davis confided in a talk-back discussion following his opening-night performance, he realized the Nat Turner story is a good deal more complicated than he thought. Many in the audience, including myself, were with him on that.

In fact, as Wray’s reasonably researched drama makes clear, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the only armed slave uprising in the sorry 250-year saga of American slavery, is as clear an example as any in history of the power of religion to support believers in extreme delusional acts.

Davis, despite some apparent opening-night nervousness, is powerful as Nat Turner. In fact, his booming basso profundo may be a bit too powerful for The Venue’s small, cafe space, and at times I wished he would modulate his delivery with a bit more variety of emotion—or that I had sat further back from the stage.

That said, it’s easy to believe in him as preacher and prophet, as Nat came to be regarded, his voice easily reaching all who gathered to hear him teach his people how to bear their oppression as he interpreted verses from the Good Book, which he’d learned to read, according to Wray’s version, pretty much on his own through an intuitive recognition of letters and words.

Increasingly convinced, then, that Apocalypse—the end of the world foretold in Revelations—was not only imminent but that he, Nat Turner, was appointed by God to lead the final battle, he and a rag-tag band of blacks set out on the night of August 21, 1831, on a murderous rampage through Southampton County, killing 55 white householders before the militia arrived to put an end to the madness.

Wray’s drama, beginning with Nat’s court sentencing and hanging, focuses on his after-life doubts as he defends his actions before God’s seat of judgment, though we’re not so sure God is there to hear him. As he makes his defense, reviewing the chronology of his life from birth to rebellion, his conviction solidifies that, indeed, all along the way he followed God’s will, God’s direction. In the end he fully convinces himself of this and victoriously dons the white robe of salvation.

Praise be to God.

Yet one can’t help but wonder what metaphysics are operative here if Nat Turner’s criminal madness, however we may empathize with its root causes, can be so easily washed clean. At the least we might wish for some small measure of angelic therapy.

At the same time, though, ambiguity stalks us in any reflection upon this story. Historically Nat Turner’s rebellion has been said to have hardened attitudes both North and South on the issue of slavery and pointed events inevitably in the direction of Civil War. In that sense, a case might be made to validate Nat’s visions and voices, his blow against “the Serpent,” as he calls the evil of slavery, a necessary first shock that did, indeed, eventually lead to freedom for his people, though much blood would be shed—is still being shed—in that process.

Such considerations inevitably arise from Wray’s thought-provoking play, capably directed by Pinky Chappell. A recorded vocal and drumming sound track by Minerva, including a rendering of “Strange Fruit,” the unnerving lynching song made famous by Billy Holiday, adds to the emotional power already in motion, and George Lampkin’s voice-over as the Southampton County death-sentencing judge strikes just the right note in revealing the limitations of the law, where all a society seems equipped to do in the case of a Nat Turner is wash its hands of him and speed him out of this world.

“Nat’s Last Struggle” will play at The Venue, 631 W. 35th St., Aug. 21, 28, and 29 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 23 and 30 at 4 p.m. Admission is $10. For reservations, call 469-0337. For more information on this and upcoming shows and events, go to


  1. Good review, Delaney. Interestingly, this particular subject has divided many family and friends, creating small civil wars among those who would either demonize Turner or sanctify him. (This play does neither, fortunately.) The story of Nat Turner has so much myth attached to it, like many legends, that his story has, in fact, become many stories. And, as such, it is worth discussing again as we see old fears arise in angry town hall meetings at which some come to shout down objective debate about our nation's health out of fear of change.

    Jean Klein (I couldn't seem to sign in under my name, so I just signed this.

  2. I wonder about martyrs for passionate causes on this earth. Nat Turner might not be anyone in history if he had not given his life in such a dramatic way. He is etched in our collective consciousness by this act of heroism. I am interested, too, in how religion can be the impetus behind delusional acts of valor. I am wondering, too, how delusional these acts are. Much of the Bible certainly seems delusional and reading other mystics' works has the same effect. I have no answers, just questions.
    I do think Nat Turner was one of the first in a long line of historic figures sacrificing for freedom in the African American struggle which has led us all to the question of what is freedom? Their struggle is the portal for all of us in our search for freedom.

  3. I wish I could see this play. I can see how it is more complicated than one might think at first. Slavery is bad so let's kill all the people who put us there. Easier said than done. And once done, paying the price had to be hell. But living as a slave was also hell.

    Sounds like a nightmare to me.

  4. Hi D - Thanks for the review and offering to do this for other theaters and arts events - this is a much needed service for local arts.

    And thanks, Jean, for appreciating the fact that I neither tried to demonize or sanctify Turner. My intent was to dramatize what is known of Turner's motivations, mainly from the confessions provided to the Court during the trial. I have promoted this piece as an adaptation of these confessions. Controversy prevails over the confessions even though Turner admitted in court that the confessions were accurate and given freely. And controversy will follow this play and any other works about Turner for as long as history lives. I believe Turner was a man of exceptional intelligence tortured by a vicious system, who turned to religion for release - I believe he used the term that, he was led away by "entusiasm" - I believe that is what we call religious fanaticism today. Was he madman, murderer, fanatic or hero - maybe a bit of all - you decide. But one thing for sure, he is an important figure in human history to comtemplate - trying to understand Nat and his struggle with oppression, will offer insight into the acts of oppressed people today and unfortunately, the oppressed of the future.