Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nat Turner: Following Faith by Paula Neiman

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L - R Tarnue Massaquoi, Terry Woodberry - Photos Daniel Martin

By Joe Straw

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the lord by soul to keep
If I should die, before I wake
I pray the lord my soul to take

I can’t begin to know what it is like to be a slave. I don’t have those eyes and have not walked with calloused feet and ankles chained.  But, three hundred years, three hundred years, of first walking towards justice, and then marching for freedom, until finally, the boots hit the ground.

Slavery was wrong, slavery remains wrong. – Narrator

On Sunday, August 21, 1831, a slave known as The Prophet gathered a group of 70 enslaved and free blacks, marched out of the forest toward the pre-dawn horizon, and entered the quiet homes of unsuspecting plantation owners with one purpose in mind.

A determination was made that all the white residents of those homes would be slain, including women and children, because rebellion is harsh and harsh rebellion takes no prisoners.

The Southampton Insurrection was in fact a crepuscular moment in a series of movements leading to the end of slavery in the United States.

There were over twenty suppressed rebellions in all.  Navtheless, this rebellion sent a strong message to those bystanders unwilling to consider the abolition of slavery.  

Three hundred years.

In certain circumstances, lessons must be taught, messages must be absorbed, and enlightened steps must be taken in the pursuit of human justice.    

Certainly, a lot of human beings died on this day, August 21, 1831, white and black, although black lives were mostly lost as an act of reprisal, not counted, and one last act of indignation. 

Art of Wordz presents the World Premiere of Nat Turner:  Following Faith, written by Paula Neiman, directed by Dan Martin, and produced by Paula Neiman & Vanja Renne in association with Rogue Machine Theatre at Theatre/Theater through December 6th, 2015.

The play suggests that Nat Turner (Tarnue Massaquoi) had free blood in him, that he is the creation of a free man raping his mother.  The rape was an indecorous act resulting in horrible imprecations.   

And on October 2, 1800, moments after Nat’s birth, his mother Nancy (Sade Moore) takes his body, swathed in rags, places him in a bucket of water and tries to end his life before her mother, Bridget (Baadja-Lyne Ouba), and Bridget’s father, Hubbard (Darius Dudley), sojourns her deed.

“A baby is a gift of God.” – Bridget

Within the room, the nurturing light of a newborn is offset by the darkness of death, and we are made aware of the execution of Gabriel Prosser (Asante Jones), a blacksmith, who on October 10, 1800 was executed for planning a slave rebellion in Richmond, Virginia.  

Prosser appears as though he were a vision, or a dream, a symbolic coruscation of freedom.  He narrates as a poetic raconteur of the truth. And he is always watching Nat, who, now in a childlike bliss and with an ethereal smile, is unaware of the relationships that will develop later in life, especially those with his white counterparts.  

The words came to Nat, it is as if he knew how to read and write without learning.  And, seeing the shadows of freedom he reported having “visions” or suggestions by unknown voices encouraging him to follow the path of liberty.  

“… I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth.” -  Nat Turner - The Confessions of Nat Turner by Thomas Gray

Slave owner Benjamin Turner (Darrell Philip) wants to know how Nat learned to read.

“It just came to me.” – Nat

Nat says it innocently, seemingly unaware of the repercussions of sharing this knowledge. (This is a very interesting moment, but says little about Nat’s relationship to Ben Turner and where it’s all leading.)  Still Benjamin gives him the Bible to study and read.

And still the image of Gabriel Prosser, and his legend, is prevalent throughout.  And these ideas whispered, learned, handed down by nothing more than osmosis, were circulated among those in bondage.   It is a lesson of insurrection that Nat instinctively pursues.

Paula Neiman, the writer, presents a stimulating play, one that has me searching for more information on Nat Turner’s insurrection. Certainly, the play is presented in a grand historical fashion.  But the connection between Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner is diaphanous; a solid connection is recommended. Secondly, there is a strong visual throughout the play of marching, and it is that march toward freedom that we must see in the writing. Also, the Prophet’s speeches must be uplifting and the words need to find ground, inspiration from the ground up, to give us the power Nat Turner had. It is a story about following faith, as the title implies, but that faith must feed the Prophet in order for the audience to get the most out of the event.  

The acting in this production is well above par.  Their strengths are in the power of their voices and in the nuance of a moment. Most of the actors take on numerous roles and in various wonderful costumes by Mauva Gacitua, Costume Designer.

“And about this time I had a vision – and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened – the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams – and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.” – Nat Turner - The Confessions of Nat Turner by Thomas Gray

Tarnue Massaquoi does a nice turn as Nat Turner, taking the role from a very young age to the time of his death.  Massaquoi has a strong stage aura.  But Massaquoi must find the power in Nat Turner’s words, the power that have the ability to lead 70 men.  Also, Turner is a spiritual man who looked for symbols in events.  (It’s odd that we don’t see him in prayer.) Still, Massaquoi should be searching for those symbols on stage. But, these are just a few things to add to an already fine performance.

Assante Jones is Gabriel Prosser, the narrator of the truth.  Jones has a strong presence and makes it a point to have a deep connection so that one understands that truth.

Baadja-Lyne Ouba is Bridget as well as other women. She makes each character separate and unique.  In each role, Ouba brings a passion for humanity and understand the uniqueness of diversity of each individual character.

Darrell Philip plays William Parker and a number of other roles in the ensemble and did a fine job although it is a task to get a fix on the craft when an actor comes in and out in many roles.

“The judgment of the court is, that you be taken hence to the jail from whence you came, thence to the place of execution, and on Friday next, between the hours of 10:00A.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.” – Judge Jeremiah Cobb, Esq. Chairman - The Confessions of Nat Turner by Thomas Gray

Dennis Delsing plays the Jerusalem, Virginia Judge Cobb, who declares Nat Turner to be “dead, dead, dead”.  Three times dead, not one time, three times in a grand southern accent.   

Sade Moore is Nancy, Nat’s mother.  Moore is a stunning creature who gives a subtle and brave performance, and she is an actor for which I would rush to see in future performances.  

L - R Tarnue Massaquoi, Dominique Washington


Dominique Washington plays Cherry, Nat Turner’s wife, and is exceptional.

Jaimyon Parker plays Will, the man with the hatchet.  Parker has a very distinctive look on stage and a strong presence.  That aside, he needs to do more work on character, and setting the character in that time. Parker gave us a character from 2015 in the setting of 1831. The work is good but an adjustment must be made.

Jennifer Lieberman does a fine job as Nancy Parson, and presents strong characters in a variety of other roles on stage.  

Sara Davenport does an exceptional job as Mrs. Whitehead and also as a member of the ensemble.

Phrederic Semaj does an excellent job as Hark and has a fantastic voice.  This is also an actor I would like to see in another play.

“You are intended for a great purpose.” - Moses

Terry Woodberry plays Moses, Nat’s father figure who escapes the bondage of slavery never to be seen again. Moses has had it with the beatings and needs to escape, but in a final act, and in an emotional goodbye, this Moses does not lead the slaves from bondage.  Woodberry needs to make more of that moment by giving faith, providing hope, and finally saying goodbye before running off into the unknown.  

Cydney Wayne Davis plays Bridget but did not perform the night I was there. I was disappointed because I always like to get my dose of Davis when she is performing in a play.

Justin Greenberg plays John Clark, the bad guy with the whip.  Also, Hunter C. Smith plays John Clark and served as the Fight Choreographer for some bloodless brutally depicted scenes that were well done on stage.  Marston Fobbs is Jack as well is in the ensemble. Glenn Bond II also plays Jack. And Darius Dudley is Hubbard.

Dan Martin, the director, makes a lot of interesting choices in the direction of the play. And while most of the action was pleasurable to watch, more could have been made to bring the actors downstage, in their glory, rather than having the action taking place far stage left (e.g., the rocking chair scene), and far upstage left (e.g., the birth).  Also, Nat Turner should be downstage center as well as his prison cell, that places him in a pressured environment while the judge and others convict him, rather than having him on the upstage wall.  Also, Martin has the men marching on that faithful day, from one house to the next, but we never get a sense (on stage) of what is pushing these men, the force that leads them to do what they do, the background of their lives that propel them.  We just have them marching, blank faced, and without cause. (As audience members we know the reasons, but the actors must bring the backstory into the march.) There is a lot to be had with symbols that carry forth the actor’s intention and that will lead to a stronger conclusion. Still, there is a lot here to enjoy, to learn, and to take stock in.  Certainly, I’ve been enlightened.  

Vanja Renee, Producer, does us a great service in bringing this show to Los Angeles and to this venue.  

Phaedra Harris, Casting Director, must be commended for bringing exceptional talent to this production.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Tamir Elbassir – Production Stage Manager
Vali Tirsoaga – Scenic Design
Sammie Wayne IV – Light Design
Jaimyon Parker – Sound Design
Louie Zegarra – Graphic Design
Tara Hillary – Make-up Artist
Vanoy Burnough – Casting Consultant
Sheila Gilmore – Marketing Consultant
Philip Sokoloff – Publicist

Run! Run!  And take a history professor with you!  

Reservations: 213-529-5153

Online Ticketing:  http://buytickets.at/natturner

Theatre/Theater
5041 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA  90019

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