BACK STAGE WEST
January 23, 2003
at Casa 0101
What a fatal mistake Nat Turner's first owner made when he gave the precocious young slave a copy of the Bible and encouraged him to read it. He might as well as have given Turner a loaded gun. If later generations of African-Americans were inspired by Christian values of mercy and non-violence, Turner, who in 1831 led a brutal slave rebellion, was clearly more fired up by the prophetic severity of the Bible's stories of exile and deliverance, which involve no small amount of pestilence, first-born-child-killing, and what we'd call ethnic cleansing. If Martin Luther King Jr. was the New Testament, Nat Turner was the Old.
There's a reason both testaments are still taught, of course--and equally good reason to tell Turner's unsettling story alongside the ubiquitous memorials to King's redemptive example. In Randolph Edmonds' modest play Nat Turner, serviceably directed here by Emmanuel Deleage, we get the gist. In a brief preface based on his famous Confessions (a section apparently added by Deleage), a jailed Turner (Ted Hayes) recites the names of the rebellion's 55 victims, many of them children. The first act comprises the fireside barbecue at which Turner marshals his forces to begin the killing; the brief second act has Turner returning to the site to find that the revolt is unraveling in arrest, death, and shame--and beginning to realize that perhaps his inspiration for the massacre wasn't so divine, after all.
The Turner story is so rich and resonant because, with its harsh, literally black-and-white moral contrasts, it cuts right to the heart of the revolutionary dilemma: Is there a just way to end injustice? Is one man's terrorist another man's freedom fighter? In the rousing first act, Edmonds supplies some of the political consciousness so noticeably missing from Turner's confessions--which capture his cold-blooded fury and utter conviction but none of his rationale, if he had one--but it doesn't shy away from portraying the warped, cult-like fervor that no doubt rallied his comrades in arms, or the tragic pathos of this ragtag "army," following their commander-in-chief on a suicide mission.
Hayes' over-the-top performance helps sell these points--both the righteous and the pathetic sides of Turner. Entering in a hooded white robe that makes him look a little like Rick James, Hayes--the wiry, corn-rowed homeless activist who built Dome Village and famously clashed with demonstrators outside the Democratic Convention in 2000--is in his element making impassioned, disarmingly entertaining messianic speeches about the Struggle. The actors around Turner don't have much to do--they either cheer him on or disagree just enough to allow him to make another point--but among a competent cast, Howard Bee and Ian Loren stand out for bringing a lived-in authenticity to their roles, and Sufe Bradshaw has a fiery flash of a scene in the second act.
Deleage's scene transitions are clunky, but his forest set is evocatively dressed (by Jeff Peninger; the art director is Bryony Foster). Truth to tell, the show is an uneven, slightly faltering effort overall. But it has a boldness and earnestness that somehow bode well for Josefina Lopez's new Casa 0101; this company's palpable sense of social mission seems directed at raising tough questions (a lively post-show Q&A ran nearly as long as the show) rather than giving us clever, winking agitprop for the already converted.
"Nat Turner," presented by Justiceville/Homeless USA & Haber Hayes Productions and Courage Productions at Casa 0101 Theater/Art Space, 2009 E. 1st St., Boyle Heights. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Jan. 17-26. $5-10. (323) 263-7684.