Boston Author Jabari Asim Reimagines Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion On Stage
When Boston-based writer Jabari Asim began writing what would become “Brother Nat: Rise. Revolt. Redemption.” more than nine years ago, he thought of the production as a collection of poems. “I outline the story as I see it and then write songs and lyrics,” he explained.
An amalgamation of a musical and an opera, “Brother Nat: Rise. Revolt. Redemption.” tells the story of Nat Turner, the enslaved man who led a revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831 that killed more than 60 white slave-owners. The play will be showing at the Paramount Center on Thursday, Oct. 25.
Asim, an associate professor at Emerson College and the author of several books including “What Obama Means: ...for Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future” and the newly released “We Can’t Breathe," brought his collection of poems and lyrics he’d been working on to his wife and long-term artistic collaborator Liana Asim. Liana, a playwright and actor, then transformed the material into a script for theater and created the cast of characters. The musical translation was completed by award-winning musician Allyssa Jones.
With the support of The Boston Foundation’s Live Arts Boston grant, the Asims and Jones were able to flesh out the beginnings of “Brother Nat” into an all-encompassing musical experience, without the assistance of larger theater companies. “So what if the larger companies won’t do your work?” Liana remembers telling Jabari. “What if we pooled our resources together and produced our own work?” The grant enabled the team to bring on orchestral director Damien Sneed and the ensemble cast of actors and singers.
Nat Turner’s name rests at the crux of notoriety and infamy for the slave rebellion he led almost 200 years ago. His life has been the topic of various plays and films and was most recently immortalized in Nate Parker’s 2016 “The Birth Of A Nation.” Turner, an enslaved preacher, had a vision of an Angel of God and was inspired to battle the monstrous machine of slavery. In 1831, a solar eclipse or some kind of atmospheric disturbance darkened the sky and Turner, accompanied by 70 enslaved men and freemen, led a two-day rebellion during which they freed slaves and killed slave owners.
Threatening the economic benefits of slavery for whites and the myth that blacks were too docile or not smart enough to organize a rebellion, punishment for the uprising was swift and brutal. At least 120 black people living in the Southampton area, who weren’t involved with the rebellion, were executed by local militias and mobs.
State legislatures then attempted to control the spirituality of slaves by passing laws that forbade blacks from reading and writing while also prohibiting slaves from holding religious meetings without a white minister present.
While previous interpretations of Nat Turner’s history are steeped in blood, “Brother Nat” emphasizes a different aspect of the story — the connection Nat had with his wife, which like the majority of enslaved black women from that time, history has all but erased. The dearth of official documents tracing her life present very little information: She was sold to a man named Giles, she was either named Cherry, Mariah or Fanny and had at least one son — named Riddick. But there is one telling piece of evidence. After the revolt, white authorities discovered some papers shedding light on Turner’s rebellion.
Turner’s wife was a trusted confidante.
“The Birth Of A Nation” devotes onscreen time to Nat’s relationship with his wife, but the Asims believe interpreting Turner and his wife's life together through song adds an additional level of intimacy. “Something that we tried to do consistently in this is show the love Nat had for his wife,” Liana Asim said of the plot. In “Brother Nat,” the Asims refer to Turner’s wife as Cora.
Duane Adolph Moody plays the lead character of Brother Nat and Sigourney Cook takes on the role of Cora Turner. Their rich voices and their on stage chemistry “captures the wide breadth of ancestral history,” Liana said and emphasizes the humanity in a story about revolt and resistance. One of the plot arches in the Asim’s production reimagines a different ending for a pregnant Cora — escaping to freedom.
“In history, they are lynched,” Liana explained. “Lynching, in a way, is supposed to be a curse for us.” Conservative numbers put the number of lynching victims at a genocidal 4,743. Indeed, its use to terrorize black Americans did, in many ways, make lynching a terrible curse. But “because of the way the play ends, the lynching is not a curse,” said Liana. “It’s taking back this dominant narrative that we, as black people, don’t have control over our spiritual lives.”
Through this vantage point, Turner’s ending is not a tragedy but a beginning. History tells us that although Nat’s life ended, the impacts of his rebellion snowballed into something that would change the country. “If you step back and take an aerial view of history, Nat Turner’s rebellion set in motion a number of events that led to the Civil War,” Jabari said.
The task of capturing the hurricane of emotion and history involved in a slave revolt was one some doubted the Asims and Jones could do. “People aren’t really used to African-Americans producing shows on this scale in Boston and we faced some skepticism about ‘Brother Nat,’ ” Liana told WBUR. “Because we’re not a company, people kept asking, 'Well whose producing it?' "
The telling of “Brother Nat” turns the production itself into an act of rebellion. By exploring the nuances of Nat Turner’s narrative — through the humanity of his love of his wife and the ownership of his spirituality — “Brother Nat” unearths the stories lost in collective history and vividly colors them into existence.
This spirit of resistance is one that Jones and the Asims hope viewers carry with them when leaving the theater. Rebellion is a layered process and even the smallest acts can have the most transformative changes. “We want people to be reflective of history,” Jabari said of the production’s impact, “and what the possibilities are for our future.”
“Brother Nat: Rise. Revolt. Redemption.” will be performed at the Paramount Center on Thursday, Oct. 25.