‘Nat Turner: Following Faith’ playwright Paula Neiman speaks

by The People’s Minister of Information JR

The great Nat Turner is a prophet to some and a hero to most of the Black people I know who are conscious of the African experience in the European and Arab slave trade. I was in Los Angeles when I came across a flyer for a theatrical play about this great man, so I had to write about it, to expose y’all to what I am trying to go see.

A scene from “Nat Turner: Following Faith”
A scene from “Nat Turner: Following Faith”

I have not seen the play yet, so I cannot give it a final stamp of approval, but from looking at the info that I have on the play, such as the voice of another great freedom fighter from the chattel period, Gabriel Prosser, being acknowledged and featured in the drama, it heightened my interest. “Nat Turner: Following Faith” will be playing at the Rogue Machine Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles. It closes this Sunday, Dec. 6, 2015.

Check out playwright Paula Neiman in her own words …

M.O.I. JR: When did you know that you wanted to be a playwright?

Paula Neiman: I had always written character-based stories, then began writing screenplays in my late teens. About eight years ago, in an effort designed to self-produce on a limited budget, I turned one of my screenplays, “Grande Central” – a 1920s romantic drama based on Central Avenue, Los Angeles – into a stage play.

Through the development processes, I realized I could further explore character in this alternative medium, and my attention and passion shifted to the stage. Still love writing film, but …

M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us how the idea of writing a play about the great Nat Turner came to you?

Paula Neiman: I had known of Nat Turner, on some level, since childhood – a combination of catching that sparse paragraph in my history book and having his name occasionally land within conversations with my peers and, when circumstance granted access, elders. Additionally, I had a deep rooted passion for humanitarianism, equality, justice since very young as well.

So whenever the likes of Nat Turner or other such revolutionaries were exposed to me, it peaked my interest immediately. Later it expanded to how those things related to history, sociality and race relations – all of which were incorporated into my independent studies and passions – and eventually writings.

Later, in my early 20s, after reading one of my screenplays, “Grande Central,” a 1920s piece about Central Avenue, Los Angeles, a novice writer friend, considering my interest and familiarity with writing a period piece, asked if I would write a screenplay about Nat. Although the partnership didn’t pan out – creative differences – the initial research ignited my interest to such a degree I could not stop. And years later, I am still unable to put it down.

I had a deep rooted passion for humanitarianism, equality, justice since very young. So whenever the likes of Nat Turner or other such revolutionaries were exposed to me, it peaked my interest immediately.

M.O.I. JR: What is the name of your play, and what is a short summary?

Paula Neiman: The name is “Nat Turner: Following Faith.” It’s set in Southampton, Virginia, in 1821, inside a dank, spartan jail cell. Nat Turner (Tarnue Massaquoi) is just two hours from death, charged with one of the bloodiest revolts known to the Southern U.S.

As he awaits execution, predecessor abolitionist Gabriel Prosser (Asante Jones) appears as a spirit to guide us through this complicated journey, leading us literally from first breath … to the last …

M.O.I. JR: What role does the great Gabriel Prosser play in the play?

Paula Neiman: As I mentioned in the summary, Gabriel Prosser is a spirit who serves as a narrator for Nat’s journey. Additionally, as much of his own journey parallels that of Nat, and being that he passed in the month of Nat’s birth, his character serves to symbolically pass the torch …

M.O.I. JR: Who are the cast?

Paula Neiman: The play is directed by Dan Martin. In the cast are Tarnue Massaquoi, Asante Jones, Baadja Ouba, Darius Dudley, Darrell Philip, Dennis Delsing, Dominique Washington, Glenn Bond II, Hunter C. Smith, Jaimyon Parker, Jennifer Lieberman, Phrederic Semaj, Sade’ Moore, Sara Davenport, Terry Woodberry with Cydney Wayne Davis, David Wendell Boykins, Justin Greenberg and Marston Fobbs.

M.O.I. JR: What was the creative process like creating the play? How long did it take?

Paula Neiman: Research played a heavy part in the creative process. Researching – especially on such a complex character and subject as this – is an ever evolving and omnipresent process. So even now, it hasn’t stopped.

Although there is limited information on his life – which, incidentally, is why the debates on him are so vast – there was a lot of material that was indirectly related to pull from. My research included revolts and revolutionaries who preceded and possibly influenced him, along with his successors – revolutionaries, critical theorists, Black nationalists, visionaries, philosophers such as Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglass, Frantz Fanon, Alexander Crummell and Malcolm X.

Originally I wrote this as a screenplay – put it down for several years, and then picked it up as a play around 2009. Part of the writing process at that time took place within the Robey Playwrights Workshop. In 2010, I had a selected scenes staged reading, which included such notable actors as Roger Guenveur Smith (“A Huey P. Newton Story”; “Get on the Bus”), Chad L. Coleman (“The Wire”; “Walking Dead”), drummer Victor Orlando (Gap Band), and was directed by Michael P. Edwards (“Runt”; “I Am Not Sam”).

Research played a heavy part in the creative process. Researching – especially on such a complex character and subject as this – is an ever evolving and omnipresent process. So even now, it hasn’t stopped.

Soon after, I entered a significant rewrite, which included incorporating Gabriel Processor into the narrative; before this, he didn’t exist in the play. In 2012, I had another reading, again directed by Edwards – followed by a script polish.

The third and final reading took place in the summer of 2015 and was directed by Dan Martin. A few months later, under Dan’s direction, we went into production for the world premiere. Even then, I continued to edit – discoveries being made through both further research, and my watching the creative process of both our actors and director.

M.O.I. JR: Where is it running and for how long?

Paula Neiman: We’re at the Rogue Machine Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles 90019, from Oct. 30 through Dec. 6, 2015.

M.O.I. JR: How could people keep up with the play?

Paula Neiman: Our website is www.NatTurnerStory.com , and we’re on social media on facebook.com/NatTurnerStory, instagram.com/NatTurnerStory and youtube.com/watch?v=WVsQ26pZRcs. Email us at NatTurnerStory@gmail.com.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com.