A Conversation with Nathan Alan Davis & Megan Sanberg-Zakian
The story of Nat Turner is going viral these days as the United States continues to confront slavery’s legacy when we witness and respond to police brutality, mass incarceration, and more. Nat Turner’s story is also made current by the premiere of the film, Birth of a Nation by Nate Parker and by the premier of the play, Nat Turner in Jerusalem this season at the New York Theatre Workshop. Since Nat Turner is on everyone’s tongue and mind, I sat down with playwright, Nathan Alan Davis and director, Megan Sandberg-Zakian, the visionaries behind the play at New York Theatre Workshop, to talk to them about all things Nat Turner including their new play, and the continued fight for diversity and inclusion in contemporary American theatre. Here’s what we had to say.
Darrel Alejandro Holnes: Nathan, you’re making your New York debut with what feels like a very timely play. Is it true what they say, that timing is everything?
Nathan Alan Davis: Who says that?!
Megan Sandberg-Zakian: They!
NAD: I mean, yes, timing. I definitely feel like there are forces at work, besides myself, in terms of this play. The way that Megan, myself, Phillip [James Brannon, who plays Nat Turner], and Rowan [Vickers, who plays Thomas R. Gray and Guard], all came together – the way the theater came around to support us and the work has kept us together as a team to continue the process all the way to production. [This] has just been a dream come true. It’s allowed us to, as fully as possible, develop this story and get the play out. So much of the timing and those types of things are out of my control as an artist, so when it all falls into line, it’s a beautiful thing.
DAH: Why is Nat Turner in Jerusalem so timely? What does it mean to see the piece produced now as conversations around race in America continue to heat up?
MSZ: Well, one of the scholars who writes about Nat Turner – his name is Ken Greenberg – has said that the story of Nat Turner continually resurfaces. There have been these moments over the last couple hundred years where the story suddenly arrives back in the consciousness, and how we’re telling the story this time and why we’re telling the story now probably has a lot to do with where we are right now. So I think the questions that you just asked are the set of questions that we are hoping people will be in conversation about and around the play. Why do we need to hear this story right now? I actually think that in a way, that is what the play is about. The play isn’t about here’s the story, the play is about why do we need to be in a room together and engage with this story at this moment? So I don’t know that I have a really great answer. If I did, I could solve everything.
DAH: Thank you for your response.
MSZ: Partially, for me, the thing that feels really rich and activated right now, around this story, is the questions [raised] about how we view violence. What is the story we tell around violent acts? What is our understanding of the social violence that is shaping our daily lives and our awareness of it? What is our stake in maintaining ignorance about violence? – Ta-Nehisi Coates calls it “The Dream” – What is our stake in staying ignorant of these really violent social systems? Then, what is our response to violence that resists those systems? For me – for all of us – it’s been a very uncomfortable conversation. When you read about – as we did in development – the shooters in Baton Rouge and Dallas who are taking out cops with sniper rifles… to experience the coverage of those things, and see the families of those people whose lives were taken, our reaction, whether it’s grief or activism or sharing on social media – whatever it is – [must be to] then consider our ongoing reaction of, or ignorance of, or complicity in all of the other kinds of deaths that are going on all around us…
DAH: What are the other kinds? To name a few…
MSZ: All of the deaths related to poverty and disenfranchisement in this country; the deaths of people who aren’t receiving adequate healthcare; the deaths of people who are in dire types of housing situations; the deaths of people who are wrongfully incarcerated in a system that is strongly biased; and of course, the deaths of people all over this country, particularly black people, gunned down by our police forces. So, it’s really hard, as a human being and a progressive person, to say that the violent taking a human’s life is somehow necessary.
In the play, when I hear Thomas Gray talk about all of the people that were killed during Nat Turner’s “insurrection,” as it’s called by Thomas Gray, the lawyer character, when 75% of the deaths were women and children – small children, infants and babies – it’s very hard to hear. It’s very hard to listen to, you know? You think about describing the deaths of those 55 people, and then you think about if you had a play describing all of the violent deaths of people under the system of slavery, it would be a 15 year long play.
DAH: Yeah, or a 400 year long play.
NAD: It continues.
MSZ: It’s just very uncomfortable stuff to engage with. So coming back around to my answer to your question, I wonder if part of the reason that the story comes back is that somehow we’re at a place where we’re more motivated to tolerate that discomfort.
NAD: I remember Megan and I had a conversation on the phone after I’d written an initial draft of the play, which barely anybody had seen; it was kind of a dream state type of the play; it didn’t really have a lot of the plot elements that this play has now. Megan read it, and it wasn’t even a complete draft, but Megan was like “I’m really uncomfortable! This makes me feel bad!” And that was the main takeaway for me; this is hard stuff to think about, to process, and to look at. It was actually a very important part of the growth of the play for me. You write something, and you have a response…I had to take a breath and be like, yeah, the territory that this delves into is extremely difficult to handle and it asks so much of the artists who are involved in creating it and carrying it and sharing it. It asks us to give everything to it, to honor it in the right way, and to live in a place of discomfort, and to not hide from it. It’s been extremely challenging and also a rewarding part of this process, staying in that conversation.
DAH: So a few of the words I’ve heard you both mention are: difficult, hard, complicated. I have not heard the word contentious, controversial. I’m wondering, is this play about controversy? Is this play a controversy?
NAD: I never looked at it that way, and I never defined it that way. I think when I approach a play or a piece of art, I’m not particularly thinking of it attempting to cause a controversy or attempting to respond to a controversy. To me, controversy kind of is in the realm of what people find aesthetically acceptable or what people find can or cannot be spoken, or should or should not be said. I’m not saying that…Megan mentioned, when the Nat Turner story does appear in our consciousness over and over again, controversy does erupt out of it. Probably the most famous example is the William Styron novel about Nat Turner, which caused a lot of controversy, because William Styron is a white author portraying Nat Turner, so there was backlash of that from black writers and scholars and people who just found that that wasn’t a fair or accurate depiction. So it happens. But looking at myself now, as an artist, I feel it is my responsibility to tell as much of the truth of the story as I could see. That means me looking inward, and looking outward, having conversations, and keeping the story moving forward. I think for all of us, we really want to honor the spirit of Nat Turner and the spirits of everybody who was involved in that insurrection, you know? Knowing that that is a real thing, and that this is a thing that happened, and that we just want to do our very best to bring as much light as we can to it. As one of many Nat Turner stories that will be told – I certainly don’t claim to be writing any sort of a definitive interpretation, I don’t think that exists, but we’re just really focused on doing our very best.
MSZ: I will say though, that we have a lot more information than William Styron did. I would say pretty much more than anyone else has had, in creating this story, just because there’s been a couple of books published recently and one in particular that is extremely exhaustive in terms of the research. I think that book was published after Nate Parker’s film was already happening. So I think once we read that book, by David Allmendinger, we felt a lot of responsibility not to actually have facts that we knew were wrong. For a play that’s very poetic, and is really an invented event, it’s very factually correct. I can only think of one thing in it that is tiny, that I know is not historically true.
DAH: And what is that?
MSZ: The lawyer character was disinherited by his father. His father made him the executor of his will where he was disinherited. In the play, the father also wills that lawyer a desk, to be the executor of the will on. I would say that was a poetic, dramatic underscore of that historical fact, but really, I don’t think there’s anything else. And I’ve been very, you know, nope, that’s not right, find another way to do that!
DAH: So historical accuracy was a priority for you guys?
MSZ: Oh yeah. I mean, it’s more like I don’t want the play to contain something that I know to be a historical inaccuracy. Although, I don’t think that it can be historically accurate, it is a crazy idea anyway.
NAD: It actually helps a lot, artistically. I think if I felt limited to “Oh, I can only have hard facts in the play,” or “you’ve got to make sure all the facts will tell the actual story,” that would be a problem. But when you actually get down to real specifics of the story – like if you find the historical truth – it actually brings a specificity to the play, which I think actually makes it more poetic. You also just have to realize these were real people, living real lives, with real problems, who did real things. It’s not this portrait of a distant past.
MSZ: Every single new fact that we’ve found, has been like oh, shit! It feels like it drops you deeper and deeper into the truth of what the story was and why we need to tell it. It’s like there’s no inconvenient facts for this play… This is what we do all day, except you guys are not usually here.
DAH: You mentioned William Styron and the controversy of who gets to tell Nat Turner’s story. Nathan, can you speak a little to the politics of racial identity and authorship?
NAD: Wow, that’s a big question.
DAH: I can point the question more if you want me to.
NAD: Please do, and I’ll either take the small point or the larger point.
DAH: In what ways does your personal experience of race inform your writing of the play, and what kind of responsibility does your unique experience as a person of color give you in telling stories with characters of color?
NAD: I guess the first part is that, in every way, being black in America yields full-time internal conflict. What does this country mean to you? How do I reconcile being part of this society? I think that the internal conflict and questioning, naturally, makes its way into all aspects of my life, especially the art that I create and the plays that I write. I don’t know that there is [a specific], identifiable way, it’s just a part of who I am, you know what I mean? The thing about responsibility is a big question because I think one of the biggest difficulties, being a person of any marginalized community, is that you feel the need to represent everybody in your group every time you have a platform, every time you have a chance to speak up. You feel that you’re not just speaking for yourself. I think on one hand, that’s just the truth, and I hope to embrace that responsibility. On the other hand, I need to find room for my own individual voice, my individuality. Who am I? What do I have to say? How do I do things as a person? I think oftentimes, if you get too caught up in representing, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean the same thing to me as everybody else. You can lose you own fire and your own artistic passion if you start to generalize your approach, because you’re repping a group. But at the same time, the need to rep the group is always present, you know? I think it’s a constant balancing act.
DAH: Megan, as a female-identifying director, can you speak to the absence of women in the show, and the ways in which their presence might be felt, whether it’s in the writing, or in any decisions you’ve made as the director?
MSZ: There’s a physical absence of women in the play. Women are talked about in the play, as the victims of murder, as mothers who die in childbirth or abandoned by their families – helpless victims. I think to some extent the play does a really great job of representing the 19th century view of women. The politics of the time, as we have them recorded, are very male. I am quite sure that there are lots of very interesting female viewpoints on this history that we just don’t have. That would be another really interesting play, but we unfortunately just don’t have it.
DAH: Are there any women referenced by the men who played an integral role in this particular history during its time? Someone we should all know about and have never heard of?
MSZ: The one woman that stood out to me in the research didn’t make it into the play at all. She was a woman named Elizabeth Harris, I think, who was a slave owning white woman whose house was deliberately skipped by the insurgents as a favor to one of the original core group. We don’t know why, we don’t have any other information on it, but the thing that we do know about her is that there’s a free black man who was living in the household of some of the white folks who were victims of the insurgency. Immediately following it, he sold himself back into slavery to this woman, Elizabeth, for $1, which to me is just the world’s craziest story. It makes you think about – as opposed to women as victims – women as protectors, and what women were actually doing at the time, in the context that they could, with whatever the oppressive and the unjust structures that were in place at that time. How were people resisting them? There isn’t anything about that in the play. The focus is on violent resistance and revolution.
DAH: That’s remarkable. She didn’t make it into your play, but has discovering her influenced how you think or dare I say fantasize about history at that time?
MSZ: My fantasy is that there were black women and white women – and women in between – who were finding ways to subvert this stuff everyday. But I think I kind of keep that narrative alive, because I need to, working on material that doesn’t really include us.
DAH: Would you say that intersectionality is a way for you look closely at mirrors that do not reflect your own face when you polish them? How is intersectionality at work when you work behind the scenes on this play?
MSZ: My assistant director is also a woman, a biracial woman, and it’s been incredibly important to have the directorial perspective of two intersectional women. Our design team is predominantly women, and our design team is very intersectional in terms of identity. That kind of multiplicity of holding of different identities and perspectives is incredibly helpful with this story. Working on a story like this, as a 21st century artist, I feel is an asset. If you are an artist that identifies as white working on this play, I think that it may be… More painful? Or harder. It’s like you get stuck in where the racial politics are now and then, somehow you can’t find your way out of it. Rebecca [Frank, assistant director] is black and Jewish; I’m Armenian and Jewish – there’s something about being able to breathe into owning parts of it and not owning other parts of it, and respect parts that I don’t understand. I think it gives it a little bit of the breath, and is maybe useful. As any human being, sometimes you just have to go, “This shit isn’t about me! And it’s okay that there’s a play that isn’t about women.” This play is very important. And it’s not about part of my own identity. It’s not about queerness, which is part of my identity. It’s really not about me or my identity, but in some ways, it really is.
DAH: Hmm. Your answer makes me think, Is this history, her story, their story, is this our story?
NAD: Yes? I think what Megan said was really poignant – our ability to find ourselves in a story that is relatively narrow and limited in some ways, finding an expanse within that. One of the most beautiful things about this process for me… I think it’s sort of a mark of our maturity. There’s oftentimes talk in and around the theater and in general about who has the right to tell what story. I think those are always going to be ongoing negotiations that we should be involved in, but I feel like being able to collaborate with people who have widely diverse identities and represent the facets of life is so enriching. It’s shaped this production the way that it is. This play is this play because of the people doing it – I have no comparison, but I will say that the way that everybody has been together… Megan came in and said, “Okay, we’re going to pray together every day, we’re each going to bring our own version of prayer, whatever that means to us.” Everyday, somebody would come in, and bring some kind of offering – whether it was a poem, a prayer, or some spiritual practice – and we’d do it together, so we found this collective identity together. It has been really essential for us staying cohesive. Having that foundation has been so key.
MSZ: For me, the play is a kind of a dance between history and poetry. Even in just the physical design of it, there’s a kind of dance between the intimate and the epic, the physical shape of it, experience of both the elemental and the apocalyptic, the personal and the interpersonal. To me, that’s what it is – the relationship where you can hold history and watch it become something poetic that can help you come back to it and understand it better. For me, that’s what it is. I think it’s a story that is critically important to all of us, but I wouldn’t say that it is “our story.” I think that we have a responsibility to come together, live, in rooms that have a shared encounter around this story, but I don’t think it’s all of ours.
DAH: Megan you talk about how in a way, the play is a story of violence. Thinking about this play as a story of violence and as a story of all male characters, is the story of violence also a story of men?
NAD: Yes, very much so. I think one of the things that causes of violence is the imbalance between the masculine and the feminine aspects of society. I think our value of men and of masculinity and that as an ideal – or making everything revolve around it, marginalizing femininity and women and femininity in ourselves – I think this is one of the reasons why we have such imbalance and violence in society. I don’t know that I went into the play attempting to expose that thesis, but I think it’s very much a part of that world, and very much part of the fabric of the world we live in now, but certainly in a more obvious way, in the world of 1831.
DAH: Is it also a marginalizing of peace?
NAD: Yeah! That’s a great way to put it. I do think in some ways we don’t recognize the peace that we do have. It’s that old story of the more violent, the more extreme things that happen are going to get more attention. Certainly, we shouldn’t ignore [that]– when violence happens, it should be known – but marginalizing peace is an interesting way to look at it because do we honor the peacekeeping, not only of now, but of our history? There’s that book, A People’s History of the United States, that goes into stories of everyday people that often wouldn’t be told. It features more stories about women, of people working together for change than we usually get. To a certain extent, our obsession over the violence or the wrongs can drown out the goodness that’s happening. We have to know what’s working if you want to improve upon it. The play tries to hold some goodness in it, even though the situation and the events of the play are extremely violent. I do think it’s important to hold space for light to come in as well, and for there to be some sense of hope or a possibility of peace, even if it’s distant.
DAH: Can you talk a little bit about the poetry that’s in the play? Or perhaps, not “poetry” per se, but please speak about the lyrical language that’s in the play. What are some of your influences? Is the play’s language a mix of southern vernacular and biblical language? How have your aesthetics related to language come together when writing this play?
NAD: I do consider myself a poet at heart; I’m not a poet in practice, and I don’t write poems very often, but I’m always looking for and gravitating towards musicality in language and creating poetic images. That’s incredibly important for the kind of theater that I want to make. I think that the experience and the world that’s created in someone’s mind when they’re processing poetry, to co-create a picture, expand the person’s horizons, just by the way the words are put together, is incredibly important. A lot of it also comes from the actual document; “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by Thomas R Gray, is written in this lyrical, biblical, heightened style. When I read that, that sort of ignited me, reading the style of that document. I felt like it was a place where what I do, what I’m attracted to, and what the document has given me kind of met, and I retained some of that style throughout the play. I’m always thinking about language, poetry, hip-hop – I love Shakespeare, I love language, and always have.
DAH: Can you talk a little bit about Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea, and in what ways that play prepared you to write this one?
NAD: From the purely practical standpoint, that’s the play that helped me get engrossed into the profession. Dontrell was the play that I used to apply to the 2050 Fellowship here at New York Theatre Workshop. I also learned quite a bit from seeing Dontrell produced – it had a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, so several small productions in different places. It’s also how I met Megan. Megan directed the production in Cleveland, and I met her through that process. It certainly paved the way. I’d hope that every time I write a play I’d get a little bit more refined in my understanding of the craft, that I get wiser, but I also feel like every play is it’s own puzzle I have to solve, so I can’t necessarily take everything that I might have learned on Dontrell and just apply it to this. I think, everytime I write a play it forces me to grow and transform, and this is no exception.
DAH: A favorite moment of mine in the play was a scene where the two lead characters debate whether the lives of the slave owners’ children were more, less, or just as important as the lives of enslaved children. It made me think of the lyric, “I believe that children are the future” from Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” song. Does that ring true as a key value in Nat Turner in Jerusalem? Can you talk a bit more about the thinking behind that scene in particular?
MSZ: I think you saw the second time that scene was ever performed, so we’re still working on it.
NAD: I mean, for me, I have three children, all girls, and that’s just such a huge part of who I am that it’s always with me. I think it makes its way into my writing in different ways. When I’m around these little people who are just giving this very innocent unfiltered perspective about life – I find constantly refreshing, at times scary, at times challenging. What our children say or do – they mimic and reflect us – they live in the world that we made. I think that that scene is too fresh for me to have perspective that is useful right now.
MSZ: I was laughing at directing that scene because we got the scene at night, and these amazing actors memorized it – they must stay up all night or something. We have this tiny little amount of time to rehearse it before they perform it that night, so for that particular performance that you saw, they just did it in rehearsal. The guys have already figured out that at the end of the scene, Thomas kind of collapses, and Nat displays an enormous amount of compassion towards him, and it just felt like such a powerful moment of this white fragility idea that people are talking about now. The white guy falls apart by being overwhelmed by the things in the world that are really hard in his life, and the fact that he’s being asked to come up to this larger truth and be part of the revolution and it’s just overwhelming and intense. The person that’s actually in the oppressed position, in this case actually getting executed momentarily, is required to step in and comfort him and provide compassion. Yet that’s the only way forward. That moment is so real to me. I think that what the rewrite did, which is the text that you’re talking about, provided Nat with some language to say what you feel, what you experience, the things that cause you pain and grief, you can have company in that. You can stand with the rest of humankind and be in the beloved community if you choose to stand with us. I mean this is the poison of privilege. It makes you alone. It doesn’t allow you to be connected with other people. It’s so clear now how much loss there is there. Also, when Nat stands up and says, “The signs of revolution will continue to come until injustice ceases,” that’s one of my favorite moments, and also one of the things we were talking about earlier about what’s so scary about the play. It really does feel like that.
One of the things I keep listening to over and over again as we were developing the play is the long outtake interview at the end of To Pimp A Butterfly, that long interview he does with Tupac, and Tupac is like, yeah you’re young, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do now before you turn 30 because the world beats brothers down once you turn 30. You have to make your mark. Kendrick is like, yeah, I mean, what do you see for my generation, because things are getting really scary. Tupac says, oh yeah, white America isn’t ready for us. They think that whatever the next thing is is just us looting TVs out of stores. But it’s going to be Nat Turner 1831 up in here.
DAH: There’s this beautiful metaphor of crossing the river in the play, where Nat Turner discusses America coming to the river but not yet crossing it as a metaphor for this nation attempting to confront the horrors of slavery yet not engaging in true healing and reparations; thinking about diversity and inclusion in contemporary American Theater, have we come to the river, have we crossed it?
NAD: Wow. Great question.
MSZ: I don’t think that we cross the river. I think we go in the water. We get baptized, we come out, we go back in and get baptized again. I wish that everyone in the American Theater would let go of the idea that you could cross the river and come out of the other side and be like now we are diverse! That’s not a thing.
NAD: I’d answer just like Megan did. That was perfect. I do think that to some extent we look at it as a numbers game. We think if we check this box and that box, we’ve achieved. I do think assessment and numbers and important aspect of assessing progress, but they’re not the thing itself. The thing itself is a revolution of the mind and the reorientation of the way that we interact together, you know? It’s actually much harder and more painstaking, longer work. It’s not that it isn’t happening, but the question is where is it happening, and where isn’t it happening, and are we aware of that?
DAH: Any advice for young theater artists of color or who identify with a marginalized group?
NAD: I think the most important thing is to find a place where you have unquestioned support, where people know you and support you, and you feel as much as you can able to be yourself and grow. As a young artist, one of the difficulties I had was just being comfortable with my own skin – not that I’ve totally solved that in every way. I think especially for artists of color or marginalized groups, you often feel like you’re the person on the outside looking in, or you’re the odd person out. You just have to find that place where you’re you. People can hold you up and support you. You really have to believe in yourself, like authentically believe that you can do it, which is a very hard thing to do. I think maintaining a sort of somewhat irrational belief in yourself is a good thing, knowing that the mountain is really high, and if I just start climbing, I’m going to get there. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to be affirmed every step of the way, you have to cultivate that belief in yourself.
Nathan Alan Davis’ plays include Nat Turner in Jerusalem, Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea (NNPN Rolling World Premiere; Steinberg/ATCA New Play Citation), The Wind and the Breeze (Blue Ink Playwriting Award; Lorraine Hansberry Award) and The Refuge Plays Trilogy: Protect the Beautiful Place (L. Arnold Weissberger Award Finalist), Walking Man and Early’s House. His work has been produced or developed with New York Theatre Workshop, The Public Theatre, Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center, New Neighborhood, Baltimore Center Stage, Merrimack Rep., The Kennedy Center, Theater Alliance, Skylight Theatre, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble, Oregon Contemporary Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Cleveland Public Theatre, The Source Festival, Chicago Dramatists and The New Harmony Project. He is a 2016 graduate Juilliard’s Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program and a recipient of NYTW’s 2050 Fellowship for 2015-16. MFA: Indiana University, BFA: University of Illinois.
Megan Sanberg-Zakian is a theater-maker based in Watertown, MA. She is a current recipient of the Princess Grace Foundation Theatre Fellowship, working with Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA, as their Director in Residence – nurturing, developing, and directing work that will premiere in MRT’s and other theatre’s upcoming seasons. Previously, Megan completed a TCG Future Leaders grant at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, MA, aimed at deepening the theater’s engagement with its community. In addition to her directing work, Megan is an activist and consultant supporting theaters to work towards inclusion and equity. She is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, a Merrimack Repertory Theater “Artistic Patriot” and an Associate member of SDC. Megan is a graduate of Brown University and holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College.