Jabari Asim has been thinking about Nat Turner for a long time.
The Writing, Literature and Publishing associate professor said he thinks he’s been working on some version of Brother Nat, the musical he’s co-writing with his wife, Liana, about the leader of the 1831 slave uprising, since before he came to Emerson eight years ago.
Now, with the right composer/collaborator in Allyssa Jones, music director of the Lyric Stage Company, and a recent $15,000 Live Arts Boston grant from The Boston Foundation, the show is two big steps closer to going on.
“Little by little, we came up with a script we thought was good enough to submit for consideration,” said Asim, author of What Obama Means…For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future (William Morrow, 2009) and A Taste of Honey: Stories (Broadway, 2010), in addition to multiple children’s books and stage plays.
In August 1831, Turner led 75 fellow slaves and freemen in a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, that left more than 50 white people dead. In retaliation, white vigilantes slaughtered nearly 200 black people, many of whom had nothing to do with the uprising. Turner, after hiding out for a month, was arrested, tried, and executed.
Turner’s rebellion “sort of lit the match” that started the Civil War, Asim said.
“It became clear that this question of slavery would not be solved by peaceful means, and Nat Turner was one of the first to realize that,” he said.
Asim’s book and lyrics center on the uprising, but like any good piece of art, it has to have compelling and complex characters. While historians know a lot about the revolt, much less is known about Turner the man.
A book that many people still accept as a legitimate account of Turner’s experience—Thomas Gray’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, allegedly written from jailhouse interviews with Turner—is not universally regarded as accurate, and Asim counts himself among those who doubt its authenticity.
“There’s a lot of space there to imagine who he was,” Asim said.
One thing that is known about Turner is that he was a preacher or Christian teacher. In Brother Nat, Asim and Liana try to imagine Turner’s relationship with his wife, Cherry, and with his religion.
“A lot of the songs explore that tension, how one might rationalize taking that step [of violent uprising]. [He’s] making an effort to reconcile these two seemingly conflicted philosophies,” Asim said.
Asim said they’ve gotten a grant to do a recording project of Brother Nat at Emerson, which will feature the College’s own Steven Martin, director of new students and transition services, as one of the voices.
They’re then hoping to stage a concert version of the show sometime in the fall, also possibly at Emerson, with a professional cast and an intercollegiate chorus of students from Emerson and the other ProArts Consortium schools.
“That’s what we’re dreaming of,” Asim said.