Nat Turner in Jerusalem: A Timely Look Back to 1831
With a movie about Nat Turner coming out this fall (The Birth of a Nation – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_a_Nation_(2016_film) ) and all the discussions in our political election cycle about race, there couldn’t be a better time for this play to be presented. So here we are, and are you ready for today’s history lesson? I swear it’s a compelling and powerful story. Very relevant to the times we are living in. With riots and protests happening nationwide. Horrible frightening interactions between cops and African Americans, resulting in the deaths of innocent black men. The Black Lives Matter Movement. Charlotte protests. These are all the thoughts swimming through my head as I watch New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Nat Turner in Jerusalem. I feel a heavy sense of duty, sadness, and responsibility to get this right. (I’m going to add this little side note: I worked on this review for the past few days, trying to get it right. I thought for about 40 minutes tonight, just before posting, that I had lost all the text for this review, and for those 40 minutes I almost cried, BUT I managed to find away to recover a previously saved draft, so I am so completely thankful at this moment, I can’t even explain it- now on with the review)
Nat Turner was an enslaved African American who, on August 21, 1831, led a rebellion (or revolution many would say) of slaves and free blacks in Southampton County, Virginia. After hiding from authorities for months, he was caught, tried, convicted (swiftly), and sentenced to death by hanging on November 11th, 1831 in Jerusalem, VA. His body was flayed, beheaded, and quartered as a warning to other possible would-be rebels. In Nathan Alan Davis’s play, that recounts Turner’s last night in jail, he states that God lead him to seek holy vengeance on all who had ever owned him, including the women and children of the slave owners’s family. He speaks about this uprising and his rational to a lawyer in almost poetic Shakespearean tones the night before he hangs, and also, kindly and passionately to the guard who watches over
him. The two men (both played with mixed results by Rowan Vickers) think he is a villain and is dangerous, but both are also interested in hearing what he has to say, possibly for different complex reasons, but they are both open, to some degree, to listen. The history books tell us that this rebellion claimed the lives of 55 to 65 white people the night that Turner led this group of slaves from plantation to plantation; killing the families, gathered horses and guns, and recruited other blacks that wanted to join their revolution. The aftermath was even worse, as over 200 blacks were killed by the white militias and their attempt to suppress any further uprising. Many of those blacks who were killed were not even involved in the revolt.
It’s a compelling and disturbing story to hear in this current climate, as we struggle to understand and deal with the deaths of so many black men at the hands of cops that should be protecting us all from violence. The play attempts to depict the conversations Turner (intensely played by Phillip James Brannon) had with the lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, who was sent to take his confession the night before Turner was to be hung. It also seems apparent that Gray was assigned to gather the names of other free blacks and slaves who are planning further rebellions. Turner tells him (over and over again) that there are no other conspirators. That he is in collusion with no one else, but the smell of revolution is floating through the air and carried by the wind, igniting others to stand up against slavery. That he is powerless to ignite or dampen this desire for vengeance. That it is God’s will. Gray eventually published a book titled The Confessions of Nat Turner, based on this last night conversations from the jailhouse cell with Turner. This published work is considered the primary and only real historical document regarding Nat Turner and the rebellion of 1831, and the inspiration and source for this complex and compelling play.
Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, we are given a glimpse into the motives and thought processes of Turner but also a look at what was thought of him by the powers that be. Brannon portrays Turner as a charming, well-spoken, religious man, both very angry and very passionate; part apostle, part revolutionary, and possibly quite mad with religious fervor. It all depends on how you want to look at his religious explanations. It’s a weighty and twisty road as we listen to Turner talk and preach to the attorney, and also to the guard. We float between the horror of what is described, and understanding his rage and reason for vengeance. It’s a delicate balancing act that both writer and performer do a superb job with, although the direction doesn’t carry one much movement forward. Many wonderfully elegant and poetic metaphors are described by Turner but little happens in terms of a dramatic arch. Vickers as the guard does a good job playing someone who is both kind and thoughtful, but also from that moment in time, filled with fear and a strong racist mentality. Turner speaks to him about who actually is on the wrong side of the bars, and we are given the glimpse of a white man really struggling to understand his own view of the world, and his place in this moment of history. Vickers is less sure footed as the lawyer, Gray, a much more complex part, one that could require a bit more focus to development and growth. Although, I will add that his moment of prayer layered with his difficult connection to God and religion is one of the most compelling moments in this meditation on God and the history of slavery in America.
Through this play, which at times is a bit slow, erratic, and static, we are forced to see the connections of slavery and racism that have spanned generations in this country and invade our modern daily lives. Around us, on all the media broadcasts, we are hearing the word, ‘racist’ thrown around in this election cycle (and most likely tonight on the eve of the first presidential debate), and we are witness to the outcome of institutional racism that exists all around us, within the police force and beyond. Its depiction in this play resonates and reverberates through us all, leaving us slightly altered as we leave into the night air. Leaving us heavy with the unease of our world, and the future that is coming.