by Samuel L. Leiter
A headline in the Times (October 3) notes: “For ‘Birth of a Nation,’ Goal Is to Inspire, Not Incite,” pointing to the political implications of the soon-to-open movie about the 1831 slave rebellion led in Southhampton County, Virginia, by Nat Turner.
That historical figure—perhaps most familiar from William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, 1967 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner—is also the focus of Nathan Alan Davis’s well-acted but dramatically static Nat Turner in Jerusalem, directed at New York Theatre Workshop by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. It, too, may have inspirational aspirations, but these get muffled in its fictional depiction of Turner’s last night and morning, November 10 and 11, 1831, in a Jerusalem, Virginia, jail cell, just before being publicly hanged.
Turner, a slave/preacher who burned with the righteous indignation of a prophet, spearheaded a brutal revolt in which he and other slaves slaughtered 55 whites, including 24 children. When the insurrection was ended its participants (as well as many innocent slaves) were punished, most by execution following trials at the Jerusalem courthouse. Turner’s story has particular resonance in our racially charged climate but I’m not certain Davis’s flat treatment does a lot to alter the dynamic.
Much of what we know of the events comes from a document, transcribed by Virginia lawyer Thomas R. Gray, whose title page includes these words: “THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER, THE LEADER OF THE LATE INSURRECTION IN SOUTHAMPTON, VA. As fully and voluntarily made to THOMAS R. GRAY, In the prison where he was confined, and acknowledged by him to be such when read before the Court of Southampton; with the certificate, under seal of the Court convened at Jerusalem.”
The degree to which Gray’s report actually reflects Turner’s words is controversial; at one point, Nat Turner in Jerusalem suggests that Gray, who appears after having just returned from Baltimore with a copyright for his planned publication, added his own comments to those of his subject.
That, though, is not the playwright’s concern so much as a situation that attempts to probe Turner’s (Phillip James Brannon) motivations by having Gray (Rowan Vickers), who’s already taken down Turner’s confession, visit him again in order to glean any information he may have regarding other simmering conspiracies. Gray, in financial need, hopes to increase sales of the confessions by providing this information to a population on edge about additional uprisings.
The intermissionless, 90-minute play, written in 19th-century-flavored poetic prose, is structured as a series of meetings—separated by blaring, present-day music (sound design: Nathan Leigh), to remind us of the subject’s relevance, I guess—between Gray and the shackled Turner.
Additional scenes are between Turner and his friendly, but cautious Guard (also Vickers). Turner’s piety sets up a discourse with the atheistic Gray and the wise-beyond-his-position Guard, who’s both reviled by Turner and drawn to his charismatic presence. Gray’s inquiry and Turner’s metaphorically foggy responses constitute what little suspense the piece contains. There are a few mildly tense confrontations, including one featuring a drawn knife, but they reek of contrivance.
The audience watches from wooden bleachers—uncomfortable despite the cushions provided—on either side of a bare wooden platform (designed by Susan Zeeman Rogers) that is sometimes slid (inexplicably) from one end of the rectangular space to the other. Mary Louise Geiger’s stark lighting creates an atmosphere of gloom, with the actors’ shadows often silhouetted on one of the end walls.
For all his suffering, it’s hard to sympathize with the messianic Turner, who ascribes his bloody actions to the word of God, not some deeply ingrained conviction invoked by slavery’s inhumanity, although he clearly propounds such beliefs. Vickers does well with both his roles but the chief reason to see the play is Brannon’s striking portrayal of Nat Turner, whose rebellious spirit lingers in the zeitgeist.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St., NYC
Through October 16
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).