by Michael Bracken
In August, 1831, in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner, a self-styled preacher and soldier of God, led a slave rebellion that resulted in the deaths of more than fifty whites. Many blacks were killed in retaliation, but Turner remained at large until he was captured in October. He was summarily tried and condemned to death.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem (Jerusalem being Southampton’s county seat), at the New York Theatre Workshop, takes place on the evening of November 10th and early morning of November 11th, the day of Turner’s hanging. Written by Nathan Alan Davis, it presents a fabricated account of Turner’s final hours, Davis’s vision of what could have happened prior to the death of an American legend.
As the play begins, Turner (Phillip James Brannon) is alone onstage, on a platform a few inches above the floor, which serves as the holding room where he is imprisoned. Shackled in handcuffs and foot cuffs joined to each other, he is completely visible to the audience, on either side of him, as there are no actual walls around the holding room.
He can see the sun setting through an invisible west-facing window. For a minute or so he remains alone, watching the sunset, which he knows will be his last, talking to the chains that bind him as if they were his friend or his congregation, talking to God.
Then Thomas Gray (Rowan Vickers) arrives. He has just gotten back from Baltimore, where he secured the copyright for a book containing Turner’s “confession.” A lawyer – but apparently not Turner’s lawyer – he met with Turner a week earlier and transcribed his account of the rebellion. He tells Turner, “I need to hear more from you before you hang.”
So sensitivity is not Gray’s forte. But conspiracy theory – that more uprisings are planned in other locations and Turner knows about them – is. He goes back and forth with Turner and then says he’s going out for a smoke. Perhaps he is, but more to the point, actor Vickers needs to change his costume. So he exits, the stage goes dark, loud music blares, and in walks Vickers as an unnamed guard, sporting simple clothes and a cap that makes him look like a Caucasian Mao Zedong.
The guard has less of an agenda than the lawyer, but the dance is pretty much the same. Turner is on his messianic trip, and the guard is appalled at what Turner did, but at the same time taken in, albeit momentarily, by his intelligence and charisma. And so it goes. Back and forth alternating between lawyer and guard, with scenes separated by darkness and enough loud music to jump start a stalled party.
Meanwhile, the platform, which starts on one end of the room, moves a little down toward the other end of the room after each of Scenes 1 through 4, only to return to its starting point after Scene 5. It’s hard to know what director Megan Sandberg-Zakian has in mind thematically. Perhaps she’s just trying to give different sections of the house a better view.
If it all sounds monotonous, it is, but it also has redeeming features. Playwright Davis’s dialogue can be a little stilted, but it has a strong poetic spine. It’s rich with Biblical references and provocative images.
And then there’s Brannon as the title character. Right from the start, when he’s talking to his chains, he’s fascinating. An enigma to be sure, he seems open, childlike, innocent. Yet Turner is a man who massacred babies. Brannon somehow reconciles these qualities and, while we may not understand Turner’s contradictions, we believe them. We believe him.
Never claiming to be factual, Nat Turner in Jerusalem gives life to a familiar but easily forgotten name from the history books, but it doesn’t coalesce into a satisfying drama.
Through Sunday, October 16, 2016. New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th Street). 90 minutes with no intermission. www.nytw.org