Nat Turner in Jerusalem can’t quite acquit itself.
By Doug Strassler (@DougDawg13)
Get ready to hear a lot about Nat Turner this fall. The executed leader of one of the better-known slave rebellions in United States history is the subject of a new film, The Birth of a Nation, just released–a record holder for earning the highest bid in the history of the Sundance Film Festival. And Turner is also the subject of Nathan Alan Davis’ new play, Nat Turner in Jerusalem, which just opened at New York Theatre Workshop.
Of course, Turner’s plight and fight have always proven to be fertile storytelling soil; William Styron won a Pulitzer for mining similar ground in The Confessions of Nat Turner. Davis’ play, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, is set in Jerusalem, but not in the land of milk and honey. Turner is in a prison cell in the county seat of Southampton County, Virginia, on the night before his execution.
Philip James Brannon plays Turner, while co-star Rowan Vickers takes on double duty in the form of a prison guard and Thomas R. Gray, who alternately question the strength of Turner’s of faith; he insists that the rebellion he led had a divine mandate Davis’ dialogue hews toward the didactic, then, as Turner sees himself as a martyr. Brannon’s approach is a very literary one, and his portrayal ultimately feels flat. Turner feels that he is right, and that he is Great, in the most biblical sense of the word. (It should be noted that in addition to slave owners – including Turner’s own, a 10-year-old boy – many innocent women, children, and other slaves died as well.) There’s no room for regret or fear. What this play needs is a protagonist showing signs of humanity.
Vickers struggles a bit more, overplaying both roles and shading in neither nuance within nor distinction between them. Gray, we intuit, is a widowed writer in rather dire straits who hopes that Turner can give him a story strong enough to grant him a fat paycheck. Sadly, neither man’s conversion over the course of their conversations with Turner feels surprising. Or earned.
What Davis and Sandberg-Zakian present instead is oration, rather than a dramatically shaped narrative. With an audience halved, seated in bleachers and facing each other and the action on opposite sides of the New York Theatre Workshop stage, Jerusalem seems poised to open itself up to a debate. But there’s no battle of wills afoot, only sermonizing. “I am the return/ Of all the plagues of Egypt/ Come in this day to this nation” is an example of the type of dialogue Brannon delivers. That kind of grandiloquence feels misplaced in a play with such basic structure and motivations.
Additionally, Sandberg-Zakian utilizes some jarring lighting (provided by designer Mary Louise Geiger) during the extended scene changes and idiosyncratic blues and hip-hop songs that don’t jive with the otherwise realistic nature of Jerusalem (Nathan Leigh created the sound design).
Turner’s is absolutely a story worth telling and re-telling, particularly by those who oppose violent means of ending oppression. There is a lesson to be learned, too, from Davis’ ambitious play: in trying to reach an audience, the best path is not always to preach to them.