Theater Review: God’s Will and God’s Warning, in Nat Turner in Jerusalem

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From Nat Turner in Jerusalem, at New York Theater Workshop. Photo: Joan Marcus

Narratives don’t get much more contested than that of Nat Turner, the leader of the infamous slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. To begin with, our knowledge of the events is largely based on Turner’s “confessions,” which were recorded, supposedly verbatim, by a white lawyer named Thomas Gray in a series of jailhouse interviews after Turner was captured. Gray’s account may or may not be accurate; in any case it inflamed white hysteria in the South and depressed anti-slavery efforts in the North by suggesting that the rampage, in which 55 white men, women, and children were killed, was just the beginning of a violent revolution. (It was not as much noted that many more slaves with no connection to the rebellion were killed in its wake by whites.) Later, the story formed the basis of William Styron’s controversial novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which though generally sympathetic to its protagonist also presents him as a kind of holy fool. And Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation, a Turner retelling that will open wide in two weeks, is itself mired in controversy, albeit for mostly external reasons.

What can a quiet, poetic play achieve in such a loud and crowded arena? Quite a lot, as it turns out, at least in the case of Nathan Alan Davis’s Nat Turner in Jerusalem, which opens tonight at New York Theatre Workshop. It, too, is a fictional treatment — there can hardly be any other kind; it  imagines a meeting between Turner and Gray six days after the historical one, when Gray returns to the prisoner in his cell, hoping to extract further confessions. But while offering a corrective to earlier interpretations of Turner’s narrative, Davis doesn’t attempt to saddle it with an equally overbearing one; he resists any singular reading, let alone an overtly political one. He prefers to let the tale remain as mysterious and open-ended as possible, and thus, in its way, more terrifying.

Plays that try to walk that line usually trip, but Davis, who is 36 and whose work is largely new to New York, has smartly erected a sturdy scaffold around the material. The 90-minute drama takes place in six scenes of approximately equal length, beginning at sundown on November 10 and ending at sunrise on November 11, the day Turner was hanged. Three of the scenes are between Turner and Gray, and hinge on the latter’s desperate need for a boffo story. (He’s broke.) These alternate with three between Turner and a prison guard, a poor white man whose prejudices are tested by the eloquent and evidently Christian soul in his care. Within those frames, the movement of the storytelling is contrary and freeform. Though Gray at first sees Turner only as an exploitable nonentity, a public figure with no personal agency, Turner relentlessly pulls him toward enlightenment and a private crisis. And though the guard begins by seeing Turner only as a disagreeable chore — a prisoner to be shackled and unshackled — Turner relentlessly pulls him toward a larger understanding of both of their roles.

GUARD

You might not be no one’s slave anymore, but don’t think they still won’t sell you.
They’ll kill you

Then they’ll make a killing off you, know what I mean?

You might not be no slave,
You might have killed your master so you’re not his nigger anymore,
So what?
 All that means is now you’re everyone’s nigger.

You’re Virginia’s nigger now. …
That’s just the facts. …
Ain’t my fault you lost your war.

Ain’t my fault they caught you.

I just follow orders. Can’t afford not to.

NAT
Then it’s you who are Virginia’s nigger.

GUARD
Right, okay, and what does that make you?

NAT
Nothing but what I always have been.
A servant of my heavenly Master.

Turner’s faith is the crux of both halves of the story and the source of the play’s emotional tension. (That the jail is in the county seat of Jerusalem is a useful irony.) It is God, Turner says, who told him to kill the various men who have owned him, and their families; it is God who will, in the end, reward his (and his people’s) obedience. But while Turner’s religiosity makes for some gorgeous exchanges — the occasional flirtation with purpleness mostly pays off — Davis does not let his character off the hook just because he plays the Lord card. The speeches in which he defends his terrible actions as “holy vengeance” cannot help reminding us of today’s religious extremists and their justifications for terrorism. At the same time, when the white men raise the specter of those poor children murdered in their cradles, and Turner responds by asking about their outrage for the millions of children destroyed by slavery, we cannot help being reminded of the violence still suffered by black Americans, and the astonishing fact that there has not yet been another Nat Turner successfully seeking to avenge it.   

Davis is smart not to soften this contradiction, and smarter still not to underline it; as such, I wonder whether the use of aggressive, industrial hip-hop music before the show and between the scenes does too much of the audience’s work. In all other respects, the production, directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, has nerves of steel. As is by now de rigueur at New York Theatre Workshop, the auditorium has been reconfigured for the event, this time in two tiers of wooden bleachers facing a basketball-court-like playing area. Within that rectangle a square platform representing Turner’s cell moves a few feet in one direction or the other between the scenes, creating an abstract sense of foreboding. The costumes and accents are naturalistic, the sound and lighting expressionistic, and the performances aptly a bit of both. As Turner, Phillip James Brannon fully captures Turner’s spiritual nature without stinting his human qualities; his doubt no less than his certainty is harrowingly rendered. And Rowan Vickers, who plays both Gray and the guard, carefully distinguishes the characters’ antebellum white privilege: Gray’s is insouciant and almost blasé; the guard’s unsettled and almost violent.

We still recognize both types. And if we don’t yet recognize a character who can say, as Turner does here, “This was not war, Mr. Gray. This was warning,” that doesn’t mean we might not soon.

Nat Turner in Jerusalem is at New York Theatre Workshop through October 16.