Nat Turner in Jerusalem, a new play by Nathan Alan Davis at New York Theatre Workshop, is yet another retelling of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave insurrection, a story that has been told and retold for nearly two centuries – and will be told again in The Birth of a Nation, a film by Nate Parker opening October 7.
The new play takes place on the night before Turner’s execution, in his jail cell in Jerusalem, Virginia, and imagines the interaction between Turner (portrayed by Phillip James Brannon) and two men (both portrayed by Rowan Vickers) – his unnamed guard, and the attorney Thomas Gray. It is a historical fact that Gray met Turner a week before his execution and produced “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” a book based on his gallows interviews. While “The Confessions” focuses on Turner’s actions, the new play is at its best when it explores Turner’s motives.
“Did you truly feel no remorse?” the fictionalized Gray asks Turner in the play. “At least for the women you killed? For the children? The little infants?”
“None whatsoever,” Turner replies. He was called by God to do what he did. “The Voice that spoke to Moses, spoke to me. “
“…I can never believe that God would ever desire the slaughter of innocent children,” Gray says.
“….What do you think holy vengeance is supposed to look like?” Turner replies, and adds later: “Do you not know how many children are being crushed beneath the foot of this nation? Stolen from their mothers, driven from their homes, hunted as for sport?”
It’s an argument that is as provocative as it is timely.
One senses that the play’s focus on faith (as we are cleverly clued into by that “in Jerusalem” in the title) is an effort at a fresh take on a familiar story.
Unfortunately, the experience of actually sitting through the 90 minutes of Nat Turner in Jerusalem is not as rewarding as one would hope. I wondered about the point of many of the choices. I’m not sure how much the presence of the guard enhanced the drama to begin with, and having him portrayed by the same actor as Gray meant there were these odd, darkly-lit interludes filled with loud (mostly 21st century) music to give Vickers the time to change his costume from one to the other character. Some have complained about the wooden pews that have replaced the normal seating in the theater; I did not personally find them uncomfortable, but, again, wondered why the theater went to the extra time and expense to construct them. Some of the exchanges feel like filler, and some of the poetic touches, both in the language and in the lighting, veer closer to self-consciously precious than affecting or illuminating.
Yet, for all its missteps, there is no denying the beguiling presence at the center of the play – that of Phillip James Brannon’s performance as a Nat Turner who is both uncommonly intelligent and otherworldly.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem is on stage at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E 4th St. in the East Village, New York, NY 10003) through October 17.
Tickets and details
Nat Turner in Jerusalem by Nathan Alan Davis. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. Featuring Phillip James Brannon and Rowan Vickers. Scenic Design by Susan Zeeman Rogers, Costume Design by Montana Blanco, Lighting Design by Mary Louise Geiger, Sound Design by Nathan Leigh, Fight Direction by Thomas Schall, Dialect Coach Dawn-Elin Fraser, Stage Manager Shelley Miles. Produced by New York Theatre Workshop . Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell