Nat Turner in Jerusalem is a journey into the fervent religious belief behind the leader of a slave rebellion in Southampton County, VA, armed with a sword and spirit. You may have seen Theater Alliance’s The Raid, based on John Brown and the rebellion at Harper’s Ferry, which just closed in Anacostia. Nat Turner in Jerusalem is a quieter reflection on a captured minister awaiting execution for an earlier 1831 insurrection.
When we enter the theater, Nat Turner (Jon Hudson Odom) sits shackled in the shadows of a holding cell. Joe Carlson enters as the interrogator Thomas Gray trying to make sense of what happened. Why would Turner commit such an atrocity – the senseless murder of a kind family, killing women, children, an infant, while they slept? He’s there, too, to get a confession, and find out if other attacks are planned.
Once Gray exits, a gruff guard (Carlson again) enters and the two banter about the daily needs of the prisoner awaiting execution. Through it all, Nat Turner maintains the calm resolve of a man at peace with his mission, actions and his God. An inner strength emanates from the man convinced that he was “Chosen” to strike the righteous blows.
The slaughtering of innocents.
This compelling play by Nathan Alan Davis (Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea) explores the mind, heart and soul of a man who could commit these acts with righteous zeal. When the lawyer struggles to make sense of it by recalling the rebellion’s senseless brutality against defenseless babes, Turner calmly retorts with vivid imagery of his own, with the slaughter and degradation of countless African babies and children. His reflections bring to mind the routinely accepted barbaric treatment of enslaved women and children, even being thrown overboard in the Middle Passage shackled together with no one to mourn their fate. In the wide cosmic view, especially when listening to the voices that commanded him, Turner was simply the obedient servant, doing the will of his true Master.
The production is a marvel in getting across Turner’s conviction about the evil of slavery. Its perpetrators needed to be cut down. Period. There could be no regard for age or sex, even if the kind and gentle family treated him well. Odom relays these sentiments with the factual clarity of an unheralded prophet. Turner felt in the inner depth of his being that he was called upon to strike down the evil where it slept, specifically his slave owners and their children, and so it was.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem
closes April 7, 2018
Details and tickets
This is a pivotal role for Jon Hudson Odom, showcasing what he can do sustaining a character’s interior mindset, sometimes without uttering a word. In so many roles over the years and seasons, Odom has proven to be an exciting force and here we see him in full form. He portrays a man who is surprised he lived long enough to be prosecuted. His eyes gaze with ancient awareness, he speaks with a gravity of someone whose mission goes far deeper than his interrogators’. His silent energy is apparent whether he sits shackled in a corner, or stands in the final rays of sunlight he’ll experience in this life, or unexpectedly approaches the lawyer who recoils in fear. Odom does it all with a silent benevolence of someone who is convinced he’s part of the Almighty’s plan. It’s a commanding performance.
Joe Carlson has also been ripping through the footlights at a dazzling pace. I caught his appealing work in Arena’s Sovereignty. What he does here as a lawyer hell bent on obtaining a confession, his furtive mannerisms revealing the urgency of his quest to get the job done is mesmerizing. In his waistcoat and hat – wonderful costume design by Marie Schneggenburger – Carlson tackles the impossible task of trying to capture the prisoner’s reasoning, and tries to understand enough to write it out as a confession, without being ascribing to this monstrous murderer. Carlson is also outstanding as the grunting prison guard who, despite the atrocities committed, slowly senses a special nearly divine presence in the minister. Carlson is particularly effective as he follows the religious zeal of Turner’s mighty cadence of a preacher, and nearly feels the Spirit of the Divine himself. It’s a mystical moment. Director José Carrasquillo assures a caring and careful connection between the two characters.
Tony Cisek’s set is a long, rather narrow runway of a cell, with the door onstage left and the barred window of light on the right.
The light that penetrates the cell is so important it’s almost a character with flickering shadows that retreat, then burn brightly when a lamp’s wick is lit. William D’Eugenio’s design is a marvel. Turner sits awash in his last sunset and is nearly aglow in the final sunrise.
The play mentions Gabriel Prosser’s instigation of an uprising in 1800. The history books recount Denmark Vessey’s insurrection in 1822. Then came Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831. John Brown’s raid of 1859 was said to have catalyzed the Civil War. These were the larger-scale incidents that rose to historical prominence. What about the untold periodic uprisings that happened with more frequency scattershot through history? It’s not surprising that the theme of righteous response to injustice permeates these events. As reflected in this incredible work about Nat Turner’s final day before his execution in Jerusalem, Virginia, the horror of all of these acts of terror mirrors the horrific impact of slavery and discrimination, that still reverberates in our social fabric.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem by Nathan Alan Davis . Director: José Carrasquillo . Starring—Jon Hudson Odom and Joe Carlson . Scenic Designer –Tony Cisek . Lighting Design – William D’Eugenio . Costume Design: Marie Schneggenburger . Sound Designer—Sarah O’Halloran . Production Manager— Rich Ching . Properties Designer—Mollie Singer . Stage Manager: Eric Swartz . Produced by Forum Theater . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.