Nat Turner (1800-1831) was a Virginian born African-American slave who in 1831, led a rebellion of slaves and free blacks in that state. About 60 white people, including women and children, were killed. Turner was captured, tried, convicted and executed by hanging on November 11, 1831.
While on trial, Turner was visited on two days by the white lawyer Thomas Ruffin Gray who interviewed him about his activities and later published The Confessions of Nat Turner. There is no way of knowing the accuracy of this supposed confessional and not much is known with certainty about Turner.
The playwright sets the action in Turner’s jail cell where he’s chained up, visited by Gray, and overseen by a guard, the night before his execution. Mr. Davis states that this situation is a fabrication inspired by the book. A possibly unreliable account is the source material for this even more fanciful dramatization. Davis even expresses through the mercenary Gray the possibility that his chronicle will be sensationally tailored in order to sell more books.
Davis plays up Turner’s religious fervor that’s basically “God told me to.” His dialogue for Turner is grand and poetic and is more concerned with portraying him as a mythological figure rather then as a real person. Gray and the guard are realistically and very well delineated with personal details and sympathetic qualities.
Structured as a series of short scenes that though are well written, the play cumulatively doesn’t hold interest. That is mainly due to the author’s strategy of focusing more on vague symbolism instead of imparting more of the actual facts of the rebellion.
With his jovial presence, thin physique, animated features and rich voice, Phillip James Brannon is compelling as Nat Turner. Mr. Brannon excellent talents are employed to winningly create a character that is essentially a cypher.
Rowan Vickers is outstanding in the dual roles of Gray and the Guard. Mr. Vickers possesses an engaging everyman quality and with his expertly Southern accented twang quite skillfully creates two different and appealing characterizations.
Director Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s work with the actors is accomplished and if the production relied on this basic element it is possible that it would have been more satisfying. Instead there is a reliance on concepts and effects.
The theater has been configured with the audience on two sides of the stage, sitting on hard wooden benches with backs and seat cushions. The performance area is a large rectangle with a slightly raised rectangular wooden platform serving as the jail cell. This gets laboriously pulled from one end of the theater to the other by two contemporary-looking stagehands dressed all in black for no dramatic purpose. Furniture, gas lamps, and papers get dragged out periodically. Shadowy images of leaves and tress are projected onto the parallel walls of the playing area. Hanging from the ceiling is a small representation of a barred window.
A loud-recorded soundtrack of hip-hop songs, gospel and spiritual numbers, as well as pop tunes punctuates scene changes. There is also the persistent sound of crickets chirping.
As the play is basically the classic theatrical set-up of two men alone in a room, the overblown production design comes across as distracting high-tech theatrics.
The scenic design by Susan Zeeman Rogers, the lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger, and sound designer Nathan Leigh’s efforts are proficient but are misused.
The period garments that include a frock coat, guard’s uniform and worn jail clothes are all perfectly rendered by costume designer Montana Blanco.
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” is the famous quotation from film director John Ford’s 1962, Western classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
The legend of Nat Turner has inspired Gray’s account, novelist William Styron’s 1968’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and the film The Birth of a Nation that will be released later in 2016.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem is an intriguing but muddled attempt at depicting that legend.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem (through October 16, 2016)
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-460-5475 or visit http://www.nytw.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission