Has any issue in US history had greater political repercussions than slavery and its aftermath? It’s one that extends up to this very minute, as many of us stare in disbelief at our TVs as the latest news blares out of…where to start? Charlotte? Tulsa? With fresh protests raging across the land — amid increasing indications that the cause of the protests is unlikely to fade any time soon — the arrival of Nat Turner in Jerusalem, Nathan Alan Davis’ one-act at New York Theatre Workshop, is nothing less than painfully timely.
In August of 1831, Turner led, if not the first slave rebellion, certainly one of the most monumental and violent insurrections to occur before the Civil War. It was a killing spree that grew to involve dozens of slaves and took the lives of dozens of white slave owners, including their wives and children. After the rebellion was put down (in just two days), retaliatory trials and executions of dozens of Black people, including scores of Black individuals who had nothing to do with the spree, began. Turner, who was captured more than two months later, was tried in Jerusalem, VA, and hung on Nov. 11 of that year.
Davis’ play opens at dusk on Nov. 10 in an instantly existential manner. Turner (Phillip James Brannon), sitting in chains on the floor of his cell, is making the most of what he knows is his last sunset. The sun covers him as it slants down from a high western window. Squatting in chains, barefoot, sunlit: if that is not a blunt image of man’s universally ignoble condition, I don’t know what is.
Turner talks to himself about his expectations for a better life in the next life, but before too long he’s interrupted by Thomas Ruffin Gray (Rowan Vickers), a white lawyer who defended some of the slave-defendants at trial and wants to take down Turner’s confession. Gray is committed to recording the condemned man’s story so it can be widely publicized. (Gray did publish Nat Turner’s confessions in a 20-page pamphlet, something that was accepted as true at the time but ultimately discredited.)
Davis’ intention is to demonstrate how and why Turner’s confessions (if, indeed, there were any) were not recorded for posterity. He goes about it through a series of scenes in which Turner dictates to Gray his demands for full disclosure. Talking of God — that is, God sending him on his homicidal mission — Turner wants Gray not only to accept his explanation as genuine but also to accept God.
But as the men interact, more emerges about who Gray is — a well-meaning man with an ailing wife and short of funds. Insisting that his predicament precludes accepting the existence of God, Gray does agree, reluctantly, to pray alongside Turner if that’s what will enable those confessions to flow. Losing patience, however, he presses Turner on the question of killing innocent children as manifesting God’s will. At that, Turner refuses to acquiesce and finally withholds the sought-after confessions.
Between the evening of Nov. 10 and the morning of Nov. 11, Gray’s frustration mounts so much that he repeatedly leaves Turner’s cell. During those absences, Turner has another recurring visitor — a kindly guard (Vickers again). Turner addresses the guard as “friend,” which the guard refuses to accept.
While Turner remains steadfast as to what he’ll confess and under which circumstances, at no time does he menace Gray or the guard. Instead, he accepts his fate — and it’s the quality in the character’s bearing that may account, more than anything else, for a lack of tension in the play, one that increasingly takes any edge off the 90-minute piece.
Indeed, the static nature of the script may explain why director Megan Sandberg-Zakian has decided that if the play doesn’t move, then the set, by Susan Zeeman Rogers, does. While the audience sits in bleachers on either side of a playing corridor, the actors work on a floating island that is anchored for each scene. During blackouts, the island is slowly pushed from one of the room to the other, then it’s returned to its starting place. Yet the sun-streaming window we spot at the top of the play never budges from where it’s suspended, which is confusing — is it the west wall or the east wall? (Lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger is the active sun god here.)
As Turner, Brannon is an elegant figure, even when barefoot and wearing chains covering his chest as if they’re an enveloping blanket. Thin as a rail (from not being well fed beyond a half-loaf of bread that the guard mentions giving him?), he’s forcibly persuasive when making heavyweight pronouncements such as “This is not a warning. It’s war.”
Rowan’s Gray, too, is an engaging figure, both determined yet unsure about his assignment. Curiously, though, when Rowan dons a cap and jacket to become the guard, he still sounds exactly like Gray. Is it intentional? Here’s another stray thought: Given that Gray and the guard are never on stage at the same time, is that a good enough excuse not to employ a third actor?
Since no one knows for certain exactly what occurred between Turner and Gray in the time they were together on that long night’s journey into day, conjecture is certainly a dramatic temptation. Clearly it incentivizes Davis now much as it did William Styron 50 years ago for his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1966 novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner.
Audiences can leave Nat Turner in Jerusalem convinced that Davis’ vision is perfectly plausible. They likely won’t walk away, though, with the impression of witnessing more than a glimpse of a harrowing scene from America’s past — one still alive in our present. Maybe that’s enough.