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Nat Turner in Jerusalem

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 26, 2016

Rowan Vickers and Phillip James Brannon
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's a sad comment on both human nature and American nature that we never seem to learn our lessons properly the first time. For example, you need look no further than headlines from the past year or so to discover the difference in concepts of justice that still exist within different classes in our society—just a look at the news stories from North Carolina over the past week is enough to tell the tale. But of the many instances of this in United States history, few stand out as starkly as that of Nat Turner, a slave who in 1831 led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, killing dozens of white men, women, and children, including everyone who had ever owned him, before he was finally captured, tried, and killed.

The story, which lives on today primarily through Turner's written confession published after his death by Thomas R. Gray, may be horrific on many levels, but it's been the frequent subject of attention by artists who have wanted to dig beneath the surface to uncover a deeper understanding of what the rebellion meant then as well as and now. In fact, a new film about it tilted The Birth of a Nation, already a major hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is scheduled for release the first week of October. But the potential inherent in the rebellion is scarcely realized in Nathan Alan Davis's new play at New York Theatre Workshop, Nat Turner in Jerusalem, which goes perhaps too far in the otherwise worthy pursuit of humanizing a complex and difficult man—to the point, in fact, that he becomes someone not at all easy to relate to.

Davis sets the play the night before the execution, when Nat (Phillip James Brannon) is shuttled between Thomas and a guard (both played by Rowan Vickers) who are hoping to learn something akin to the "truth" about the rebellion from Nat while they still can. What becomes most evident most quickly is that their concepts of faith are almost irreconcilably different: While both white men struggle with any tangible form of belief in God, Nat's faith is so strong that he's sure—and will preach to anyone willing to listen—that God Himself sanctioned Nat's actions and is, for all intents and purposes, waiting to welcome the man with open arms.

This particular war of perspectives may not be naturally easy for many to swallow as-is, and it's not aided by writing that veers between pedantic and florid, without ever settling on a style that makes consistent sense for all those involved. Our first glimpse of Nat in his jail cell finds him the night before his morning hanging, talking to the single chain that binds him to the floor, before he turns his attention to the sunset that will be his last. "Does he think I'm great enough to live three lives and die three deaths?", he asks of the judge who used the word "dead" three times in describing the effects of the noose around his neck. "Then he's mistaken. When I am preaching, friend, I must appear great. When I testify to others of the miracles of God and the signs the Lord has shown me, I forget my wretched self, and so I appear great."

Later, Nat drops the poetry, warning Thomas of the dangers of pursuing a course of unwise justice in defiantly, almost self-consciously pointed terms. "The uprisings will never cease until injustice ceases. Your children will never be safe until injustice ceases. The low, no matter how low you make them, will see the signs in the sky that they should rise. And if you blind their eyes, they will hear it in the calls of birds, in the barking of dogs, the howling of wolves. In their own howling, in their own songs of grief, they'll hear the signs. And if you stop their ears they will feel the signs in the vibrations of the earth itself. To cease injustice is your only recourse." Needless to say, Thomas and the guard are not granted such flowing, musical declarations of their viewpoints. They are there merely to listen and learn to the extent their period sensibilities allow.

All this makes Nat Turner in Jerusalem (the last word, by the way, the name of the county seat) an affair that's as staid as it is well meaning, and as dull and dreary as it is portentous. When historical facts preclude traditional suspense, they need to be replaced with something to substitute for it: clarifying detail or a new, previously unconsidered layer of relatability. Davis spends so much time on establishing Nat's biblical bona fides, and the absence of them in his spiritual and physical captors, that we're unable to see him as anything other than a representative of God, and he is not exactly an ideal one. Were this but one facet of his character, that would be one thing, but his clamoring for eternal, celestial justice that supersedes that of the earthly kind is so all-consuming that it wipes away from the script and the production anything that doesn't enhance it—and nothing can enhance it enough.

This includes the performances, which are committed but rather less than electrifying, as Brannon lacks the natural electricity that might make Nat sympathetic and Vickers heavily overplays his characters' smarmy sense of personal satisfaction. (A particularly predictable scene in which Nat forces Thomas into prayer falls especially flat when the two incompatible portrayals collide, but it's a problem throughout.) Also a problem is Megan Sandberg-Zakian's oppressively conceptual staging which tries to impart motion and energy on the swiftly flowing waterway of progress (complete with the audience split between shores), but looks alternately suffocating and silly as lit, hyperactive shadow-box style, by Mary Louise Geiger.

Not that the point of any of this is easy to miss. It's all a riff on an early line of Nat's, in which he pontificates on the question of why Thomas has returned to him days after completing his original interview. "My grandmother used to say that if you cross a river and then you come to that river again, you have not crossed it right the first time." It's a decent enough reminder that, in some sense, this is true of all of us as we struggle to improve the way both individuals and societies deal with the problems that continue to plague us. But that lesson would have more impact if, its good intentions aside, Nat Turner in Jerusalem didn't cross the same river time and time and time again.

Nat Turner in Jerusalem
Through October 16
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street between Bowery & 2nd Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: