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  • Jonathan Kalb

Nat Turner on the Cross

Phillip James Brannon in "Nat Turner in Jerusalem"

Richard Gilman, an old teacher of mine and a terrific critic, used to say that whenever he read reviews dismissing a new play as “static,” “inert” or “tedious” he wanted to run right out and see it. The wisecrack was meant to disparage reviewers more than to praise anticlimactic drama per se. But since I had just read all those words in several bored prominent-newspaper reviews of Nathan Alan Davis’s Nat Turner in Jerusalem before seeing it at New York Theatre Workshop, the quip sprang to mind as I walked out. My pulse was thumping then, because I thought this play was graceful, intelligent, and seriously disquieting.

Nat Turner is a furiously contested figure. A slave in Southampton County, Virginia, he led a revolt in 1831 that killed 55 whites, 33 of them women and children, claiming (according to his somewhat dubious “confessions” published that year by an opportunistic lawyer named Thomas Gray) that he was following God’s orders. To Gray, he was a terrorist and religious fanatic. To William Styron, whose novel The Confessions of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer Prize (and also the censure of numerous black writers) in 1967, he was a bumbling rebel infatuated with a white woman. To Styron’s critics and others, he is a hero and martyr to black resistance and liberation.

Davis has no new incendiary view to peddle with this play. He is no Nate Parker, whose The Birth of a Nation, opening this week, tells Turner’s story and looks to be a cinematic bomb. Davis’s comparatively modest purpose seems to be to understand Turner’s religious mission sympathetically and clarify his legend cogently for an age preoccupied with terrorism and structural racism. The basic dramatic circumstance is the same as the flashback frame for Styron’s novel: a jailhouse interview the night before execution between Turner and Gray. Davis also adds conversations between Turner and a thoughtful, devout guard played by the same actor who portrays atheistic Gray (Rowan Vickers). Both of these white men listen to Turner, himself in chains, explain why they are the ones truly imprisoned because they have accepted the benefits of a depraved social order.

“I am the return/Of all the plagues of Egypt,/Come in this day to this nation:/The earth’s most prideful and most prosperous,” Davis’s Turner says, speaking throughout in a sonorous free verse that the actor Phillip James Brannon delivers with warm, earnest fervency. Relatives of his victims, he continues, should not grieve for their slain children, for “They are in heaven with their innocence./What greater danger could there be for the souls of those infants/Than to come of age here in Virginia? If you loved your own daughter, Thomas Gray, you’d smother her in her cradle this very night.”

The play’s language is a bit grandiloquent at times, and its Jesus references can be a tad heavy-handed. Yet the eeriness of such soothing words of violence makes its own powerful point, and it feels right and inevitable to make Turner’s religious martyrdom, inherent in his story from the beginning, the center of a drama. The actual Turner, after all, really did attest to prophecy, and his place of trial, judgment and execution really was called Jerusalem (a town in Virginia).

It happens that constrained or incarcerated protagonists often come off as scapegoat-martyrs, even when their crimes are appalling (Eichmann, Leopold and Loeb). The challenge for an ambitious dramatist is to make the stakes of their sufferings clear so the audience can feel meaningfully connected to people they’d otherwise disavow. When the stakes are left murky or sentimental (think The Kiss of the Spiderwoman), the result inevitably feels weak and mannered. But when they are made momentously clear (Prometheus Bound, Fugard’s The Island) or lucidly ambiguous (Beckett’s Happy Days, the Pomfret Castle scene of Richard II), the result can be gripping and heartbreaking despite the action’s physical stasis. This basic insight is a mainstay of Davis’s play, and he and his director Megan Sandberg-Zakian were brave to stick with it.

Nat Turner in Jerusalem is indeed an immersion in charged stillness. Whatever it lacks in conventionally defined “momentum” and “suspense” (the reviewers’ chief complaints) it makes up in fineness of thought, clarity of expression, and elevation of spirit. Such a drama requires unusual concentration, yet repays that investment many times over.

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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