On New Year’s Day, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law. Booker T. Washington remembered his mother weeping tears of joy and saying that “this was the day for which she had been so long praying.” Of course, not all African-Americans had contented themselves with prayer. One of the most famously impatient was Nat Turner, the leader of a gory 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia and the subject of Ty Jones’s Emancipation, produced by the Classical Theatre of Harlem.
Director Christopher McElroen has staged the play at a rather peculiar institution—the Audubon Ballroom. The site of Malcolm X’s assassination, it’s now revamped as an awkward mix of restaurants, retail, and a second-floor Memorial and Educational Center, which hosts Jones’s piece. The low-ceilinged room, decorated with a mural celebrating Malcolm X’s life and works, cannot support a lighting grid or raised seating, so McElroen and set designer Troy Hourie have created a scaffold-like platform surrounded on all sides by a few rows of chairs.
Happily, Jones is a performer one doesn’t mind looking up at. He’s established himself as a canny, powerful presence in recent revivals of The Blacks, Macbeth, and The Trojan Women, and he lends a strong physique and shrewd smile to his portrayal of Turner. His literary skills, however, do not equal his actorly ones. As a playwright, Jones supplies structural sophistication—moving back and forth in time, as well as a few subplots—but too often neglects the arc of his story and the complexities of his characters. Certainly the practice of slavery invited brutal recompense, yet the play never clarifies why Turner would lead his band to murder 57 whites, some mere infants. Jones mentions Turner’s religious convictions and occasionally cruel treatment but never really explores his motives, as though he were uncomfortable squaring Turner’s intelligence and conviction with his vicious actions.
McElroen interposes striking spirituals and step routines into the text and gets some fine performances from his actors, like James E. Singletary and Jaymes Jorsling as Turner’s co-conspirators Hark and Nelson. But he can’t wring a coherent narrative from Jones’s diffuse script. The current international climate forces us to question what makes civilians resort to acts of terror. Turner himself was unforthcoming. In his confession he allegedly said, “I wrapped myself in mystery.” Sadly, Jones seems content to leave him that way.