White America’s pathological fear of black male bodies — a fear that fuels violence with horrible regularity these days — is as old as the institution of slavery, a legacy made palpably present by Nathan Alan Davis’s Nat Turner in Jerusalem, now at New York Theatre Workshop in a production directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. The sparse, persuasive two-hander, which marks Davis’s New York debut, examines America’s racial history, but feels disturbingly close to the present day.
Nat Turner stages the last night on earth of the famous leader of an 1831 rebellion by Virginia slaves and free blacks. The uprising resulted in dozens of white deaths, followed by — in retaliation — hundreds of black deaths and new laws restricting the rights of free blacks. Davis’s Turner (Phillip James Brannon) sweats out the hours between sunset and sunrise in a Jerusalem, Virginia, jail cell, awaiting his morning execution. This is no night of contemplation, though. A lawyer, Thomas Gray (Rowan Vickers), has come to transcribe Turner’s confessions, but what the lawyer’s really digging for is intelligence about looming future rebellions, plans being hatched by Turner’s comrades still at large. Between rounds of interrogation — which feel as contemporary as any scene we might imagine between an FBI agent and a suspected terrorist — Gray disappears, replaced by Turner’s jailer (also played by Vickers).
Though the larger drama — the rebellion, the bloodbath, the apprehension of Turner — has unfolded offstage, Davis and Sandberg-Zakian find a dynamic microcosm in the confrontations between Turner and the two white men. Despite his barred cell and his total isolation from friends and allies, Turner terrifies his captors. It’s partly his unshakeable belief in the divine mandate driving his actions, including the deaths of women and children. He radiates remorselessness, comparing himself to the prophet Moses (and implicitly, awaiting public execution in a place called Jerusalem, to Christ). He warns of violent vengeance to come. “This was not war, Mr. Gray,” he snarls. “This was warning.”
But the white men are also afraid of Turner’s body. Though the prisoner is heavily shackled, simply being near him induces panic in the lawyer and jailer. In one telling moment near the beginning of the play, Turner, seated on the floor, rises to his feet. “I have stood up,” Turner explains, to a visibly rattled Gray. “I thought you were fastened,” Gray complains. “To something solid.”
Brannon’s Turner is tough to look away from: fervent, fearless, and unconcerned with eliciting pity or obtaining mercy. Sandberg-Zakian’s minimalist staging places emphasis on the shifting tensions, and occasional glimmers of understanding, between the men. A bare wooden platform, with a barred window-frame high above, suggests Turner’s cell, and shifting light tracks the hours from sunset to dawn.
Between scenes, raucous music erupts in the darkness, and stagehands adjust Turner’s shackles: Sometimes the chains are massive, binding his torso like a straitjacket; other times they’re minimal, allowing him to walk and stand. These theatrical flourishes feel unfinished, a flirtation with something beyond realism that doesn’t quite find full expression. Occasionally, too, the dialogue becomes repetitive: Davis parses every piece of subtext and symbolism, often explaining things he doesn’t need to. The scenario he’s placed onstage speaks eloquently enough to our national past, and to our present: a black body in chains, past violence, and the threat of more to come.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem
By Nathan Alan Davis
New York Theatre Workshop
79 East 4th Street
Through October 16