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A CurtainUp Review
By Jenny Sandman
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Emancipation, written by and starring Classical Theatre of Harlem regular Ty Jones, tells the story of Turner's rebellion. William Styron's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner imagined Turner with a tortured inner life, but Ty Jones' Turner is much more singular of purpose. Jones portrays him as a man inspired, chosen by God to lead his people to freedom. But besides being deeply religious, Turner taught himself to read and write, was extremely well-read and so the play also explores the unique challenges of an educated slav. Because of his education, Turner could see the inherent depravity of slave owning and believed he was receiving visions from God, inciting him to rebellion.
Set in a fragmented narrative, Emancipation jumps back and forth between Nat's younger days, the rebellion, and his confession after his capture. The narrative is interspersed with gospel music and old spirituals. The fine cast rallies around Jones and make the story more universal. It's a large and fluid ensemble.
Ty Jones naturally stands out as the charismatic Nat Turner, but so did CTH Jason Podplesky who went on as Buchanan, the overseer (usually played by Happy Anderson) at the performance I saw. His scenes with Nat spark with revulsion and fury, reminding us all that the struggle did not end with the abolishment of slavery. During Nat's confession scenes, Buchanan stalks the edges of the stage. When his apparent hunger for violence finally erupts, it unleashes a torrent of racial hatred onto Turner. When asked "Buck, why?" he responds with "Because I can." Podplesky plays the part perfectly, inciting our pity not just for Turner and for Buchanan since he is just as much a victim of the system—albeit in a vastly different way.
Set on an almost bare stage inside the Audubon Ballroom (where Malcolm X was assassinated), the surroundings add another layer of historical poignancy to the tale. Lights and costumes (by Aaron Black and Kimberly Glennon, respectively) remain minimalist so that our attention is focused solely on the actors. When the actors aren't onstage, they watch us from behind roped-off aisles, as if peering at us through layers of barbed wire.
Emancipation is stark and powerful and will likely add another unqualified success to the CTH roster (Marat/Sade, The Blacks: A Clown Show, a site-specific Waiting for Godot). Writer/actor Ty Jones and director Christopher McElroen make a tight and memorable team.