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A CurtainUp Review
Nat Turner In Jerusalem
Additional Comments by Elyse sommer
Davis's fabricated play, under the conscientiously attentive direction of Megan Sandberg-Zakian, takes place in a jail cell in Jerusalem, Southhampton County, Virginia on the night before his scheduled execution where Turner (Phillip James Brannon) is visited by Thomas R.. Gray (Rowan Vickers), a white lawyer with an agenda. An avowed atheist, Gray has almost finished completing a chronicle of the preceding events and of Turner's participation that he hopes to get published. Vital to Gray is getting Turner's confession on record. Bound with shackles and in chains, Turner also gets recurring visits from a jailer (also played by Vickers) who wavers between hostile and helpful.
Unless you come prepared with some knowledge of African-American history, you are as likely to be as empathetic as apathetic to Turner. The man we see in the play, who claims that he was following God's commands, might bring you to the conclusion that he should have been committed to an asylum rather than hanged.
Aside from Turner's gift for poetic rhetoric, a good portion of the play is taken up with contentiously civilized conversations between the slick and awkwardly manipulative Gray and the arguably self-righteous Turner. Gray also wants additional facts from Turner regarding his knowledge of other uprisings, his objective being to provide more incendiary and incriminating material for his book and hopefully increase its sales. He thus prods Turner with "You admit here that the groundwork of your rebellion was laid gradually, and with quite a measure of patience. Over years and years."
The play is a series of short, not-particularly revelatory scenes, each ending with a blackout and some very loud music as we await for Vickers to change from lawyer attire into the guard's uniform and come back on stage. The performing platform atop the theater's floor glides from one side of the theater to the other to offer the audience a different perspective. If only the audience which is seated in tiers on two sides of the stage had been given more comfortable seats. Although their seats do have backs and thin cushions are provided, the furnishings of the cell looked only a little less accommodating than those afforded the audience.
Physically chained as he is metaphorically unchained, Brannon's fine and purposefully infuriating performance is definitely well calculated to make you listen to if not lament his misguided mission, as a believer in Turner's "holy vengeance." Most commendable is Brannon's ability to make words sound spiritually inspired even as they then suddenly ricochet off his targets like bolts of lightning. How they bounce off the more contemptuous personalities of both Gray and the guard (both characters are well-acted by Vickers) is the most interesting aspect of the play.
It will be nice to fill in the gaps in Turner's story with the upcoming release of Nate Parker's more thoroughly biographical film The Birth of a Nation. Davis's play is ultimately overly preachy and determinedly testy in its redundancies without ever becoming an empowering or enlightening consideration of a man whose mission was fueled as much by his madness and his faith as it was by his message and his wrath.
Additional Comments by Elyse Sommer
The story of Nat Turner and his revolt has been continuously re-told since 1831, most recently in the Nate Parker film The Birth of a Nation mentioned at the end of Simon's review, and, of course with this small-scale play now at New York Theatre Workshop. But until recently, the most famous re-telling was William Styron's The Confession of Nat Turner.
When published in 1967, the novel was enthusiastically received as a major accomp lishment. Styron though white was himself a Southerner. Growing up right near the site of the revolt he was painfully aware of remaining Jim Crow-ism. Per his introduction to the book he wanted "to portray an era of history which we are now beginning to understand to our enormous heartbreak and misery." He started writing the story in 1962.
As he explained in his Afterword, Turner was a relatively obscure figure which was why lawyer Thomas A. Gray's slim volume was used so often. While he too used it as a source and for his title, he opted for a novelist's perogative to tell it his own way. Thus, instead of writing a strictly historical novel which he felt would have limited him to the facts of Gray's published confession which would have depicted Turner as a "ruthless and perhaps psychotic fanatic" Instead, Mr. Styron's aim was to represent "what the human spirit could achieve in overcoming the most ruinous and despotic form of human bondage that men have ever imposed on other men." And so he told Turner's story in the first person, assuming the voice and presuming to understand the life and psyche of a slave.
Styron's Turner is literate and devout but ineffectual. During the revolt, he seems incapable of violence — for example when one of the rebels shouts "Kill him!" as they storm the home of their first victim Turner is not ready to do so. The book does not deny that he did do so later, his one victim bei ng a young white woman whom he desires but knows he can never have.
The novel won a Pulitzer Prize and the film rights were acquired for more than $600,000 by 20th Century Fox. And when Styron was awarded an honorary degree at the historically black Wilberforce University in Ohio, he was greeted with thanks and praise.
But all the success, praises and awards backfired when a group of black intellectuals attacked Styron's account as a lie and the backlash against a white man telling a black man's story, and resentment the too favorable portrayal of the Slave owners Samuel Turner and Margaret Whitehead. This resulted in the the publication a collection of essays angrily denouncing the popular reception of the novel. (William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, Beacon Press). The movie which was supposed to star James Earl Jones was cancelled and a deeply hurt Styron retreated until his later publication of Sophie's Choice.
The book and its author did have its defenders. The New York Review of Books published a defense, and two African-American authers, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, championed it. Eventually other fans of the book began to speak up, notably African-Amerian historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. who called it brilliant and disputed the premise that a white man lacks "the authority, the authenticity, the moral claim to write responsibly about an event in African American history."
While dispute over how to interpret Nat Turner's story have continued through the decades, the good thing about this is that it undoubtedly helped to create new interest in slave narratives on the page, stage and screen. The Nate Parker Birth of a Nation film, though greeted as enthusiastically at Sundance as Styron's Confessions. . . were when first published, the film too has had its naysayers.
Probably the fairest and most unbiased on-screen account was a 2003 documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property which interspersed documentary footage and interviews with dramatizations of different versions of the story, with a different actor playing Turner in each. The interviews included a broad range of contemporary African American and white descendants of those involved in the revolt, historians, writers and artists. With conversations about race more volatile than ever, it would be nice to see this reissued on public television or at one of the many movie screening sites.
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Nat Turner In Jerusalem Nathan Alan Davis
Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian
Cast: Phillip James Brannon as Nat Turner and Rowan Vickers as Thomas R. Gray and Jailer.
Scenic Design by Susan Zeeman Rogers
Costume Design by Montana Blanco
Lighting Design by Mary Louise Geiger
Sound Design by Nathan Leigh
Fight Direction by Thomas Schall
Dialect Coach Dawn-Elin Fraser
Running Time: 90 minutes
New York Theatre Workshop 79 E. 4th Street
From 9/07/16; opening 9/26/16; closing 10/16/16. Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at 9/17 press preview, with additional notes by Elyse Sommer
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