In these racially charged times of Black Lives Matter, it’s not surprising that Nat Turner’s story should take on renewed urgency. The leader of a brutally violent 1831 slave uprising that resulted in the murder of 55 whites, including 24 children, Turner was hanged for his crimes, and hundreds of slaves were killed in retribution. His story, which is also related in co-writer-director-star Nate Parker’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner The Birth of a Nation, has inspired Nathan Alan Davis’ drama, which is receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop.
Unfortunately, despite the incendiary nature of its subject matter, Nat Turner in Jerusalem emerges as a tedious, lifeless affair. Set on the eve of Turner’s execution, the play depicts a jailhouse meeting between the condemned man (Phillip James Brannon) and his white lawyer Thomas R. Gray (Rowan Vickers), who would later document the uprising in his pamphlet, The Confessions of Nat Turner. Vickers also plays a prison guard periodically on hand, in a double-casting gimmick that doesn’t pay off.
Over the course of the play’s 90 intermission-less minutes, a manacled Turner describes the religious epiphany that led to his leading the rebellion. Likened by Turner to a “doubting Thomas,” Gray questions the integrity of his beliefs and the honor of his actions.
“Did you manage to defeat anyone who was not a child, a woman, or otherwise wearing his pajamas?” Gray asks sarcastically.
“This was not war, Mr. Gray. This was warning,” Turner responds.
The play contains precious few moments as provocative as this. More often it lapses into indulgence and repetition.
“I tire of metaphors. I am weary of talking in circles,” Gray declares at one point, demonstrating that playwrights are sometimes their own best critics.
Davis injects a supernatural element into the proceedings, having Turner suddenly break free from his chains and demonstrate an ability to snuff out a lamp without touching it. But these elements do little to create tension, and the deafening blasts of music between scenes, ranging from hip-hop to gospel, are merely irritating.
As if desperate to infuse momentum into the static proceedings, director Megan Sandberg-Zakian stages the action on a platform in the center of the auditorium that is frequently moved back and forth from one side to the other. The audience sits uncomfortably on wooden benches on either side, with flimsy seat cushions not providing much relief.
Brannon takes up some of the evening’s slack with his fiercely commanding performance as Turner, but Vickers struggles in his two roles, failing to do much to differentiate them other than donning a guard’s uniform and cap.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem should have much more dramatic urgency than it does. Performed often in near-darkness, the sluggish play succeeds less in stirring emotions than lulling you to sleep.
Venue: New York Theatre Workshop, New York
Cast: Phillip James Brannon, Rowan Vickers
Playwright: Nathan Alan Davis
Director: Megan Sandberg-Zakian
Set designer: Susan Zeeman Rogers
Costume designer: Montana Blanco
Lighting designer: Mary Louise Geiger
Sound designer: Nathan Leigh
Presented by New York Theatre Workshop