Monday, October 10, 2016

Off-Broadway Review—“Nat Turner in Jerusalem”

Nat Turner in Jerusalem
Written by Nathan Alan Davis; directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian
Performances through October 16, 2016
New York Theater Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, New York, NY

Rowan Vickers and Phillip James Brannon in Nat Turner in Jerusalem (photo: Joan Marcus)

Suddenly, the Nat Turner slave rebellion is everywhere: in Nate Parker’s new film The Birth of a Nation and in Nathan Alan Davis’s play Nat Turner in Jerusalem. While Parker’s film choppily dramatizes what happened before, during and after the uprising—in which Turner and many fellow slaves butchered dozens of slave holders and their families, only to be caught and massacred themselves, with Turner arrested and thrown in prison before being hanged—Nat Turner in Jerusalem concentrates on Turner’s last night on earth in a two-hander (with three characters) that is by turns realistic, metaphysical and too obviously symbolic.

The symbolism starts with the title: Jerusalem was the Virginia town where Turner’s rebellion went to grab a cache of firearms and also were he was imprisoned and hanged, but it also conveniently alludes to the martyrdom of both Turner and his savior Jesus Christ.  As Turner discusses his fate with two men—a nameless guard and his lawyer, Thomas Gray, the latter of whom publishes Turner’s confessions after his death—the dialogue is peppered with Biblical quotations, and the prisoner even convinces the atheist lawyer to kneel for a final prayer before he agrees to speak to him.

Some of this makes for convincing drama, but there are long arid stretches where Turner, for example, extols the existential beauty of the sunset or describes the spiritual rightness of his murderous rampage; as if to compensate, he is turned into a Christ-like figure by Mary Louise Geiger’s moody lighting, which throws his shadow on the wall as he holds a lamp—and voila, it looks like the Holy Grail being carried to the altar.

None of this is coincidental, obviously, but since the material itself is so strongly compelling, reducing it to mere metaphorical drama—Turner even frees himself from his chains at one point—makes Jerusalem a frustrating 90 minutes of theater that’s further burdened by a set-up where the movable wooden stage itself is placed between two sets of uncomfortable bleacher seats.

Phillip James Brannon makes Turner a charismatic figure, even when wearing his clumsily literal chains, while Rowan Vickers plays Gray and the guard with insufficient variety. Nat Turner in Jerusalem contains pertinent food for thought, but its lyrical flights are too often weighed down by thudding didacticism. 

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