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Nat Turner in Jerusalem
Photograph: Joan Marcus

Theater review: Nat Turner in Jerusalem rewrites a bloody chapter of American history

By David Cote

We need angry black plays more than ever these days, and thank goodness some are coming. In November at the Public Theater, spoken-word troupe Universes unveils a political-reunion piece called Party People; at the Signature, the ever-subversive Suzan-Lori Parks gets a revival of the provocatively titled The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. First up is a newcomer: young playwright Nathan Alan Davis, who mines history for Nat Turner in Jerusalem, an earnest if plodding dialogue on the moral calculus of terrorism in an amoral world.

In case your grasp on history is worse than that of a Texas schoolbook: Turner was a Virginia slave who led an 1831 revolt that left 12 men, 19 women and 24 children dead. He was directed by God, he said, to kill anyone who had ever claimed to own him (including his current owner, a 10-year-old boy). More than three dozen slaves were tried over the next few weeks, with many executed. Turner was hanged, of course, but not before he dictated his confessions to the white lawyer Thomas R. Gray (who defended some of the accused in court).

This grim prelude to John Brown and the Civil War has been recounted across decades by artists as diverse as novelist William Styron in the 1960s and actor-filmmaker Nate Parker (Birth of a Nation) this year. Davis’s way into the material is neither historical pageant nor postmodern abstraction (such as the recent Men on Boats); he and director Megan Sandberg-Zakian opt (almost quaintly) for poetic naturalism with theatrical flourishes. We listen in on fiery, folksy conversations between a shackled Turner (Phillip James Brannon) and Gray (Rowan Vickers) the night before the execution. (Vickers doubles as a prison guard scared yet fascinated by Turner.)

Such a stolid, talky approach puts the burden, unfortunately, on the acting. Brannon’s Turner has an unexpected sweetness that grows on you and makes his flashes of righteous rage all the more rattling. But Vickers, as Gray, is too callow to add nuance or depth to his scenes. Had it been Brannon confessing and Vickers mutely writing, that would have been some improvement.

New York Theatre Workshop (Off Broadway). By Nathan Alan Davis. Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian. With Phillip James Brannon, Rowan Vickers. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission. Through Oct 16. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

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