Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Nat Turner in Jerusalem ** C-

In a period of seemingly endless racial strife, what could be more timely than another look at the oft-told tale of Nat Turner and the bloody, unsuccessful slave rebellion of 1831? Alas, this particular version, set in Turner’s jail cell in Jerusalem, Virginia on the night before his hanging, does not shed much light or heat on events and is too dependent on gimmicks. To give playwright Nathan Alan Davis his due, he does not attempt to sugarcoat Turner’s brutal murder of white women and children. It is easy to believe that the Turner portrayed by Phillip James Brannon thought he was doing God’s will. We also meet Thomas R. Gray, the attorney to whom Turner allegedly dictated his confession, and one of the prison guards. The gimmick here is that both characters are played by the same actor, Rowan Vickers. The main thrust is that Gray is determined to get Turner to confess to knowledge of other rebellions. His goal is not so much to find the truth as to increase the marketability of his book, which he has already hastened to copyright. The alternating scenes with the guard do not seem to have much point and culminate in a scene that is so over-the-top that I was embarrassed. The scenic design, by Susan Zeeman Rogers, was gimmicky too: the platform on which the action takes place is moved between scenes from one end of the rectangle between the facing bleacher seats toward the other — and then back again. The costumes by Montana Blanco were fine and the lighting by Mary Louise Geiger was effective. The sound design by Nathan Leigh was aggressively loud. The direction by Megan Sandberg-Zakian was sluggish. The hard bleacher seats are extremely uncomfortable; there is a thin cushion for the seat but nothing to pad the wooden back. Discomfort made the 90 minutes seem longer. After 185 years, Nat Turner’s slave rebellion and its aftereffects still evoke deeply conflicted reactions. Perhaps it is enough that the play reminds us of that, even if it doesn't contribute much to the ongoing conversation.

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