Nicole Hansen, Intern
Having always had a love for history, I was more than excited to sit down and watch the American Players Theatre’s (APT) performance of Nathan Alan Davis’ play “Nat Turner in Jerusalem,” directed by Gavin Lawrence. Mediated through Zoom with strategic use of sound effects and props, this play portrays the conversations between the leader of the largest slave rebellion in American history, Nat Turner, and attorney, Thomas Gray, as well as his prison guard turned friend, the night before Nat Turner’s execution.
The story takes place in Turner’s prison cell in Jerusalem, Virginia, and is performed by a small cast, consisting only of La Shawn Banks as Nat Turner, and Nate Burger as Thomas Gray and the prison guard. While Zoom tends to be more limiting than a stage, this medium fits well with the content of this play, as it takes place in one room, and only has three characters. This format fits the intimate discussions between these characters, as well as with Turner’s monologues.
APT summarizes the plot, saying, “In 1831, Nat Turner led a slave revolt that has been credited by some with accelerating the onset of the Civil War. While he was in prison awaiting his execution, Turner dictated his story to attorney Thomas Gray, and it was published as “The Confessions of Nat Turner, the leader of the late insurrection in Southampton, VA.” In Nathan Alan Davis’ 2016 play Nat Turner in Jerusalem, Turner’s final night in jail is reimagined in a meditation on past deeds and future repercussions that The New York Times called ‘an earnest, gravely lyrical gloss on a document that will surely always evoke passionate and widely different responses.’”
Through the dialogue of this play, we learn about the life and philosophy of Nat Turner as themes of religion, race, morals, ethics, life, and death are explored in the conversations between Turner and Gray. Gray is seeking to find out if there is a conspiracy that will lead to more uprisings in the future, as well if there was a connection to the ones that occurred around the same time. However, Turner explains that there is no earthly conspiracy, and the rebellion took place not because of the decisions of men, but because of instructions from God. The book by Thomas Gray that the play is based off describes Turner as a mystical being, and therefore, this play focuses on destiny and faith as opposed to limiting itself to the topic of slavery.
A theme that cannot be ignored are the parallels drawn by Davis between Nat Turner and Jesus of Nazareth, as well as that of the biblical Moses. The facts of history lend themselves to this connection, as Turner was in fact jailed and hanged in Jerusalem, VA, almost exactly 1800 years after Jesus was executed in Jerusalem, Israel. Beyond that however, we can see parallels in the thinking of the two. Nat Turner was able to assemble the people necessary for his revolt by using the teachings of the Christian Bible to inspire his followers, in much the same way that Jesus utilized the holy teachings of the time to develop his following. In the performance, Turner explicitly compares himself and his cohorts as a combination of all the plagues of Egypt, brought onto the Egyptian pharaoh by Moses when he would not allow the Israelites to go free.
Beyond the acting, Michael Morgan and Gavin Lawrence work excellently together to bring the sounds of the theatre to us via Zoom. This can range from things as seemingly simple as the sound of a closing door when a character leaves the room, to the haunting, spiritual hymns performed by Lawrence during scene changes. These hymns are accompanied by images sketched by Casey Hoekstra, which when paired with the hymns, are a powerful way to keep the viewer enthralled in the performance, even when there are no actors on screen.
This show is an absolute must-see, and I would recommend to anyone interested in this topic to read the original document, “The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, VA”, as it is free and available online. The raw, emotional performances from Banks and Burger, combined with the off-camera work of Morgan and Lawrence, brilliantly display the themes and words of Nathan Davis’s play. American Players Theatre has once again brought us an intense look into a world of the past through a window of the present.