Theater review

How Slave Rebellion Leader Nat Turner Spent His Last Night

The Daily Beast

September 27, 2016

When the actor Phillip James Brannon wears the shackles that prevent his character, Nat Turner—the slave who led a rebellion of other slaves in Virginia in 1831—from moving, the weight of history is very literally on his shoulders.

The shackles themselves are from the same period, and Brannon told The Daily Beast he imagines they too may have been worn by a slave, and so their heaviness is both real and symbolic.

Brannon’s electric, passionate performance in Nathan Alan Davis’s Nat Turner in Jerusalem, now at the New York Theatre Workshop, focuses on Turner’s last night in jail in Jerusalem, Virginia, before he is hanged the next day.

Turner is having a pop-cultural moment—he is not only the subject of this play, but also of Nate Parker’s film, The Birth of a Nation.

The second character in Davis’s play is Thomas R. Gray (Rowan Vickers), an attorney who represented some of the 41 slaves and five free blacks who were tried in connection to the rebellion led by Turner, which took place in Southampton County, Virginia.

The rebels stopped at 16 houses, killing 12 men, 19 women, and 24 children. As the notes accompanying the play’s program make clear, “The dead included all those who had ever claimed to own Turner, including his current legal owner, a 10-year-old boy named Putnam Moore.”

Gray later secured a copyright for his pamphlet, “The Confessions of Nat Turner, as fully and voluntarily made to Thomas R. Gray,” and the play imagines him and Turner parrying not just over what happened in the revolt, but also belief, injustice, inequality, and how the story may become Turner’s legacy, and what the nature of that legacy will be.

As well as Gray, Vickers plays Turner’s prison guard that night, and their relationship is far thornier—the jailer and the jailed. More graphically violent scenes have been cut from the newest version of the play, which still contains scenes of the guard spitting on Turner.

The staging for Davis’s play, by Susan Zeeman Rogers, is spare: a square stage that moves, as Turner’s last night progresses, down and then back to its original position in the midspace between two banks of seats. The only prison bars are a simple square elevated to near the lighting rigs.

Otherwise the wooden square is Turner’s jail cell, as—throughout this long night—he entertains visits from both Gray and his jailer, the latter of whom Turner calls “my friend,” begging him to be present at the moment of his execution, so he may see a face he knows.

For Davis the playwright and the play’s director, Megan Sandberg-Zakian, as well as the cast I spoke to, the contemporary resonances with present-day racial unrest, incidences of police brutality, and the resistance and activism of Black Lives Matter are inescapable and welcome.

Brannon sees Turner as a revolutionary, whose spirit he aims to inhabit so completely he sees the role as one of invocation. He has had a long-standing historical interest in Turner—encouraged by his history-loving father—and has suffered “hate and discrimination” in his own life.

His Turner is motivated by and directed by God, he speaks plain truth about injustice. He also feels empathy for his jailer, and fears a lonely death. He is absolutely resistant to Gray’s overtures to rewrite what happened during the slaves’ rebellion, and why it happened.

Of the shackles, Sandberg-Zakian and Brannon both note the sensitivity of the cast and crew around Brannon wearing them.

There was a period of silence as he put them on and took them off every day during rehearsals, said the director, noting that although this is acting, there was discomfort watching Brannon doing this around them, a cast and crew who were predominantly white.

Brannon, while appreciating their sensitivity and approach, laughed that after a certain point he just wanted to get on with the job of portraying Turner as convincingly as possible. Vickers said he tried not to spit directly on Brannon’s face when that moment is required.

Vickers, who was born in Canada and grew up in Bermuda, went to Southampton to learn more about the rebellion, and the period. It wasn’t something he was ever taught about in school, and judging from what other friends had told him, he said, Turner’s story for many seems to be not that well-known.

He walked in the forest where Turner hid from the authorities, and noted the silence of the countryside—of course, it was more loaded for him, he accepts, given the project he is involved in, but still the locale seemed fraught with significance.

The play comes with a detailed note, explaining the historical background of the story: The play’s one flaw is that it doesn’t contain enough of that information. It assumes we know the Turner story too well.

Of course, we know the day after witnessing Turner’s long, dark night of the soul he was killed. We also know the almost three centuries of racial injustice that have followed it: The through-line from Nat Turner to the deaths—and consequences flowing from those deaths—of Freddie Gray and Keith Lamont Scott, and the many other instances of racism and racial inequality in our world today, is all too clear. Brannon notes that, sadly, racial injustice will continue many years after this play.

What stays with you, after Brannon’s incredible performance, is Turner’s pin-sharp articulated anger and passion. He is not a victim or sonorous martyr. He is furious and unapologetic, while also eliciting grace and intimacy from Gray and his jailer.

He does not prophecy what will follow his death, but his indignation and fighting spirit flows to our age through one of the play’s major symbols—water, its currents, its power, and its ceaselessness through time.

The staging of Nat Turner in Jerusalem may be simple, but its message and resonance are complex and stark. It is far from surprising that, as Brannon told me, he needs a couple of hours to unwind to return to his own body and mind after the performance.

“That and a shot of whiskey,” he said.