When is behavior so egregious that violence is a justifiable response?
That’s one of the pressing questions in “Nat Turner in Jerusalem,” a new play by Nathan Alan Davis that workshopped at the New Theatre Workshop in New York City and is about to have its second production at The Forum Theatre.
The charismatic leader of an insurrection of slaves and free blacks in 1831 Virginia, Turner was highly intelligent and educated, with a strong sense of conviction in the rightness of his cause and the belief God spoke to him in visions.
Some 55 whites died during the revolt, which he viewed as just, because of the evils of slavery.
In the play Turner sits in jail, 12 hours before his execution. He debates his actions and their repercussions with Thomas Gray, the local attorney who had earlier published Turner’s recollections.
Gray’s publication inspired William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner.”
Michael Dove, artistic director of The Forum, follows the work of playwrights he admires. Among them is Davis, best known previously for “Dontrell Who Kissed the Sea.”
In “Nat Turner,” Dove said, Davis created a work strong both in ideas and in the developing relationship between the two characters.
Director Jose Carrasquillo called the play’s language “so strong and poetic. This is a piece that from the moment I read it, I couldn’t get over how powerful it is.”
The play offers a different take – in part because the playwright is African-American, he added.
What’s also compelling, said Carrasquillo, is the effect of the time framework as the expected moment of execution approaches. “As the hours pass, they become almost like a character, much like in ‘High Noon.’”
In that classic Western film, the clock ticks as town marshal Gary Cooper awaits a confrontation alone against a gang of outlaws whose leader he sent to prison, and is arriving on the noon train after his release, intent on revenge.
“We all know what’s going to happen, but it’s a very powerful device,” Carrasquillo said.
Although “officially” Nat Turner in Jerusalem” is a two-man play, there are actually three characters – with one actor playing two.
Jon Hudson Odom plays the title character. Joseph Carlson is Gray and the jailer, who forms a sympathetic bond with Turner.
Helen Hayes award-winner Hudson Odom was thrilled when Dove approached him about auditioning for the play.
The actor shared the experience of both the artistic director and director in having “an immediate reaction” to the play. “It struck me as relevant to the conversation we need to have in this country and this political climate.”
Police brutality and the disproportionate number of African-American men in prison are part of that climate, he added.
“With Turner’s strong faith in a Higher Power, he truly felt the rebellion was an act of God, not an act of murder,” said Hudson Odom. “It’s hard to see him merely as a murderous psychopath, because he believed extreme oppression called for extreme protest.”
The play doesn’t have “the answers,” said Carrasquillo, but because it is so well-written, it presents both sides of the argument in a balanced way. Despite his sense of conviction, Turner has moments of doubt. Turner’s words impact Gray spiritually, though he is a professed atheist.
In an interesting aside, one family whose ancestors owned Nat Turner as a slave donated one of his Bibles to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“Nat Turner in Jerusalem” runs March 15 through April 7 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, in downtown Silver Spring.
An hour before every show, a majority of the Forum’s tickets will be available at whatever price an audience member wants to pay, first-come, first-served. To order tickets in advance, call Brown Paper at 800-838-3006. For more information, call 301-588-8279 or visit websites of Forum Theatre or Silver Spring Black Box Theatre at forum-theatre.org or silverspringblackbox.com.
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