Off-Broadway Review: “Nat Turner in Jerusalem” at the New York Theatre Workshop

David Roberts

  • Chief New York Theatre Critic

“Yes, and this country will either cease its injustice or it will slowly fall to ruin. Leave it while you can.” – Nat Turner

The encounter between Nat Turner (played with a powerful morally ambiguous core by Phillip James Brannon), Thomas R. Gray (played with a palpable malicious intent by Rowan Vickers), and the Guard (also played by Mr. Vickers) reveals the depth of the racial divide extant in the United States in 1831 – the divide that continues to exist into the present. 

On the night before his death by hanging, Nat Turner defends his actions and his faith before Thomas R. Gray the attorney in Jerusalem, Virginia who took Nat’s confession prior to his sentencing and before his prison guard. Both want to understand why Nat feels no remorse for leading the slave uprising that left a trail of death and destruction. “All of them. Everyone who owned me, who was given me as a gift, who traded me or lent me out, all of them and their children and relations, I have sent to God for final judgment.”

The play raises the kind of enduring questions that are vital to the conversation needed around the issues of systematic racism and white privilege. What is justice and who defines justice? Does the oppressor have a different understanding of what justice is than the oppressed? How can a meaningful conversation between black and white Americans be initiated if there is no agreement on the meaning and definition of justice and equality? Does this Constitution and the Bill of Rights provide an adequate definition of equality?

It is not always easy to watch “Nat Turner in Jerusalem.” Thomas wearies of Nat’s rhetorical genius as he piles trope upon trope to persuade his captors to listen and not speak, to effect change and not maintain the status quo of privilege. And as the young attorney dodges the balustrade of pathos, ethos, and logos, the audience realizes that what plays out before them is the cry for justice that has yet to be heard in the hallowed halls of Congress or on the streets of cities large and small in the self-acclaimed land of the free and home of the brave.

Megan Sandburg-Zakian’s staging is effective and she utilizes Susan Zeeman Rogers’s stark set to simulate the various points of view extant in Mr. Davis’s matrix of moral ambiguity and treasure trove of rich and enduring questions.

Daniel in the lion’s den, Paul in prison in Rome, John imprisoned on Patmos. The list of biblical references in “Nat Turner in Jerusalem” is only surpassed by the long list of contemporary and modern individuals who have been imprisoned for seeking truth and justice. Nathan Alan Davis’s remarkable new play reveals that ultimately justice does not always prevail. Far too often, the search for justice is met with the same indignation and indifference expressed by “doubting Thomas R. Gray” whose mantra resounds with, “That's not how things work, Nat.”



“Nat Turner in Jerusalem” features scenic design by Susan Zeeman Rogers, costume design by Montana Blanco, lighting design by Mary Louise Geiger, sound design by Nathan Leigh, fight direction by Thomas Schall, and Dawn-Elin Fraser will serve as dialect coach. Production photos by Joan Marcus.

“Nat Turner in Jerusalem” runs at the New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th Street New York, NY 10003) through Sunday October 16, 2016. For performance schedule and to purchase tickets ($49.00), please visit Running time is 90 minutes without intermission.

WITH:  Phillip James Brannon as “Nat Turner” and Rowan Vickers as “Thomas R. Gray.”

Photo: Rowan Vickers and Phillip James Brannon in “Nat Turner in Jerusalem.” Credit: Joan Marcus.