‘Nat Turner in Jerusalem’
Through April 7
8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring
Forum Theatre’s elegant production of Nathan Alan Davis’ “Nat Turner in Jerusalem,” takes the audience on an engaging and illuminative journey into the past, offering an original look at injustice found in our collective history.
For this intoxicatingly lyrical and sometimes humorous work, Davis imagines insurrectionist Nat Turner’s last night on earth spent in a jail cell talking with Thomas Gray, a lawyer who’s pressing the condemned man for details of his crimes, and a jail guard.
Both Turner, played by out actor Jon Hudson Odom, and Gray (Joe Carlson) are indeed historical figures of record. Turner was the slave and educated minister who led the Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in August, 1831, that resulted in the death of more than 50 people, mostly white. He was sentenced to death and hanged. Turner’s defense that God had instructed him to kill his masters and their relations sent shockwaves across the south. Gray strove to profit from the events.
We meet Turner in chains alone in his cell. For better or worse, his solitude is interrupted by Gray, the itinerant lawyer who would go on to publish a heavily redacted version of Turner’s confession. He has come to see Tuner one last time, hoping to extract details of a non-existent multi-state slave conspiracy, a salable angle for a book that Gray hopes will lift him out of embarrassing debt.
The conversation ensues with Gray firing off questions and Turner replying circuitously and often in metaphor. Ultimately, Turners says white Virginians would do better to smother their children than allow them to grow up in a slaveholding culture. He plainly states that peace cannot be achieved without justice. Not exactly the theories Gray had hoped to hear.
Odom gives a powerful performance as a condemned man who is, for the most part, resigned to his fate yet also feels a sense of having unfinished business on earth. He still shows flashes of the zealot with his delivery changing in cadence and volume rising to the voice of a preacher.
Carlson does terrific double duty as Gray and also a humane jail guard whom Turner addresses as simply “friend,” and describes as someone who is simple but thinks deeply. Carlson’s turn as the guard is imbued with humor and adds lightness to proceedings.
New York-based Davis, who is biracial and probably best known for “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” his play about a young African-American man who decides to search the sea for an enslaved ancestor lost during the Middle Passage, subtly reframes the discussion of timeless and unanswered questions. His voices and echoes from the past are relevant and unsettling.
Out director José Carrasquillo ably leads a top-notch design team. Turner’s jail cell, (designed by Tony Cisek) is made from rough wooden planks. Light streams through one small, out-of-reach barred window. It brings to mind one of American sculptor Robert Gober’s simple, melancholic installations. At 90 minutes with no intermission, the play moves at a perfect pace. Scenes are interrupted by darkness and the sounds that slaves like Nat Turner no doubt once heard: yapping bloodhounds, angry mobs, birdsong and spirituals. It’s a sensitive and well-realized, cohesive production with design elements never getting in the way of the lyrical text or strong performances.