What does holy revenge look like?
Can bloody vengeance ever be truly holy? Even in response to the monstrous crime of enslaving American property? Even if it involves slaughtering young children in their beds? These are the kinds of questions raised in Nathan Alan Davis’ article Nat Turner in Jerusalemnow playing at the NextStop Theater in Herndon.
The so-called “Nat Turner Rebellion” is probably the most famous, but not the largest, slave revolt in American history. In southeastern Virginia in 1831, Turner and his followers killed 55–60 whites, mostly slaveholders and their families. Militias suppressed the rebellion. Turner was captured after two months in hiding, taken to Jerusalem (now Courtland), Virginia, and hanged. Over 200 blacks were killed by whites as a result of the rebellion.
The question of holiness arises because Turner, an avid Christian believer and preacher, acted, according to Davis’ account, in response to visions he had of God’s message to him. While, according to historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the rebellion had “no clear objectives”, Turner seems to have believed that killing large numbers of white people would serve God’s purposes by making clear the reality of the brutality of slavery. Turner later reportedly said he wanted to sow “terror and alarm” among white people.
In the play, Turner spends his last night in jail before being hanged, reflecting on the last sunset he will see. He is chained to a corner of the high-walled plank cell in Evan Hoffman’s set design. Hailey LaRue’s lighting design emphasizes degrees of darkness, emotional and physical, with the grid pattern of sunset or moonlight projected into the cell, and dim lighting represented by a whale oil lantern that sometimes goes out.
Portrayed by Kevin Thorne in a performance of restrained power, Turner is composed, unyielding, certain of his beliefs and righteousness, intensely intelligent and not at all inclined to pander to the wishes of his white interlocutor, Thomas Gray. Even in moments of stillness and calm, Thorne dominates the scene.
The historic Thomas Gray, a lawyer, interviewed Turner, resulting in a 23-page pamphlet, The Confessions of Nat Turner, purporting to be Turner’s verbatim account of the rebellion and its motives. Given the sensational nature of the events, it became something of a best-seller in its time, as well as the main source for later treatments of Turner’s story, including William Styron’s controversial 1967 novel of the same title. and the 2016 Nate Parker film, The birth of a nation.
In the game Nat Turner in Jerusalem, Gray returns a few days after his initial interviews to request additional information from Turner, believing that if Turner admits knowledge of larger conspiracies, it will increase the commercial appeal of his pamphlet. In Bobby Libby’s characterization, Gray is variously aggressive, fearful, suspicious, self-pitying, yearning for the financial success that has eluded him, and lacking the belief in God that is Turner’s star. His other lack of signal is empathy.
The third character in the play, a jailer, also played by Libby, enters periodically. A lower class character, he has, despite his occasional racism, a greater degree of sympathy for the convict. turner against
often shows more respect for him than for the more educated grey. Having lost everything and everyone in his life, Turner only asks the jailer to be present at the execution. Libby does a good job of distinguishing the voice, accent, and physicality of her two characters.
Costume changes between Libby’s two characters lead to occasional breaks, which makes me wonder why different actors weren’t cast in the roles. The double cast is a feature of Davis’ script, not director Bryanda Minix’s choice. Is the intention to suggest that the characters are simply different manifestations of an overall unitary white experience than Turner’s black era would have had? Either way, Minix’s management keeps the momentum going in what might otherwise be a static presentation.
The game is static in two senses. The first is that it takes place in the confined space of a prison cell. A second is that the three characters are the same at the end of the play as at the beginning. No character arc here; no one changes, no one is transformed from what they are when you first see them. That said, there are a few individual lines that resonate – “It wasn’t war…it was a warning” – and some lyrical passages of real beauty, like a prayer in which Turner leads the agnostic Grey.
So in this play we see someone who believes, with all his passionate heart and brilliant mind, that God demands that he take violent action to bring death and terror to wrongdoers and their loved ones. What distinguishes the divine motivations of Nat Turner from those of today’s violent jihadists? Do individual lives taken matter? Are the numbers involved important? Does humanity, or God for that matter, look any differently at killing 50 or 60 people for revenge than the large number of people killed by profit-seeking slavers? Are murders sanctified by one’s sacred purpose in committing them? It is to Davis’ credit that he wrote a play that raises important questions, without attempting to dispense answers to the audience.
Duration: 90 minutes without intermission.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem plays through April 17, 2022 at NextStop Theater Company‘s Industrial Strength Theater, 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, VA. Tickets ($30) are available for purchase in line.
COVID Safety: All patrons must be fully immunized and wear a mask to attend performances. NextStop’s COVID Customer Safety Policies are here.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem
By Nathan Alan Davis
Kevin Thorne as Nat Turner
Bobby Libby as Thomas Gray
Directed by Bryanda Minix
Stage design by Evan Hoffmann
Costume design by Imari Pyles
Lighting design by Hailey LaRoe
Directed by Shee Shee Jin
NextStop Theater has five shows for Winter/Spring 2022 (season announcement)