Night of Reckoning

Nat Turner seems to be the historical figure of the moment. He is the subject of the controversial film The Birth of a Nation as well as Nathan Alan Davis’s new play Nat Turner in Jerusalem. Whether the two works mark a resurgence of interest in Turner—William Styron won a Pulitzer Prize back in 1967 for his novel about the slave who led a bloody rebellion, The Confessions of Nat Turner—is uncertain. Davis has a narrower focus: the last night Turner spent in jail, as he receives alternating visits from his prison guard and the chronicler of his deeds, Thomas Gray. Phillip James Brannon plays Nat Turner on the night before his hanging, in "Nat Turner in Jerusalem" at the New York Theatre Workshop. Top: Turner receives a visit from his chronicler, Thomas Gray (Rowan Vickers).

Working with a small canvas—only two actors, one of whom plays two roles—Davis paints a portrait of a prophet of sorts. (The Biblical overtone suggested by the title is appropriate to the play, although the Jerusalem was in Virginia, where Turner was hanged.) Davis’s protagonist is a generally mild-mannered former preacher, as the historical Turner was; he had been taught to read the Bible, but not allowed to read anything else. He became a pastor to the slaves, and a leader. During a monthlong uprising that he led beginning in August 1831, he managed to enlist other slaves to his cause, and they killed 12 men, 19 women and 24 children. Davis makes it clear that the deaths of the last were horrifying and inexcusable—one child was thrown headless into a fireplace to burn.

In spite of Davis’s early forthrightness about the horrors Turner perpetrated, the character, played with passion and philosophical nuance by Phillip James Brannon, gradually emerges as something of an Old Testament prophet of vengeance, imbued with a righteousness that some may find uncomfortable. It is perhaps the only way Turner’s story can be made understandable and receive any feeling akin to empathy, but it’s a subtle canonization at odds with his butchery.

There are intimations of the New Testament as well, as if Turner is also Christ-like. His chronicler Thomas Gray, whom Turner calls “Doubting Thomas,” refers to an episode “wherein you claim…to have spent thirty days alone in the wilderness.” The dual-edged reference is to Turner’s escaping capture for a month as much as to Christ’s 30 days in the wilderness. The Guard (Rowan Vickers plays both, but fares better as the Guard) shares bread with Turner. And echoes of Peter denying Christ arise in the Guard’s attempt to backpedal from a commitment he made to attend Turner’s hanging so the prisoner will spy a friendly face. (Davis’s notion that blacks will attend the hanging is a miscalculation, surely; given the recent slaughter of blacks in retaliation, it’s a stretch to believe they would gather at the gallows or that the white populace would permit them to assemble at such an incendiary event.)

The duologues Davis has devised between Turner and his two visitors are engaging and often eloquent. Turner declares, “It is Negro women, servants in wealthy houses who feed and nurture children like your daughter. Women whose own children may be snatched from them at any time and sent God knows where.”

Gray and Turner talk about his rebellion. Photos by Joan Marcus.

Yet occasional moments ring false. Gray, considering a whale-oil lamp, says he feels “melancholy for the whales.... Sometimes I worry that there’s a limit. That one day there won’t be any whales left.” The sentiment might have been lifted from a recent Sierra Club press release on global warming. An example of Turner’s wit is also awkward. “Few men aspire to be the guards of prisoners,” he tells Gray in reporting a conversation with his guard. “It is little better than being a prisoner oneself. I said to one of the guards the other day, ‘Which one of us is on the wrong side of the bars? Which one of us is the real captive?’” It’s a sentiment that might be drawn from 1960s movies like King of Hearts or Cool Hand Luke.

Credibility aside, the production by Megan Sandberg-Zakian is deftly pared down and engaging, and Davis’s poetic language is given full weight. The only décor of the play, which is staged in traverse, is two large abstract paintings in gray and black, with hints of dull yellow and blue, and a platform that moves, scene by scene, from one side of the central stage to the other (the scenic design is by Susan Zeeman Rogers). An irritating loud-rock score (sound is by Nathan Leigh), akin to the pounding noise Neil LaBute used in The Shape of Things (2001), will drive you batty if you arrive too early—that is to say, more than 30 seconds before the play begins. At least what follows is, with whatever flaws it has, much more palatable.

Nat Turner in Jerusalem runs through Oct. 16 at the New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; and at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Matinee performances are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets cost $69. Tickets may be purchased by calling 212-460-5475 or visiting


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Tales of the Road to Freedom

Frederick Douglass said, “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” It felt like the spirit of Douglas was downtown at the Gene Frankel Theatre, inspiring all who hear the call to go see Pappy on Da Underground Railroad. This heartrending one-man show, developed by cabaret performer Richard Johnson, under the direction of Keith Allan with musical accompaniment by Terry Wallstein is in honor of Black History Month. Johnson soulfully weaves the tales of trials and tribulations on the trail to freedom with Harriet Tubman on the Underground Railroad. With honest, down to earth direction and staging, this charming piece found its perfect venue at the Gene Frankel Theatre.

Raw, vulnerable, intuitive, fiery, wise, and out smarting, Pappy is the culmination of all the heroes of that dark time in American history. Soulfully singing some of the old classic spirituals such as “Wade in the Water” and “Steal Away” Johnson, as Pappy, explains how Harriet Tubman used song to guide runaway slaves to freedom. Through Johnson’s characterizations, we learn about the spirit of a people who were willing to pay the price for freedom and how it takes courage and determination to continue to fight for it.

Long-time cabaret performer Johnson authentically brings to life a part of our past that should never be forgotten. In the storytelling tradition of Haley’s Chicken George or Walker’s Celie, without overacted characterization, Johnson shows us the passion of a powerful survivor in his magnetic Pappy. With pathos, he comically impersonates his giggly first love, Mary, who pined for another. He mimics her obsession for, “Jacob! Jacob! Jacob!” and then tenderly reveals she killed herself by drinking lye after her lover was beaten to death for killing the master’s son who raped her. What hits to the core is how Johnson weaves Pappy’s memory with his heart-rending vocal of “Balm in Gilead,” accompanied by the mournful piano rendering of musical director Terry Wallstein.

Johnson’s subtle interpretation of Harriet Tubman is truly inspired. There is never doubt that Pappy is an authority on Tubman. He tells of his first meeting with the sassy Tubman and how she convinces him to come with her on the freedom trail. With hands on his hips, and a molasses sweet voice, he mirrors her command, to go back south to get her mother.

With assistance from technical crew, Stephon Legere, Luis Rivera and Cesar Perez, Allan uses a minimal set, allowing Johnson’s own energy to create the time and place. Small wooden platforms transform from tree stump to safe house cellar doors to a boat on the river, to train tracks to the north. Johnson guides us by the North Star and the sounds and signals along the riverbanks to freedom. The use of haunting sound effects enhances the menace in the moment, further heightening the historical significance of Pappy’s story.

As Johnson sings the doleful spirituals of those times and interweaves the stories of survival and escape to the Promised Land of Canada, he paints a clear picture of those heroes and villains he deals with along the way. Speaking to the audience as if they were his new group of runaways, Johnson creates the suspense and urgency of the time and place in a very internal and organic way, making his audience feel very much the eminent dangers of the ghostly swamps, in the pitch black night.

Perhaps one of the most suspenseful moments was when Johnson transforms into the racist slave hunter and his dog. As the slave hunter reveals his reasons for hating runaway slaves so much—his favorite boyhood mammy was sold off because of her runaway son—the crescendo of his anger rises with the sound of the barking of his dog. This brilliant direction really enhanced the danger of that moment in the journey to freedom.

Johnson really draws in his audience as his partners on the Underground Trail. When Johnson illuminates on the hidden meanings of the railroad terms, he also sheds light on how significant the building of the railroads were to the emancipation of slaves. Sitting comfortably Indian style, Pappy decodes the meaning of the symbols of the quilts and reveals the ingenuity and sophistication of a people intend on gaining freedom. With the eerie sounds of the river flowing in sync with Johnson’s rich vocalization of the classic, “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” he elucidates on how each symbol will be signs along the way to guide his motley runaways to safety in Canaan, which Pappy declares is the name for Canada. On reaching the Promised Land of Freedom, Pappy leaves us with a sense of hope for the future, as long as we never forget those champions of the past.

In these tumultuous times, Johnson’s exploration of the past is very significant. It encourages us to be as brave and determined as people like Harriet Tubman and all the unsung heroes of that time. In order to change history, we must learn from it. Johnson, in his poignant characterization of Pappy, leaves us with the great message that the heroes of yesterday can inspire the heroes of tomorrow. As Alice Walker said, “Harriet Tubman was not our great-grandmother for nothing.”

Pappy on Da Underground Railroad's last performance was Feb. 27 at the Gene Frankel Theatre (24 Bond St. between Bowery and Lafayette St.) in Manhattan. For more information, visit

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