It is said that history is written by the victors, and in the case of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in August 1831, a time of rising abolitionist sentiment, that is certainly true. Much of what is thought of as historical fact about Turner comes from a pamphlet published by a lawyer named Thomas R. Gray, entitled The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va. Gray was a slaveholder, and though he claims to be a reliable recorder of Turner’s account, his mercenary interests were on full display. He was appealing to white readers in antebellum Virginia, many of whom were panicked by the rebellion — recognizing their own vulnerability to a large slave population (as opposed to culpability for the horrors of slavery) — and the degree to which Gray exploited those fears and disregarded the facts can only be imagined.
Turner’s uprising was bloody, and so was the retribution. As many as 55 whites who were members of slaveholding families — including many women and young children — were brutally slaughtered. In the aftermath, it’s estimated that hundreds of Blacks — slaves and freemen, participants and sympathizers, and many innocents wrongly accused — were gruesomely executed, by courts and white vigilantes alike.
Turner may have been seen as a terrorist by Southern whites — and, in fact, inflicting terror was one of his explicit aims — but he is nonetheless a hero to many. How do we reconcile the slaughter of innocents in an otherwise moral fight?
Born into slavery in Virginia, Nat Turner was literate, an avid reader of the Bible, and he claimed to have been visited by God and directed by His manifest signs, such as a solar eclipse. He saw himself as a messianic vehicle of justice. William Styron’s 1967 fictional Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller, The Confessions of Nat Turner, projects on Turner a psychosexual obsession with white women, which reflects a white author’s prejudices. There has been much rebuking of Styron’s motives and art, and endless debate about Turner himself. A pulpy 2016 film, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, romanticizes Turner and his rebellion from the Black audience’s point of view.
Nathan Alan Davis’s Nat Turner in Jerusalem, a meditation on Turner’s spirituality and place in history, does a much better job of rebalancing our perspective. The play premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2016 and is now showing at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s outdoor Garden Stage through Sept. 5.
Davis, a person of color, presents two multidimensional white characters in the play: Thomas Gray and Turner’s working-class prison guard, both performed with creative distinction by Robert St. Laurence in WHAT’s elegant and haunting production. Mostly, however, Davis gives renewed focus to who Turner was, as a historical persona and a deeply committed soldier of God. New York-based actor Ricardy Fabre plays Turner with patience and intensity, imbuing him with profound sensitivity — as if he were aware of his own frailty, and not merely a breathy, Jesus-like demagogue.
The play takes place in Turner’s jail cell in Jerusalem, Va., during the day and night before his execution by hanging. He is visited by Gray, who is looking to enhance the “confession” he has already taken from Turner, and by the guard, who provides a refreshing contrast — an empathetic, if not sympathetic, interaction.
With Gray, however, the encounters are filled with white panic (in terms of how well shackled Turner is) and mutual manipulation, Turner looking forward to eternity in heaven and Gray to prosperity on Earth.
These dialogues are fascinating and moving. Rodney Witherspoon II, who played the lead in WHAT’s recent production of Shipwrecked!, directs with fluidity, grace, and power. The scenic and lighting design by WHAT’s producing artistic director, Christopher Ostrom, brilliantly conveys the grimness of a jail cell and the possibility of divine intervention on an outdoor stage at dusk — no small feat.
Most of all, the production is grounded in the solemnity of cataclysmic history and the enormity of its horror: slavery, like the Holocaust, can never be disregarded or set aside. Nat Turner in Jerusalem is a rich exploration of the human and spiritual dimensions of slavery’s legacy, which, along with the genocide of Native Americans, is a primal sin of our history.
The event: Nat Turner in Jerusalem, by Nathan Alan Davis
The time: Wednesday through Sunday, 7 p.m., through Sept. 5
The place: Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, 2357 Route 6
The cost: $35; students $15