As director of Forum Theatre’s production of “Nat Turner in Jerusalem,” Jose Carrasquillo hopes audiences leave the 90-minute show feeling conflicted. “That would be a great triumph if it happens,” he said. “I hope what people leave with is a deeper understanding of who Nat Turner was. Sadly, we live in a country where history is a lot of times whitewashed and revised.”
A slave on a Southampton County, Virginia plantation in the early 1800s, Turner was known for his intelligence as well as a passionate devotion to scripture, including claiming to receive visions sent by God. In February 1831, Turner interpreted an annular solar eclipse as a sign from God that he should lead a rebellion against slave owners. He interpreted a second eclipse, six months later, as his confirmation to carry out the vision he hoped would encourage fellow slaves to rise up and inspire fear in their owners. The slaves he recruited went house to house, freeing workers and killing everyone else on the properties.
By the time Turner and his conspirators were captured, 60 people were dead, women and children among them. Panic among whites swept through the area and attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray was tasked with speaking to Turner and getting a confession before he would be hanged on Nov. 11, 1831 in Jerusalem, Virginia. Gray turned their conversations into the book, “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” Some see the small book as a historical document; others dismiss it as a white man’s interpretation.
Playwright Nathan Alan Davis decided to revisit Turner’s last hours in jail before his execution, to create historical fiction from an African American point of view. The result is “Nat Turner in Jerusalem,” which Forum Theatre is staging through April 7 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre.
“It is fascinating to have this story told by an African American playwright with a very specific point of view that doesn’t excuse what Nat did, but leads us into some of the reasons why this happened,” Carrasquillo said. “They are powerful reasons. …If people are conflicted and need to talk about it, then I believe I will have served the play.”
The director was drawn to the poetry and language of “Jerusalem. “There is a spiritual side to this man that I could really relate to– not that I am a religious person. Over the last 15 or so years, I have had my spiritual journeys and (efforts) to determine how I fit into this piece of the universe, what my role is and how can I be a better person so…I needed to do this play.”
Carrasquillo cited “High Noon” as one of his favorite movies because of its specific structure of time, which is echoed in this play. “There is a tremendous opportunity to put the audience in that jail cell with Nat Turner and make them feel how that feels,” he said. “Not just Nat Turner specifically, but any person in prison that knows that the next morning they are going to be executed. What does that feel like?”
Taking on the role of Turner is Jon Hudson Odom, a Helen Hayes award nominee for Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center’s 2016 joint production of “Angels in America Parts 1 & 2′.” “I was kind of blown away by not only how articulate and intelligent Turner was, but just the power of his conviction of how much he believed that this was truly what God wanted him to do in order that this ‘final judgement day,’ as he calls it in the play, to ultimately see some justice,” Odom said. “It is a very complicated figure, guided by this spirituality that is hard to comprehend in order to perform this act that is, of course, viewed by many as a vicious act of villainy. For him, it was a religious spiritual reckoning.”
In the play, Odom must walk a fine line in portraying a man who carried out horrendous acts believing they would lead to revolution. During the first read-aloud, “the thing I was most struck by is this passage that he has a longing for the days when he was a young child standing in the rain not knowing what it was, thinking it was tears from heaven,” Odom recalled. “It was this really beautiful moment of vulnerability that happened in rehearsal unexpectedly. I realized behind every murderer or any criminal, there is always a human being that is a son, that is someone’s child, that is someone’s father, that is someone’s husband.
“It is really about finding the humanity of Nat Turner in this piece and latching on to his spiritual conviction. It’s an incredible piece in the sense that you go back and forth between feeling sympathy for him, and also disgust, at the same time.”
Stepping into the shoes of Gray (as well as the Jailer) is Joseph Carlson, who has taken on historical characters including Andrew Jackson and William Clark. “The past is never past,” he said. “We live with the legacy of our shared history and I think a lot of our conflict in any society is the conflict between what the history was and the story we tell about it. …In telling stories of the past, the idea is to illuminate the issues of our present and to show us that while we have the popular idea that we have made so much progress, which is unarguably true in some regard; it is false in others.”
Carlson believes artists can be activists for change. People may not be swayed by statistics and talking points, yet they might be when issues are presented dramatically through the power of storytelling. “I think the theater has this ability to attack problems in this creative and emotional and human way that creates more space in the heart of people that then leads to change of minds and attitudes perhaps, so I think that is my purpose as an artist,” he said.
The play is not a binary argument; it feels very complicated. “There is not a lot of action in the play in terms of plot,” Carlson said. “It is a very basic play, but what it is filled with is a lot of action between human beings, and there is so much tension and conflict. …It’s one of these projects where you think ‘I don’t know if I will ever be able to do something like this again and hopefully, it is going to have a major impact.’”
Forum Theatre presents “Nat Turner in Jerusalem” through April 7 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Shows start at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $33 to $38, pay-what-you-want tickets are available at the box office an hour before the show. Call 301-588-8279 or visit https://forum-theatre.org.