A barefoot black man in chains: That is the unsettling sight that greets the audience as Nathan Alan Davis’s “Nat Turner in Jerusalem’’ begins to unfold at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury.
The scene is doubly resonant because it was precisely the attempt to throw off the chains of slavery, for himself and other African-Americans, that landed Nat Turner (Brandon G. Green) in the jail cell where he sits slumped in a corner, his shirt bloody, his pants torn.
It’s a November night in 1831, and Turner, leader of the most famous slave uprising in American history, has just a few hours to live before he is hanged in Jerusalem, Va. Early in the taut Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of “Nat Turner in Jerusalem’’ that is directed by Benny Sato Ambush, Turner holds up his shackles and, speaking directly to them, says:“Tomorrow all of Virginia will come to the gallows to watch me die.’’
By grim coincidence, a drama that insists we confront our national legacy of racism opened on the very weekend that the state of Virginia provided yet another reminder of that legacy’s persistence. A national spotlight was trained on Virginia after it was revealed that a photograph on the medical school yearbook page of its governor, Ralph Northam, featured people in Ku Klux Klan robes and blackface.
In ASP’s “Nat Turner in Jerusalem,’’ spectators are seated on all four sides of Turner’s cell, perhaps inducing the audience to consider its own voyeurism (and historical complicity?). Bars of varying lengths protrude jaggedly from the wooden stage in Janie E. Howland’s set design. Lighting designer Aja M. Jackson ensures that a shadowy aura pervades the production throughout, which adds an extra jolt to the moment when the stage is finally flooded with light. Sound designer Dewey Dellay lends crucial aural texture with an ominous humming undercurrent that is punctuated by the steady drip-drip-drip of water.
In the Turner-led rebellion, he and around 70 other slaves killed more than 50 whites, including children, over the course of two days in August 1831, gathering arms as they went. After the uprising was put down, white militias killed more than 100 slaves and free blacks, and nearly 60 of Turner’s fellow rebels were eventually hanged. In the wake of the rebellion, new laws imposed even further restrictions on African-Americans. As for Turner, he managed to hide for two months before being captured. After being convicted at trial, he was hanged on Nov. 11, 1831.
Green, who excelled in Company One Theatre and ArtsEmerson’s production of “An Octoroon’’ and in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Scottsboro Boys,’’ delivers an intensely focused performance in “Nat Turner in Jerusalem.’’ Green speaks in the cadence of the lay preacher that Turner was as the prisoner engages in give-and-take with Thomas R. Gray (Lewis D. Wheeler), who is there to record (and later publish) “The Confessions of Nat Turner’’ while also confronting him. Turner is on intermittently more cordial terms with another white man he converses with in the last few hours of his life, a guard (also played by the ever-versatile Wheeler) whom Turner addresses as “friend.’’
Gray repeatedly presses Turner on whether his compatriots are planning further insurrection, but Turner seems already to have moved on to a different plane. He speaks in messianic terms of “holy vengeance,’’ framing his acts in the language of theology and spiritual absolutes (“God, not myself, was the author of all the deeds you’ve catalogued,’’ “The Judgment Day is at hand,’’ “I am the return of all the plagues of Egypt’’). While this depiction of Turner may be historically accurate, it results in a certain opacity in him as a character and dramatic inertness in parts of “Nat Turner in Jerusalem.’’
The play is at its most compelling, and we get a firmer grasp of Turner’s motivations, when Turner speaks not as a prophet but as a man who has experienced, and has seen countless others experience, the barbarity of slavery, and he challenges Gray directly on the latter’s conceptions of justice and morality. After Gray calls the murders committed during Turner’s rebellion “unconscionable,’’ Turner replies: “Why do you think it can never happen to you? . . . Do you not know how many children are being crushed beneath the foot of this nation? Stolen from their mothers, driven from their homes, hunted as for sport? . . . You are savages. Your deeds are the deeds of savages.”
NAT TURNER IN JERUSALEM
Play by Nathan Alan Davis. Directed by Benny Sato Ambush. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Hibernian Hall, Roxbury, through Feb. 24. Tickets $25-$60, 866-811-4111, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin