Bare stage, complex themes

Ethan Uslabar, Editor - Arts and Entertainment

“Nat Turner in Jerusalem” is a play where each character is highly flawed, leaving the audience struggling to take a side. It features spectacular performances by Byran Carter, Parker Sweeney and Garret Johnson.

The play is based on a slave uprising in which Nat Turner, a slave, is caught after murdering several men, women and children and is sentenced to death. The audience is introduced to a scene in a jail cell, watching the interactions between Nat Turner (Carter), his lawyer, Thomas Gray (Sweeney) and the jailor (Johnson). The audience is thrown immediately into Nat’s psyche and is put in a very dark moment with him.

The audience is introduced to Nat Turner after he’s gone to extreme degrees to get what he wants, and throughout the play we see him, and the people he interacts with, dealing with the consequences.

“You want to be in touch with the core of who you are, your deepest vulnerabilities,” Carter said. “At the end of the day, when all this bullshit—the clothes, makeup, lights, camera, action, all that—at the end of the day, who are you, and what is it that you want in life? This is a show where we’re meeting me—as Nat—at the end of my life, and so it’s all about what he wants, and how far he’s willing to go to get it, and what happens if he doesn’t get it.”

With a cast of only three, the play is very intimate, both for the actors and the audience as the small wooden set comes off the stage into the first rows of seating. The barebones set isn’t reductive, however; the play is set in 1831, when a jail cell would have been little more than a small room.

“The set is small and I love that,” Carter said. “I’m closer to the audience which is fun because I get to feed off that energy a bit.”

“It can be a challenge because a lot of the times people will try to have these big, extravagant sets to look at, but with this it’s all on you, the actor,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing but your body and your voice to fill that space.”

“There’s not a lot of physicality written into the play,” Sweeney said, “We kind of just have to move around the space and find the movement in the lines of the script. It’s like a treasure hunt.”

This makes for an excellent performance, however. Carter, Sweeney, and Johnson fill the small stage and the viewer is simply sucked into the set, as if they were a fly on the wall as the actors argue with one another. Long sections of dialogue lead to high-intensity explosions with Thomas Gray’s patience boiling over.

“We see these wars, these pinches, these ouches; these stabs, these jabs; we get to see a lot of interaction between them, and they’re very complicated relationships,” Carter said. “This show isn’t at all straightforward. We see that you find out the most about a person not when you give them what they want, but when you don’t give them what they want, and that’s what we get to see through the relationship between Thomas Gray [Sweeney] and Nat Turner, and Nat Turner and the guard [Johnson].”

The viewer is slowly conflicted by the deep flaws and redeeming qualities of each character as they learn more intimate details about Thomas Gray and the jailor’s personal lives through Nat Turner’s interactions with them. The interactions between the cast on stage are rough, and the theater’s air is taut with tension. Encompassing race, religion, family and justice in general, the themes the play touches on are very delicate subjects.

“What was really a struggle for me was the attitude of the time,” Johnson said. “Just really talking down to another person and not thinking of somebody as being equal to you is something that I still have trouble with. It’s really hard to get into that character when it goes against everything you believe. It’s really changed my perspective on how people can change.”

“Today, the idea of slavery is so obscene to us that to think in that mindset is difficult because our whole lives we’ve seen and learned how slavery was so awful,” Sweeney said. “Saying the things you have to say because of the script is really difficult.”

“I’ve known Parker and Garret for as long as I’ve been in the program. It’s kind of hard, because on stage we’re going head to head with each other and it’s very intense,” Carter said. “But when we walk off the stage it’s all behind us, and our real relationships, and having worked together so long really helps with that.”
Much of the play features Nat Turner wrestling with his faith in the face of his execution.

“There’s such a huge theme of faith within the show, so I know people are going to walk away with questions,” Carter said. “I think we see a bit of the resolution of Job in Nat. Even when he’s settled with his fate, he’s still willing to rely on his faith to know that whatever’s next is next. We get to see the man wrestle with that, but we also get to see the spirit rise within him, and I think that shows in the performance.”

With his father being a preacher, Carter was raised to know scripture well. This knowledge has helped him prepare for the play and understand the more esoteric biblical allusions throughout the work.

“Before I dove into Nat Turner, I knew I needed to dive into his faith,” Carter said. “Understanding the text, and the timing, and how different denominations play into this story has been crucial for me.”

The play is a story of flawed characters who all want desperately to be right or to have an end that justifies their means, but in the end, nobody is let off the hook.

“You realize there’s two sides to the coin, that there’s a reason for what Nat did, a reason for what Thomas did, to what the jailor does,” Sweeney said. “Everybody’s just trying to dig themselves out of their grave.”