Spare in tools and presentation but abundant in rewards, Forum Theatre’s production of Nat Turner in Jerusalem is not “the play we need right now,” thank god. Its essence is too timeless for that.
Offer thanks, too, that there are funny jokes herein, because this one-act about the final hours in the life of the famous slave rebellion leader decidedly puts the “dark” in “dark night of the soul.” Dark, dark, dark. Atramentous is the word — black as ink — and that includes literally: William D’Eugenio breaks a lot of rules with his superb nocturnal lighting design. Indeed all of the designers and both of the cast (I told you it was spare) feel justifiably confident under the direction of José Carrasquillo.
Set in a prison cell and haunted by blood, the show offers itself as a punctuation mark to Nat Turner’s theses. Attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray has come to solicit 11th hour input on The Confessions of Nat Turner before his client heads to the gallows. Gray wants details on other slave uprisings, but he doesn’t get what he expects. We’re here to talk about eclipses and murdered children. We have heavy lifting to do, but the wounds will not heal today.
Nathan Alan Davis’s script is full of brains, heart, and spirit. The dialogue will stick with you for days, and the actors clearly know how lucky they are to have it.
Joe Carlson is so damn good at toggling between his two roles — namely, Turner’s jailor and his lawyer — that my theatre companion literally thought he was two separate actors until the curtain call. And Jon Hudson Odom throws everything and the kitchen sink at the title character: rage, hope, and religious fervor swirl into a heady brew in his voice and on his face. “Believe me,” Odom-as-Turner repeatedly pleads. Oh, we do. Together, these two men don’t perform the past so much as seem to relive it. I’ve seen both Odom and Carlson on D.C.-area stages before, but they found lots of ways to surprise me in Jerusalem’s full-to-the-brim 90 minutes.
Actually, that runtime is a blessing. Give this play, which runs until April 7, another hour and it would drown in its ponderousness.
And speaking of less is more: Tony Cisek’s barebones set isn’t “empty” — it’s a canvas. Cisek captures not just the look but the sound of 19th century doors and floorboards. Equally astute at filling Forum’s black-box needs are Sarah O’Halloran’s sound and Marie Schneggenburger’s costumes.
All of it is small but mighty — like Turner’s grisly rebellion, really, which led to few immediate changes but rippled out repercussions. Forum Theatre wants to start conversations. There’s a lot to talk about here.