The eerie effect of Forum Theatre’s design for “Nat Turner in Jerusalem” makes you feel as if you’ve physically tunneled into history. The audience sits on two sides of a jail cell that hovers in the dark, and where ceiling or theater lights should be it’s pitch black. A dim sunset angles in through barred windows; it’s the slave rebel’s last night before being hanged, a night of spiritual reckoning for a country rent by race.
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks talks about a wormhole that keeps us tethered to unresolved history — the past isn’t even really past, as William Faulkner put it. Nathan Alan Davis’s 90-minute, two-man play argues in black and white, with Turner being asked how he could lead such a grisly rebellion killing innocent white people and Turner basically replying, Are you joking?
The play is predictable that way; you never expect Turner to lose the moral high ground, and he doesn’t. The evangelical Turner has to answer for his claim that he is an arm of God, but his crime, holy act or not, of course is dwarfed by the scale of slavery. To watch “Nat Turner” is to be conscripted into a resistance spirit.
The triumph of José Carrasquillo’s production is atmospheric: William D’Eugenio’s lights slice across Tony Cisek’s set just so, and the chains draped around Jon Hudson Odom’s legs and shoulders clank heavily as he conducts himself like Jesus at the Last Supper. (Jerusalem is the name of the Virginia town where Turner was jailed, and Davis exploits this detail to the max.) Odom radiates a menacing edge and inner peace that makes this Turner tantalizing to his white visitors.
Turner’s literary chronicler, Thomas Gray, and the simple jailer are both played by Joe Carlson, who seems like two distinct people despite barely adjusting his costume. The jailer brings Turner bread baked by his wife, and they bond a bit. But the jailer also is horrified by Turner’s unrepentant allegiance to violence, and he struggles to reconcile Turner’s seeming kindness and blatant rage.
Gray’s inquiry is more sophisticated — intellectual, religious (he’s a nonbeliever) and practical, because for the chronicle, and as a lawyer helping authorities who are hunting more rebels, Gray wants the last details he can get. Turner, who has ready answers for every question, wants to get under both men’s skin and inside their heads.
The chess match, written in slightly formal dialogue that smacks of the pages of history and Scripture, is cagily played by Odom and Carlson. Forum is one of the most exacting small troupes in town, and this is a superior production. It opened the day a similar show closed at Theater Alliance across town, Idris Goodwin’s 75-minute John Brown-Frederick Douglass drama “The Raid,” suggesting that traffic through that 19th-to-21st-century wormhole won’t be slowing down soon.
Nat Turner in Jerusalem, by Nathan Alan Davis. Directed by José Carrasquillo. Costumes, Marie Schneggenburger; sound design, Sarah O’Halloran. Through April 7 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. $33-$38. Visit forum-theatre.org.