Nathan Alan Davis had no intention of writing a play when curiosity led him to read “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 2015. This was not the 1967 novel by William Styron, but rather the 1831 jailhouse confession taken down by Thomas Gray from Turner himself as he awaited the gallows after leading the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. Davis, the 38-year-old playwright of “Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea,” expected a political justification for that bloody, failed effort.
Instead he found a religious testimony: black angels and white demons wrestling in a darkened sky, Egyptian hieroglyphics inscribed on leaves, and the voice of the Holy Ghost telling Turner he had been chosen for a special mission.
When Davis learned that the jailhouse was in Jerusalem, Va. (since renamed Courtland), he couldn’t resist the poetic possibilities. He took advantage of a fellowship from the New York Theatre Workshop to write “Nat Turner in Jerusalem,” which the workshop staged in the fall of 2016. Now the show is getting its second production at Forum Theatre in Silver Spring.
“I was expecting something along the lines of Nat Turner saying, ‘I didn’t want to be a slave, so I rebelled,’ ” Davis says. “But what’s actually in the pamphlet is very prophetic, claiming that God wanted him to carry out this rebellion. That this all takes place in Jerusalem seemed almost too perfect, but it was the truth.”
The entire play takes place in Turner’s cell on the night of Nov. 10, 1831. In the morning, he will be hanged in the courthouse square. Turner (Jon Hudson Odom) receives two visitors: Gray, who has already sent “The Confessions” to the copyright office but who is back with more questions; and an unnamed jailer, who banters with Turner while adjusting his shackles. Both white men are played by Joseph Carlson.
The white guard is horrified by the violence, but he finds Turner a likable, charismatic personality, a description supported by the historical record, Davis says. Pulled in one direction and then the other, the jailer becomes a surrogate for the audience.
“I was wondering who else might be in Nat’s cell besides Gray, and I thought, ‘Of course, the guard,’ ” Davis says. “He comes from a different class of society than Thomas, so the guard relates to Nat in a different way. By having one actor embody these two white men, you’re seeing that it’s not their personalities that determine how they respond to Nat, but rather their social roles and status.”
Coming on the heels of the 2016 movie about Turner, “The Birth of a Nation,” and numerous references to him in hip-hop songs, interest in his story seems greater than ever.
“Some historians maintain that Nat’s rebellion radicalized politics at both extremes,” says Davis, one of 25 playwrights commissioned to write a work for Arena Stage’s “Power Plays” series examining each decade of American history. “The slave states became more restrictive and more repressive, and the abolitionists became more outspoken. That helped lead to the Civil War. So there’s always room for another look at him.”
Forum Theatre at the Silver Spring Black Box, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. 301-588-8279. forum-theatre.org.
Dates: Through April 7.