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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Nat Turner in Jerusalem’ delivers power at UW-Oshkosh

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre

Play image.



You can tell when a play is working.

The audience gets quiet. Real quiet.

Such it was Sunday afternoon, and such it likely will be this week in an unusual situation for a collegiate play in this region.

The play itself is a rarity for this area. “Nat Turner in Jerusalem” explores the aftermath of a slave rebellion in 1831 in the American South.

Nat Turner was the slave who instigated deadly attacks on slave owners and their families. That in turn brought retribution. It’s in history books.

The play imagines the shackled Nat Turner in his cell the night before he is to die by hanging.

This is compelling material offered by University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre with two casts.

One cast gave the first four performances in Fredric March Theatre on the Oshkosh campus. The final three performances will be presented by another cast in Prairie Theatre on the Fond du Lac campus, with the set being moved. The situation is part of the result of the merger of UW System two and four-year campuses. All of the actors are students on the Oshkosh campus.

The play by Nathan Alan Davis, who visited the Oshkosh campus for talkbacks last week, has a you-are-there feel. Situations are fleshed out from Nat Turner’s confession recorded by attorney Thomas Gray, though very little can bear the stamp of “100 Percent Fact.”

As theater, the play offers a window on Nat Turner’s mind and how he explained himself to an attorney motivated by money to tell Nat Turner’s story as he saw fit.

Complexities start with the use of “Jerusalem” in the title. The implication is of the biblical place. Much about the Bible and matters of faith are part of the play, in part because Nat Turner was a preacher. Nat Turner tells of following the word of God in his acts. “Jerusalem” also is another place, a town in Virginia where Nat Turner will be hanged. Such dualities of meanings fill “Nat Turner in Jerusalem.”

There is much for an audience to sort out. Thus, the silence of Sunday afternoon’s presentation, which was high-level collegiate performance.

I’ll skip to the talkback with actors Bryan Carter (Nat Turner), Parker Sweeney (Thomas Gray) and Garret Johnson (Guard) and their director, Merlaine Angwall of the theater faculty. Bryan Carter arrived wiping tears. When asked later, “Where were you?” in that moment, he said he was grateful for the opportunity to take on the role, to share it with the campus and community and audiences, to team with fellow cast members and to work with their director, who allowed “mystery” to be explored. Bryan Carter said he started work on the role in May. In leaving the role Sunday afternoon, he seemed to have, as is said in sports, left it all on the court.

The play gets to the crux that Nat Turner was impassioned. To cause the deaths of approximately 60 men, women and children by ax, sword and gun takes passions of an elevated level. The character of Nat Turner explodes at various times in the heat of his rationale as he interacts with Thomas Gray and the Guard – excellently and thoughtfully portrayed by Parker Sweeney and Garret Johnson, respectively.

Thomas Gray seems to be in control of the situation – playing the white vs. black card of the time – but Nat Turner has a way of getting into his head. Thomas Gray complains of Nat Turner continuously speaking in metaphors (brain turners) and eventually has to go toe-to-toe as his nonbelief meets Nat Turner’s consuming faith. The arguments are heady, to say the least.

The Guard also gets caught in Nat Turner’s penetrating way with words. The faith of the Guard, his sensitivities about children and his single act of kindness balloon to be matters of import between the two. This is a powerhouse request of Nat Turner to the Guard devised by playwright Nathan Alan Davis: Please attend my execution so I can look out and see the eyes of at least one friend.

For “Nat Turner in Jerusalem,” the set is extended from the expansive stage into the first rows of the theater. A corner of the jailhouse is pointed into the house to bring the action – and power of the play – closer to the audience, silenced.


Creative: Playwright – Nathan Alan Davis; director – Merlaine Angwall; costume designer – Kathleen Donnelly; lighting design, technical director – Mark Spitzer; scenic design – Tom Burgess, alumnus guest designer; sound design – Nathaniel Wolkoff; production dramaturg – Abby Turner; production stage manager – Briana Gens

Cast (Oshkosh):

Nat Turner – Bryan Carter

Thomas Gray – Parker Sweeney

Guard – Garret Johnson

Cast (Fond du Lac):

Nat Turner – Isaac Davis

Thomas Gray – Matthew Beecher

Guard – Vinnie Noel Albin, Jr.

Running time: 65 minutes (no intermission)

Remaining performances: At Prairie Theatre, UW-Oshkosh, Fond du Lac Campus, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10-12



RELATED EVENTS: A talkback with the director and actors follows each performance.

NEXT: “The Comedy of Errors” by William Shakespeare, Nov. 21-24.

THE VENUE: The 498-seat Fredric March Theatre includes a traditional proscenium (flat front stage) that’s 40 feet wide by 16 feet high. Built in 1971, the theater is located in the heart of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus. The exterior features a 1970s era UW campus architectural style that embraces cement, in this case the cement reminiscent of geometric trees supporting a flat roof on the glass-enclosed entry and lobby. The interior features honeycombed red-brick walls and a slightly arcing seating area with no center aisle, with a general impression of closeness to the stage, which is especially wide. Leg room is abundant. The acoustics are crisp for the spoken voice in plays.

THE PERSON: Fredric March was a famous actor who was born in 1897 in Racine. March had no direct connection with UW-Oshkosh prior to the naming of the theater. He earned the honor due to the respect for his level of performance on Broadway and film – and being from Wisconsin. March and his wife attended the grand opening. March earned best actor Oscars for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” He earned three Oscar nominations.

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