nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
April 12, 2008
Suppose that you were beaten and forced to work, all day and every day of your life. Suppose that your children not only had to endure the same fate, but also could be taken away from you—and sold—on your master's whim. Suppose one day you joined others who wanted out of this unbearable life, and together you killed your masters. And their children.
This is what I experienced when I watched Emancipation by Ty Jones, a play about the Nat Turner Revolt of 1831, the most significant slave rebellion in U.S. history. I was transported far beyond what was happening on the stage; I imagined what I would have done were I in a similar hell. We live in the post-9/11 world, where certain types of resistance are categorized as terrorism, and as I write this, Tibetan monks confront Chinese security forces in bloody clashes. All of this played in my mind, brought into eerily sharp focus by the stirring sights and sounds of this remarkable piece.
The show greets us with juxtaposed impressions: A black man and a black boy sit on the stage. The latter asks, seemingly to the audience, "Would you be afraid of me if I were bigger?" Slaves enter, their masters behind them with lassos on their shoulders, from four corners of the open stage. "I know I've been chained. You know that I know that I've been chained," they sing.
Then we meet Thomas Gray, a white lawyer who is somewhat sympathetic to the slaves' cause, and his wife, Bessie. Their neighbors have just been slain by a group of slaves led by Nat Turner, and Bessie is outraged and fearful. They debate whether certain things, such as educating the slaves, would have prevented the bloody rebellion. "If we educate them, we are murdering our own children!" cries Bessie.
The play then flashes back to tell of the education, or rather, self-education, of Nat Turner. A most unusual man who emerges from sheer misery, he is "divinely touched"—bright, inquisitive, and thirsty for knowledge from a very young age. He learns how to read and write, studies the Bible, and has a magnificent eloquence to employ all his faculties. "I read the same books (as the white men), walk the same roads (as the white men); I start to think like a white man." He becomes a voice of discontent and self-determination. He persuades his followers that the Lord has intended for them to take over their own lives, even if they have to take their masters' lives.
Thus the fateful moment comes, over 50 white people are killed overnight, often an entire household at a time, in their Virginia town. The rebellion is crushed in two days, and Nat, after two months of hiding, is arrested and sent to trial. He does not relent, nor does he attempt to justify himself to the court. Thomas Gray serves as Nat's lawyer and wishes to understand Nat's motivation. "The roots of your living are evil," Nat tells him, "That's why you need guns, shackles and all those funny laws....You will be the slave of your fear."
Staged by the Classical Theatre of Harlem at the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X delivered speeches and was eventually assassinated, Emancipation breathes history and rouses emotions. It is a pulsating homage to the brutal reality of enslaved life; it does not blink or flinch, although we in the audience might, experiencing sympathy and conflicted judgments. But however hard it was to take it all in at certain moments, I was engrossed until after the last word was spoken, thanks to Jones's passionate yet dignified retelling of the event.
I was also impressed by the wit and knowledge displayed by Jones's language. One of my favorite scenes involves Nat debating with a slave owner how the Bible is against the institution of slavery. The citing of passages back and forth on the obedience of man versus his dignity is fascinating. Another scene serves as the lightest moment of the play, where Nat meets a British ambassador's daughter, and they find a mutual love for Shakespeare. They converse entirely by quoting from the Bard's various plays, creating one of the best "date moments" on stage that I have ever seen, until, inevitably, it is shattered by harsh reality.
The direction by Christopher McElroen is innovative and fast-paced, never losing its grip on the audience. There is tremendous use of music, sound, voice, body language, and the stage itself. I continued to find new details I did not notice on the stage that had been set up from the start. But the layered and intricate designs of the presentation never overwhelm the story itself; the craft and theatrics serve the performance faithfully.
The acting, led by Jones as Nat, is excellent all around. Jones plays a self-assured Nat, with amazing verbal dexterity and physical presence. Sean Patrick Reilly as Gray gives a nuanced portrayal of a white man who must struggle with his own conscience and belief. The rest of the cast also deserves full recognition here for their performances: Jenny Bennett, Angela Polite, Happy Anderson, Jason Podplesky, Wayne Pyle, Stephen Conrad Moore, James Singletary, Jaymes Jorsling, Lelund Durond Thompson, Gisela Chipé, Michael E. Cummings, and Jack McKeane.
I would be terribly neglectful if I didn't mention the sensational set design by Troy Hourie and lighting design by Aaron Black. In a non-theatre space they have fashioned a stage that incorporates the seating for audience, with lights fixed around the edge of a platform where most of the action takes place. The Ballroom is not shielded from the lights and noises from the streets outside, but you notice once the show begins; this actually adds to the solemn reality, accentuated by the photographs of Malcolm X on the wall.
This play doesn't attempt to answer the complicated question of violence as a means to freedom as much as confront it with a hard clarity. Many arguments and reflections on this historical event have been thoughtfully laid out. I was happy to see that my companion was not the only young face in the crowd. I would have loved to sit in a talkback with them. This is a deeply affecting performance that you should not miss.