Ty Jones in Emancipation
(© Jill Jones)
Ty Jones in Emancipation
(© Jill Jones)
When dealing with a well-known historical incident -- in Nat Turner's case, an 1831 slave rebellion, leading to a massacre and eventual hanging -- a nonlinear presentation is a good way to go. We know how the story will end; what intrigues us is how this one man had the courage to take on an entrenched system of subjugation when he had to know that any such attempt was foredoomed. The Classical Theatre of Harlem's lean-and-mean production of Ty Jones' prismatic play, Emancipation, now at the historic Audubon Ballroom, brings Turner's riveting back story to visceral life.

The very fact that you have to pass a life-size statue of Malcolm X to enter the auditorium -- in which the former activist was assassinated in 1965 -- sets the context and tone. Amid the colorful murals of the Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center, designer Troy Hourie has assembled a simple, effective setting, including a waist-high platform encircled by footlights and two rows of seating.

Turner (played as a child by Michael Cummings and as an adult by Jones himself) showed such precocity that he was educated alongside his owner's own son. The idyll couldn't last, of course. Indeed, the very fact that Turner could trade Shakespeare quotes with a liberal-minded young Englishwoman (Gisela Chipe, striking just the right attitude of fascination) proved more liability than parlor trick. The ensuing opprobrium -- including outrage within his own family -- prompted Turner's first attempt at running off. The realization that "it is a fool who thinks he is free when his people are still in bondage" brought him back.

The flashbacks and cross-cuts -- demarcated by soulful spirituals employing bodily percussion -- make for a narrative that's not always easy to follow, but there's no escaping the essence. Historical accounts tend to ascribe Turner's radicalism to religious fervor, and we do see him engaging with a scriptural duel with his lawyer, Thomas Gray (Sean Patrick Reilly), and later preaching fervently to the four men who'll become his apostles.

Jones, however, presents Turner's viewpoint in such a way that the deep wrongness of the situation seems incontrovertible -- a question of common sense. Dramatized vignettes show how the whites rule via favoritism and envy, and how the subjugated families, absorbing the violence aimed at them, start to turn on themselves.

Under Christopher McElreon's intense direction, every actor is fully in the moment. Even Happy Anderson, charged with several egregiously cruel roles (not to mention the handle of a bullwhip) manages to avoid being a cliché. As the visionary-turned-mass murderer, Jones is at once incendiary and approachable. Sadly, Turner couldn't make sense of the world he was born into. As this play suggests, nearly 250 years later, his struggle is far from over.