By Robert O’Hara
Produced by Theater Alliance
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Our interview with Director Timothy Douglas is here
Maya Lynne Robinson (Center) and the cast of Insurrection: Holding History (Photo: Colin Hovde)
What do you get when you fill a cauldron with the satire of a George C. Wolfe’s Colored Museum, add references to the Oz wicked witch, toss in some Parliament Funkadelic, spice with splashy musical numbers, beat in horrific moments of slave history, sprinkle with tenderness, and stir until done? If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection: Holding History, an unrelenting bitches brew now simmering at Theater Alliance at the H Street Playhouse.
Here’s the synopsis- it doesn’t do the play justice because it’s a performance piece, but here it is: “TJ is 189 years old and ready to go. But before he passes on, he convinces his great-great grandson (Ron) to take him back to Virginia one last time. The further they drive, the further back in time they go landing them in the middle of Nat Turner’s slave-led revolution. Ideas about slavery, homosexuality and the value of family converge in this time-bending comic fantasia.”
That’s the storyline, but Insurrection is presented in parallel even multiple realities. Like science fiction, it fractures the time and space continuum into kaleidoscopic pieces, so that even the characters zooming through the scenes get whiplash. Congregating slaves ponder “we covered that after the last musical number,“ and my favorite—“Mama, look at what you wearing!” when a 21st Century mother and daughter realize they are dressed in apparel from the antebellum south.
The script cuts through racial myths and stereotypes with laser sharp, in yo’face intensity and hellified language. A lot of it is uncomfortable, but in a good way. Stellar director Timothy Douglas described the humor as invoking laughter to keep from crying, and he should know – he has been involved with the script from its beginning, has encouraged O’Hara’s brilliant and ambitious ideas, and is the work’s premiere director of choice even internationally.
Performing the play must be a leap of faith. Satirizing the horrors of slavery is not for the thin skinned or faint hearted. And sitting in the audience is not a spectator sport. Insurrection will invoke reactions – horror, embarrassment, howls of laughter, tears. When Nat Turner whips up the slaves into a frenetic frenzy, he includes the audience as part of the crowd, peering into our faces demanding to know if we are ready to take up the cause—it’s quite thrilling and chilling. At the end of the first Act, I was at least able to move and talk, unlike my utter stunned silence when it was over. There’s just so damn much to deal with. O’Hara doesn’t make it easy. On the trip back “home” to Southampton, Virginia, to the time of the Insurrection, TJ admonishes Ron that this is not a Hollywood, sanitized version of slavery where all the problems are solved by the end of the scene. Through all the silliness and desperate frivolity, we know what’s coming. We know the turn of events. The script stands like that lone protestor in front of the moving tanks in Tiananmen Square—when the tank veered to one side or the other, the protestor stepped out in front of it. Insurrection is like that—holding hundreds of years of history in front of massive tanks of denial, daring to be seen and heard, and willing to pay the price, no matter what the cost.
The play is perfectly cast with actors giving full throttle performances holding nothing back. First and foremost is KenYatta Rogers as “The Prophet” Nat Turner. In addition to the usual arsenal of focused intensity that he routinely brings to his roles, Rogers infuses Nat Turner with a fierce physicality and fiery zealot’s command, along with flashes of wonder about his favored status with God mixed with fleeting moments of doubt when his shortcomings are thrown in his face. Rogers is one of the best “thinking” actors in town. His Nat Turner is a layered portrayal of a character who was both vilified as the devil and revered as a savior with the lives of hundreds at stake waiting for his signal. Fresh off portraying Youngblood in August Wilson’s Jitney at Fords, Rogers channels both the frightening charisma and warrior spirit of Nat Turner, plotting the revolt with the assuredness of being God’s right hand man. It’s an electrifying performance that shouldn’t be missed.
Other highlights include Aakhu Freeman’s gorgeously pitched contralto voice sing-songing her poetic lines, MaConnia Chesser who is the rock solid anchor as Mutha Wit, Maya Lynne Robinson’s shimmering hilarity as Izzy Mae, Cedric Mays who goes from breathtaking stillness to youthful animation as TJ, the bodacious Jessica Francis Dukes also fresh off the boards in Jitney, and Jeremy Brown who transforms with chameleon-like skill to his assorted roles. Frank Britton is an interesting casting choice for Ron since he lacks the emotional range and intensity expected for the magnitude of this journey, but he compensates with a consistent and steady commitment to the role. For production design, Dan Covey’s brilliant lighting enhances the story, while the quake-inducing sound effects transition between the multiple realities with unnerving results. Kudos to Vincent Olivieri.
The production notes that “Robert O’Hara employs a language of wicked wit, of deliberate ad immensely provocative outrageousness to speak to a vast, bloody and unapproachable outrage. Through comedy, poetry, and pure guts, he teaches us … how to be truly awake and aware.” O’Hare’s script captures the exhilaration of dreaming about freedom. “What would you do if you was free?” Cleo House as Hammet asks Ron. “If I was free, I’d jump so high I’d touch the sky.” TJ explains why he can only see out of his left eye and move a right toe as vestiges from the terrorism of slavery, the impact from which we are all still reeling—we don’t talk about it, but it’s real. The gospel group Mary, Mary sings “Take the shackles off my feet so I can dance.” Insurrection takes a provocative look at a particular slave uprising, turns it upside down and inside out, spins it around, and serves it up.
Be daring, take the shackles off your feet – see, jump, and dance.
Insurrection: Holding History produced by Theater Alliance at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street, N.E., in Washington runs through March 25, Thursday – Saturday at 8, matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2. Ticket: $26 general admission. For further information visit their website or call: 866-811-4111