- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Playwright Robert O’Hara is just nervy enough to find the fun, irreverent side of slavery — outlandish as that may seem. His 1996 play, “Insurrection: Holding History,” mixes camp and historical narrative to give us a reeling ride through the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion and contemporary issues of sexual and cultural identity.

Theater Alliance’s rambunctious production, equal parts impudent and intense, is under the incisive direction of Timothy Douglas and features uninhibited performances by a talented cast that would not be out of place in an opera house, albeit an opera house where Chuck Brown’s go-go music is played. The feverish approach works beautifully here, giving the piece a hallucinatory, Alice in Wonderland quality.

The “Alice” in this case is Ron Potter (Frank Britton), a black homosexual graduate student at Columbia University working on a thesis about Nat Turner.

Returning home for the birthday of his 189-year-old great-great-grandfather, TJ (Cedric Mays) — apparently, August Wilson’s Aunt Esther is not the only character who has been hanging on since the days of slavery — Ron instead is sucked back in time to a plantation in Southampton, Va., in the days before Turner’s insurrection.

TJ demands to be taken back to Virginia before he dies, and although he is confined to a wheelchair and immobile except for movement in one eye and toe, he communicates his wishes to Ron. The farther south they go, the more Ron races into the past, until he not only is picking cotton under the beady eye of Ova Seea Jones (KenYatta Rogers), but also is engaging in a caustic debate with Nat Turner himself (Mr. Rogers, in a dual role). In between, Ron kicks up his heels in riotous song-and-dance numbers, indulges in a time-traveling tryst with a soulful slave (Cleo House) and witnesses the cartoonish antics of the white folks on the plantation, especially the fan-waving Mistress Mo’tel (Aakhu Freeman), who is Scarlett O’Hara, Aunt Pittypat and Jezebel rolled into one.

As wild and raucous as “Insurrection” is, the distinct lack of focus and conflict makes you wonder why anybody’s along for the ride except for sheer entertainment. Ron Potter, obviously a stand-in for the playwright, jumps in and out of the action, and the stakes never seem high, nor do we feel he’s ever in any real danger.

This sense of investment is compromised further by two meandering subplots. One involves Ron exploring what it means to be homosexual — and, really, in the midst of a life-and-death situation like a bloody slave rebellion, who is self-indulgent and, well, nuts enough to stew over that? The other subplot has Ron’s aunt Mutha Gertha (Miss Freeman, in a dual role) and her daughter Octavia (Jessica Frances Dukes) searching for the missing TJ and finding themselves trapped in a bad remake of “North and South.”

“Did we watch ‘Roots’ or ‘Showboat’ last night?” Mutha Gertha asks, staring down at her flouncy Southern belle gown.

The cast’s vibrant energy goes a long way in overcoming the sprawling, out-of-control script, especially the high spirits of Miss Freeman, Miss Dukes and Maya Lynne Robinson (in the role of outspoken slave Izzy Mae, among others) as they switch wackily between modern times and plantation days. Mr. Mays is a deep, loving presence as the slave Hammett, and Mr. Rogers displays a scary fervor playing both the prophet Nat Turner and the sadistic white overseer.

Mr. O’Hara’s gutsy use of anachronisms, humor and hip-hop poetry puts you in mind of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, who revisits the pain inflicted by slavery in America time and time again in her highly sensory plays.

With “Insurrection: Holding History,” Mr. O’Hara employs a similar approach, but the language does not have the touchstone, incantatory characteristics of Miss Parks’ work, and profundity is sacrificed as a result.

WHAT: “Insurrection: Holding History” by Robert O’Hara

WHERE: Theater Alliance, H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through March 25.

TICKETS: $26

PHONE: 866/811-4111

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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