Playwright: Robert O'Hara. At: Athenaeum Theatre, Studio Two, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Tickets: AthenaeumTheatre.org; $22-32. Runs through: Feb. 11
Insurrection: Holding History conspicuously breaks theatrical conventions, mixing comedy, drama, history, time travel and the supernatural in ways no-one but playwright Robert O'Hara could conceive.
There are comedic moments splashed around subjects where society demands sober drama, characters breaking the forth wall and then diving back into the stage action, words uttered that other writers would consider taboo, a great-grandfather too old for scientific possibility, Black actors playing white slave owners, a present-day gay African-American man kissing a male slave from the past, shouting, singing, dancing, abuse, violence, murder … even nudity. Yet strangely, through all this play's shock value, it works.
The story centers around Ron, a gay African-American graduate student, daringly played by Breon Arzell, who is writing a thesis about the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831. Through the help of his very old great-grandfather TJ, lovingly portrayed by Ian Martin, Ron is transported back to his ancestors' day in Southampton County, Virginia. Once there, Ron witnesses the struggles of his ancestors first-hand, even confronting the cruel slave overseer, Ova Sea Jones, and meeting Nat Turner himself, both commandingly portrayed by Christopher W. Jones. It is an experience that forever changes Ron's way of looking at history.
Stage Left Theatre, director Wardell Julius Clark, the designers and the brilliantly talented cast are to be commended for a staging of Insurrection: Holding History that succeeds on so many levels. While all in the ensemble deserve mention, standouts include actresses Sydney Charles and Anna Dauzvardis. Beginning the play as Ron's feisty Aunt Gertha and her obstinate daughter, Katie Lynn, the pair morph seamlessly back and forth from the present to 1831 Southampton County to play the fiery slave master's wife, Mistress Mo'tel, and house slave, Octavia. The juxtaposition allows for thoughtful comparisons between the pairs of headstrong women. Also noteworthy is actor Sam Boeck, as Buck Naked. As a white actor portraying the enslaved, Boeck's adept characterization gave the audience even more food for thought.
This play makes many fascinating points. One that stands out is that if you could go back in time to warn Nat Turner and his followers to abandon their failed rebellion, they would still fight. You still couldn't change history. For the will of an oppressed people, once decided upon freedom, is a will too strong to break. In a unique and beautiful way, playwright Robert O'Hara and Stage Left Theatre's fantastic team pay humble tribute to the enslaved men and women who bravely struggled to make the lives of the generations to follow better.