If you want to see a play that forces you to think about how the past influences the present, Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection: Holding History, is a must-see. O’Hara, who wrote the play as his graduate thesis, explores themes of ancestry, race, and sexuality.
The play follows Ron (Nathan Steven Couser), a 25-year-old Columbia University doctoral history candidate who is finishing his thesis paper about Nat Turner’s rebellion. Accompanying the central character is his immobile, non-speaking 189-year-old great grandfather, T.J. (Dominic Gladden), who is a former slave. Ron is able to communicate with his grandfather through Mutha Wit (Anna Brown), who is an extension of T.J.’s psyche. Through Mutha Wit, we hear T.J. thoughts and his conversations with his great grandson. After celebrating his 189th birthday, T.J. tells his grandson to take him home.
What better way to get material for your looming thesis paper deadline than to travel with your grandfather to the slave plantation where he lived in Southampton, Virginia? Initially, the play reminds me of Octavia Butler’s Kindred (for those of you who haven’t read the novel, the protagonist is transplanted into slavery times). Although the play’s subject matter can be heavy and dark, especially the scene when the Black overseer (Kalid Bilal) forces both Izzie Mae (Terena McLorn) and Ron to strip in order to beat them, there are comical scenes. The musical dance break that the slaves perform when they discover the master’s dead body is hilarious.
“Yeah! Oh, he’s dead,” the slaves sing gleefully while an image of a cotton plantation is projected on the wall.
And you can’t have a play about slavery and not include the slave owner’s wife. S. Ann Johnson plays Mistress Mo’Tel superbly. There is Katie Lynn (Rachel Reckling), the house slave who cares for Mistress Mo’Tel’s baby, Wretched Jr. (and even that has a twist). Buck Naked (Dave Iden) is the lone White indentured servant who is treated no better than his Black counterparts.
Another aspect of the play is the role of religion. We see Nat Turner (Kalid Bilal), who claims he is a prophet and values the Bible; yet, he is able to justify brutally killing Whites. As Ron watches the brutality of the reality that surrounds him, he asks his grandfather does he believe in God. Fervently, the grandfather tells his grandson, “You are the proof. Slavery ends.”
As a viewer, the play challenges the notion that history is not connected to the present. O’Hara seems to suggest that life is a continuation of experiences that are rooted in the past. As T.J. puts it to Ron, “You wake up every morning breathing the air that Nat Turner fought for you to breathe and you sleep every night with no fear ’cause that crazy nigga shouted out at the moon asking his God for a way through this trouble.”
Insurrection also examines the quest for an individual to find his purpose. The question that Hammet (Kenyon Parson), Nat Turner’s right-hand man, asks Ron is a poignant one: “You ain’t got something you willing to die for?”
Insurrection runs through October 25th at the Annex Theater (219 Park Ave, Baltimore, MD). The play is directed by Kyle Jackson. Tickets are $15.00 (general admission) and $7.00 (students). Visit Annex Theater website for more information at http://www.baltimoreannextheater.org.