Insurrection: Holding History – Gone With the Wut
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
It’s no secret: Baltimore small theater has a race problem (and a gender problem, too, but okay, okay). That’s not anecdotal. Community member Brent Englar put together the numbers and there they are, white as day. So I was pleased to hear that Annex was planning to kick off their season with Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection: Holding History, directed by Kyle A. Jackson. Now, to be clear, Annex deserves no cookie for this and, to their credit, they don’t beg for one. I’m really tired of companies that can’t take a progressive step without falling all over the place to congratulate themselves. Insurrection is a bold choice, too, because O’Hara’s play takes time to come around to, but once you’re there, you’re there. It’s a slave play, but NOT A SLAVE PLAY. It’s tragic and campy, magical and terribly, terribly real, a reminder that time isn’t really a line. It’s more of a blend, a bleeding through. Ron (Nathan Steven Couser) a Ph.D. student on the edge of his thesis, which is based on Nat Turner’s famous slave rebellion, returns home to visit his great-great-grandfather, T.J (Dominic Gladden). T.J. is 185 years old, a former slave. Gramps, as you might imagine, doesn’t talk much, but there’s a sort of psychic link between Ron and his elderly relative, personified by Mutha Wit (Ama Brown). On the dark night of T.J.’s birthday, Ron suddenly finds himself directed down a country road and, after a tense standoff with a white policeman (Dave Iden) plunges into an unbelievable situation. He’s been transported 200 years back in time to the farm, picking cotton with T.J in the days just prior to the uprising. That’s the plot, but not really the story. The play is so layered and Jackson so good about holding all the elements to his clear-as-a-bell vision that you can’t pin it down so easily. Everything intersects, space, place, time, perspective, in a way that makes you question what’s really “authentic” about history in the first fucking place. The details are fantastic. The club music that overlaps seamlessly with spirituals (sound by Rjyan Kidwell), the Scarlett O’Hara dress covered in a graffiti-look print (costumes by Jordan Matthews), the cartoony clip art projected onto an oppressively white wall (projections by David Crandall, set by Andrea Crews). It’s all about the mashup, the bleed, the then is now. And that’s before you get to the performances, which are superb. One of the things I find most impressive is how Jackson is able to keep his eye on both the emotional arc of a chaotic showscape and each character’s personal crescendos. Couser approaches Ron with bravery and vulnerability. He conveys that very specific emotion when, despite the fact that you know all about the issues of intersectionalism and the effects of religion and culture and environment, it still really fucking hurts when your grandfather calls you a fag. He’s got several strong scenes, but I was blown away by his powerhouse showdown with Preacher Turner (Khalid Bilal). His frustration (he’s nearly crying), his anger, his pain. It’s all right there. Rachel Reckling, who plays both slave Katie Lynn and Octavia, Ron’s cousin, is amazing, she’s just amazing. She’s amazing. Watching her is drinking champagne, bubbly at first followed by a strong kick to the side of the head. Her Octavia is priceless, rolling her eyes, sassing her mother and then she swoops right down on Katie Lynn, screaming in pain as her baby is ripped from her arms. I loved her. S. Ann Johnson’s Gerthe is a force to be reckoned with, for sure, but it was her turn as Mistress Mo’Tel that dropped my jaw. A power play between the mistress and Overseer Jones (also Kalid Bilal) results in a piercing monologue that is so over-the-top, so beribboned belle, that it makes my blood rise just thinking about it. Terena McLorn is no less notable as Izzy Mae. She’s another one that can effortlessly switch-hit, going from a hair-raising scene where she’s forced to strip naked for a beating from the overseer to a hilarious false prayer for the ears of that same man. Bilal is intense in both of his roles. He hits a fabulous high on the soapbox, preaching to the slaves, yelling to God, trying to convince everyone that he’s not crazy. He’s also absolutely dead-eyed, fatal, as Overseer Jones (who, I have to add, has his name emblazoned on the back of his jacket in punk patch style). Gladden’s T.J. has years in his eyes, two hundred of them, with the weight of the past and the future on his skinny shoulders. He’s heartbreaking, human, wise, funny and smart. Kenyon Parson turns in an excellent Hammet, Turner’s protege (who might like boys himself), and has an easy way about him, a devil-may-care attitude that makes it especially effective when he starts slashing throats. Brown is warm and wonderful as Mutha Wit and Dave Iden, going from comical to ominous, plays (almost) alllll the white folks in the land.
BOTTOM LINE: After Insurrection: Holding History I better stop hearing so much party-armored, basement-dwelling, hundred-year-old whining from the small theaters in this town about how hard it is to find black actors and attract black audiences. Jackson keeps us slightly off the entire time, never lets it settle, never gets comfortable, never lets us completely in because, well, fuck us. The acting is immaculate and the tech is a study in re-enforcement of a theme. I can’t believe there are still tickets left. It’s a revolution.
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