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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Insurrection: Holding History
The reality of slavery in this country is so incredible and has left so indelible a mark on our history, that there's probably no way to re-imagine the slavery driven plantation life in a realistic, linear fashion. The suspension of humane instincts on the part of the slave owners and the ability to survive the indignity and cruelty of enslavement that made it possible in a country borne as a haven for free men is so bizarre, that it's understandable why Robert O'Hara chose to structure Insurrection: Holding History as a time-traveling, often vaudevillian, fantasia.
O'Hara was just twenty-four when he wrote and directed the play as part of his master's thesis in directing MFA from Columbia University School of the Arts. In 1996 the Papp Public Theater's artistic director, George C. Wolfe, gave O'Hara a chance to present Insurrection Holding History to a larger audience, again under his own direction. In that production, which had a very brief run (see link to review below), the fantastical often tongue-in-cheek minstrel show elements somehow came off less as satire than cartoon. The time travel of Ron, the playwright's stand-in, a Columbia graduate student doing an oral history dissertation, and T.J. his 189-year-old great grandfather was not a complete success either. Incidentally, that's not a typo-- grandpa T.J. last hundred birthdays have brought the press to the phenomenon of the former slave who is comatose except for a still moving left eye and middle toe of his right foot.
While Mr. O'Hara is on hand to collaborate on the choreography for the current Berkshire Theatre Festival's production of his play (his comi-tragedy often looks, feels and sounds like a musical), he has left the staging to Timothy Douglas. Under Douglas' smart direction and with a cast that seems to have coalesced into a loving, vitally connected family ensemble, Insurrection now adds up to an eminently watchable and more satisfying evening of theater.
O'Hara's play while making a powerful case not to forget our forbears' effect on our present lives remains too much of a polemic. The injection of the love relationship between Ron (Wayne Scott) and Hammet (Sekou Campbell), a young slave for whom words like gay and homosexual don't exist but who knows that he likes boys, is quite touching but, now as then, seems f a detour from the major "holding history" theme. This would be true even if it involved a man and woman. These shortcomings notwithstanding, this is a dynamic, production owing much to the young actors who mine what's best in O'Hara's script, and play the surreal humor with a satrical edge, deflecting the danger of resembling a TV comedu skit.
It's almost unfair to single out any one of the ten actors who play some dozen and a half parts since this Insurrection's strength comes from the connectedness of the cast. Still, there's Richard Johnson's remarkable T.J. He sits mute and unmoving in his wheelchair even as we enter the intimate Unicorn Theater and has us wondering how long he can maintain that incredible immobility.
There's also Tymberlee Chanel's rich portrait of Mutha Wit, the spirit who channels communication between the long-ago slave and the free-to-be-anything Ron, and who, like T.J., Ron, his aunt Gertha (Nedrah Banks) and her daughter Clerkson (Dana Wilson) become active participants in the replay of the events to which T.J. wants Ron to bear witness.
Mutha Wit's moving opening spiritual serves as a perfect bridge for the first of several engagingly choreographed and zesty rap numbers. In one of the most inspired of these musical scenes, the cotton pickers throw bits of cotton all over the stage and into the audience.
Jake Goodman, as the only white cast member, deftly slips in and out of a half a dozen roles. Nedrah Banks is priceless in her two parts, but especially so as O'Hara's version of Margaret Mitchell's Scarlett O'Hara -- her Mistress Mo"tel at one point actually quotes Scalett's famous "As God is my witness. . . "
The double casting slily has the same actor, Shane Taylor, play the visionary Nat Turner, and the oppressive Simon Legree style boss of the cotton pickers, Ova Seea Jones. Dressed in lemon yellow jodphurs and top hat of a circus ring master, he inflicts punishment with a metaphoric whip -- a flashlight that beams streaks of electrifying pain across his helpless slave victims' backs. Taylor displays great presence and voice power in both roles.
Tony Cisek's fenced and mesh wire backdrop serves the play's action admirably. Yoshinori Tanokura's costumes, especially the over-the-top creations for Mistress Mo'tel and Ova SeeaJones, are colorful and witty.
Shortly after I first saw Insurrection in 1996 , two plays covering similar historic territory enjoyed Off-Broadway runs: Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly was a newly envisioned take on the once popular melodrama adapted from Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. Stonewall Jackson's House was a slavery era play within a modern play. While Mr. O'Hara's take is the most passionately personal, the absurdist leanings of all these plays reinforces the fact that this is the unimaginable reality of slavery in America is so tragic that it can only be dramatized by making it comic. And so, Insurrection reels you in with laughs and high energy music so that you will respond with Ron to T.J.'s eloquent plea for him to go back to " LIVE" the dream for which Nat Turner and his rag tag army of slaves died.
LINKS TO PLAYS MENTIONED
Insurrection at the Public Theater
Stonewall Jackson's House
Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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