A Romp Through Old Virginny

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 8, 2007

Robert O'Hara's "Insurrection: Holding History" is an impossible play -- a messy, sarcastic time-bender in which a contemporary gay black man named Ron gets zipped through history into Nat Turner's famous bloody rebellion.

It's a lot for an audience to embrace, especially when the show -- acted with winning abandon in Timothy Douglas's production for the Alliance Theatre -- begins with a hilariously crude modern dance party and then takes its irreverent self deep into the heart of 1830s slave country. "Will and Grace"-style jokes in Simon Legree's South? O'Hara does it, even as he dares viewers to say (with inanity that matches the action onstage): "Oh, no he didn't!"

"Insurrection" is a true dialectical smashup, with two vastly different eras and attitudes colliding but never quite producing synthesis. The bridge is a 189-year-old man named TJ, Ron's great-great-grandfather (Cedric Mays, in a surprisingly thankless role). Seems TJ's been hanging around a couple of centuries just to teach Ron (the suitably cool Frank Britton) a lesson in history, so somehow landing in old Virginia exactly as Dorothy landed in Oz, Ron gets a firsthand look at the degradations and "whuppins" that were the order of the day.

His native sass doesn't do him much good; this buppie wannabe is not in (insert someplace more progressive than Kansas) anymore. Yet O'Hara, who wrote this play as a grad student roughly a decade ago, can't drop the tone.

And so "Insurrection" excels at imparting lessons in camp. Movies and pop songs are relentlessly invoked, with the evening's biggest laugh coming when, in one of the many music-driven scenes, the opening of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" fills the H Street Playhouse.

There is a "Back to the Future" plot: Will Ron use his knowledge of history to help Turner's rebellion come out better? And there is a point, even though it's none too fine.

But the play is unleashed id, and O'Hara indulges in anachronism and corrosive comedy until you wonder whether he even knows where he wants to draw the line. It certainly isn't at Turner, played with impressive evangelical zeal by KenYatta Rogers. The actor evokes an elephantine charisma, staying with Turner's bizarre pop-eyed proclamations to the point of leading a fervent hokeypokey. It's very funny.

The cast, in fact, is consistently bright even in a production that's often drab (with a dimly lit set of fences). The actors never hold back, realizing that recklessness is part of the evening's theme and making the most of it. Casually crossing through epochs holding a telephone or wearing manacles is nothing, as long as it comes with a self-aware joke. That this kind of humor lands more effectively than the potentially wrenching motif about childbearing across the generations is part of the drama's problem.

When O'Hara finally does draw the line, it's with rote sanctimony and a bit of in-your-face gore (puppet gore, but really effective) -- a case of having his cake and eating it, too. You sense he'd like to shame his generation, but his play's too shamefully entertaining for it to really sting.

Insurrection: Holding History, by Robert O'Hara. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Costume design, Kate Turner-Walker; sound design, Vincent Olivieri; set design, Tony Cisek; lighting, Dan Covey. With Jeremy Brown, MaConnia Chesser, Jessica Frances Dukes, Aakhu Freeman, Cleo House and Maya Lynne Robinson. About two hours 20 minutes. Through March 24 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.theatrealliance.com.


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