In “Insurrection: Holding History,” a gay African-American grad student travels back in time to witness the Nat Turner slave rebellion. Amid the discovery of slavery’s horrors, he also finds love. It’s an ambitious mishmash of a play, with elements of time-travel fantasy, historical epic, forbidden love story, debate drama, dream play, comedy and ghost story. Directed with a lot of energy but not enough lucidity by Derek Charles Livingston, the production reveals moments of high drama, but the show never congeals into more than a collection of intriguing theatrical shards.
Robert O’Hara wrote and staged this play in 1996 as a directing thesis for his MFA and then directed it again that same year for the Public Theater. It won a playwriting award from Newsday, but it has been produced only once since. “Insurrection” is exceedingly dense, but it’s also extremely personal, an effort to confront slavery as something still tangible to the contemporary perspective. A lot, however, gets in the way of what is in essence a simple premise, and the writing as a whole is too undisciplined to generate its desired emotional power.
Ron (Jeramie Gladman) is trying to write his history thesis about Nat Turner, but feels like he doesn’t have anything new to say. He seeks inspiration from his 189-year-old great-great-grandfather TJ (Wil Bowers), who sits silently in a wheelchair and can communicate only to Ron, and only through extrasensory means. TJ, it turns out, was there during the rebellion, and he decides to take Ron back with him, a temporal transformation for which O’Hara doesn’t bother to provide an explanation — he simply has the duo drive south, with ghosts of the past streaming by them as they go. Much of the work has that kind of frenetic theatricality, and Livingston is assisted in staging these scenes by choreographer Randy Rene.
Ron does indeed meet Turner — played with the proper zealousness by a powerful Mark Anthony Hall. He also starts to meddle in the affairs of the plantation, much to TJ’s chagrin. He tries to stop a violent overseer –in O’Hara’s stylish use of dialect, “Ova Seea” — and begins to realize the horrors of slavery in a much more immediate way than before. Then, amid Turner’s followers, he meets Hammet (Lonnie Simpson), who just walks up to him seeking a kiss. The two fall instantly in love, a connection that seemed to elude Ron in the 20th century, and the most blatantly comic moment of the night involves Ron’s uncertainty about returning to the present.
Livingston manages to bring some of this to life, investing the long one act with much needed intensity, but a lot of it falls flat. Gladman is a bit too much of a cipher to begin with, a pretty severe limitation of the production. He also doesn’t resolve some of the contradictory impulses O’Hara has written into the character — Ron wants to stop the individual horrors he sees around him, but he also argues with Turner against going ahead with the rebellion.
The love scene isn’t at all sexy, which only furthers the sense that the gay issues overall are fundamentally unexplored — with TJ and the rest of the slaves having no problem at all with homosexuality.
Perhaps most detrimentally, Livingston never quite figures out how to delineate sharply the back and forth between historical and contemporary scenes, so that even some of O’Hara’s most fanciful writing –Turner showing up with a big hatchet in a 20th century back yard — comes and goes with little effect. There just isn’t enough substance to the visual images, despite O’Hara seeming to provide for them.
The set design from Mercedes Younger is a bit too plain, while Milsa Watson’s costumes are apparently not simple enough to allow for the needed quick changes. This particularly hinders Mattie Singleton and Marlow Wyatt, who play Ron’s contemporary relatives, as well as the plantation’s mistress and her favored slave in the historical scenes.
The result has moments of power, but the primary feeling it evokes is a muddy confusion. There’s something honest about that — the sense of living with an unresolved discomfiture about slavery rings true. But that’s also topped with an overly simplified plea for respecting elders — “I’m holding history,” Ron says, as he literally holds his great-great-grandfather when they return to the current world. It’s a bit too cute and obvious for a show that generally isn’t either.
This production marks the first staging of L.A.’s gay and lesbian Celebration Theater of an African-American work. It’s being done at the McCadden Place Theater since “Pinafore!” — a much praised queer version of the Gilbert and Sullivan musical — continues to run at the company’s home base.
Even if “Insurrection” isn’t a total success, the contrast it presents to “Pinafore!” says a lot that’s good about the eclectic ambitions of the Celebration and Livingston, who’s in his second season as managing artistic director.