×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Insurrection: Holding History

Billed as "Roots" meets "The Wizard of Oz," 26-year-old playwright-director Robert O'Hara's "Insurrection: Holding History" is a fanciful study in black history that announces O'Hara as a promising new voice. The play itself is only partially successful --- O'Hara would have been wiser to hand over his work to a director more critical than he himself proves to be --- but it certainly shows a gutsy imagination that bodes well for the playwright and his audience. O'Hara displays a delightfully singular vision in his time-traveling fantasy (well, almost singular: He begins on an unfortunate note by lifting a device from Scott Elliott's production of "Curtains" last season --- an elderly character sits onstage in a wheelchair, oblivious, as the audience files in). Injustice (racial and sexual) is explored from the vantage points of the past and present as characters and action shift back and forth.

With:
Cast: Bruce Beatty (Nat Turner, Ova' Seea' Jones), Jeremiah W. Birkett (Hammer), Ellen Cleghorne (Gertha, Mistress Motel), Robert Barry Fleming (Ron), Nathan Hinton (TJ), T.J. Kenneally (Reporter, Cop, others), Vickilyn Reynolds (Mutha Wit, Mutha), Heather Simms (Octavia, Katie Lynn), Sybyl Walker (Izzie Mae).

Billed as “Roots” meets “The Wizard of Oz,” 26-year-old playwright-director Robert O’Hara’s “Insurrection: Holding History” is a fanciful study in black history that announces O’Hara as a promising new voice. The play itself is only partially successful — O’Hara would have been wiser to hand over his work to a director more critical than he himself proves to be — but it certainly shows a gutsy imagination that bodes well for the playwright and his audience.

O’Hara displays a delightfully singular vision in his time-traveling fantasy (well, almost singular: He begins on an unfortunate note by lifting a device from Scott Elliott’s production of “Curtains” last season — an elderly character sits onstage in a wheelchair, oblivious, as the audience files in). Injustice (racial and sexual) is explored from the vantage points of the past and present as characters and action shift back and forth.

At least during its first half, “Insurrection” moves with all the energy of hip-hop. Ron (Robert Barry Fleming), a young Columbia U. grad student writing a thesis on U.S. slave history, shares a psychic connection with his 189-year-old great, great grandfather TJ (Nathan Hinton). O’Hara lets the audience in on the mental conversations by having a slave character named Mutha Wit (Vickilyn Reynolds) speak the old man’s thoughts.

When his wheelchair sprouts headlights, TJ, Ron and the audience are clearly headed on a special trip. The old man, a former slave and participant in Nat Turner’s violent rebellion of 1831, spirits his curious descendant back to the bloody day that young Ron has known only through books.

Cast members, including former “Saturday Night Live” regular Ellen Cleghorne, perform double duty portraying characters now and then, many of whom wander between eras, surprised to find themselves dressed in clothes from a different century (a nice blend of period styles by costumer Toni-Leslie James).

The farcical mood, enlivened by the cartoonish characters (and played on James Schuette’s green, abstract and not particularly attractive set), sags as “Insurrection” takes a heavier tone — or at least a heavier pace — during its second half. A succession of encounters (between a mother and daughter in the present, for example, or the gay Ron and a love-struck male slave in the past) doesn’t have either the emotional or comic impact that O’Hara intends, and slows the movement considerably. “Insurrection” becomes strained, as do the performances.

Even so, the play shows a respect for history’s martyrs that the arrogant young Ron lacks (he learns his lesson). And O’Hara’s exploration of sexual and racial identity is fresh enough to stir anticipation for his next stage project, whenever that is. He’s already been tapped to pen a biopic about Richard Pryor for Universal Pictures and Martin Scorsese.

Popular on Variety

Insurrection: Holding History

NEW YORK . Opened Dec. 11, 1996, at the Papp Public Theater/LuEsther Hall. Reviewed Dec. 10; 99 seats; $25.

Production: A Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of a play in one act, written and directed by Robert O'Hara.

Creative: Set, James Schuette; costumes, Toni-Leslie James; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Red Ramona; composer, Zane Mark; choreographer, Ken Roberson; production stage manager, Lisa Gavaletz. Producer, George C. Wolfe; artistic producer, Rosemarie TichlerRunning time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.

Cast: Cast: Bruce Beatty (Nat Turner, Ova' Seea' Jones), Jeremiah W. Birkett (Hammer), Ellen Cleghorne (Gertha, Mistress Motel), Robert Barry Fleming (Ron), Nathan Hinton (TJ), T.J. Kenneally (Reporter, Cop, others), Vickilyn Reynolds (Mutha Wit, Mutha), Heather Simms (Octavia, Katie Lynn), Sybyl Walker (Izzie Mae).

More Legit

  • The Sound Inside review

    Broadway Review: 'The Sound Inside' Starring Mary-Louise Parker

    Mary-Louise Parker will take your breath away with her deeply felt and sensitively drawn portrait of a tenured Yale professor who treasures great literature, but has made no room in her life for someone to share that love with. The other thesp in this two-hander is Will Hochman, endearing in the supportive role of a [...]

  • Little Shop of Horrors review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Little Shop of Horrors'

    With its strains of kitschy doo-wop and its sci-fi B-movie inspirations, the quaint 1982 musical “Little Shop of Horrors” hardly seems a thing of modern-day revivalism, even despite its touches of S&M. Yet this year alone, not only is there an Off Broadway production of the blackly comic “Little Shop” featuring Jonathan Groff of Netflix’s [...]

  • The Lightning Thief review musical

    Broadway Review: 'The Lightning Thief,' The Musical

    “It’s a lot to take in right now,” says Percy Jackson, the teen hero of “The Lightning Thief,” the kid-centric fantasy musical (based on the popular Y.A. novel) that’s now on Broadway after touring the country and playing an Off Broadway run. You could say that’s a bit of an understatement from contemporary teen Percy [...]

  • The Rose Tattoo review

    Broadway Review: 'The Rose Tattoo' Starring Marisa Tomei

    “The Rose Tattoo” is what happens when a poet writes a comedy — something strange, but kind of lovely. The same might be said of director Trip Cullman’s production: Strange, if not exactly lovely. Even Marisa Tomei, so physically delicate and expressively refined, seems an odd choice to play the lusty and passionate protagonist, Serafina [...]

  • Obit-Roy-B

    Former NATO President Roy B. White Dies at 93

    Roy B. White, former president and chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, died of natural causes Oct. 11 in Naples, Fla. He was 93. White ran the 100-screen independent theater circuit, Mid–States Theaters Inc. In addition to his career, he did extensive work on behalf of charities and non-profits. He was vice president [...]

  • Soft Power review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Soft Power'

    The “culture-clash musical” is a familiar template, in which a white American protagonist — waving the flag of individuality, optimism and freedom — trumps and tramps over the complexities of that which is foreign, challenging or “other.” David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” at Off Broadway’s Public [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content