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.