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The Rousuck Review: "Insurrection: Holding History"

Carly J. Bales


How accurate is history? Ever. Even primary sources are no substitute for having lived in the same time, breathed the same air as the people who made history.

A Ph.D. candidate experiences living, breathing history, nearly two-century-old history, firsthand in Robert O’Hara’s audacious, time-shifting play,Insurrection: Holding History at Annex Theater.

Ron Porter, earnestly portrayed by Nathan Steven Couser, is a doctoral student writing his thesis on American slave rebellions. In his first scene, Ron is visiting his great-great grandfather.

Yes, you heard that right. T.J., the great-great grandfather, is 189 years old, a former slave. He’s in a wheelchair, unable to move or speak.

But Ron holds conversations with great-great grandfather T.J. When they talk, a shaman-like mother figure, warmly played by Ama Brown, speaks for T.J., though only Ron can hear her.

With her as his mouthpiece, T.J. convinces Ron to drive him home to Southampton County, Virginia. When they check into a motel, Ron sees ghosts of Nat Turner, leader of the famous 1831 slave insurrection, and his followers threatening the motel owner and his family.

Odd as it sounds, the next scene is inspired by The Wizard of Oz and whirls Ron and T.J. back to 19th century Virginia. Ron finds himself on a cotton plantation where T.J. is a slave and can now talk to Ron directly.

T.J., played by Dominic Gladden, wants Ron to see Nat Turner in action. T.J. doesn’t count on Ron inserting himself into events.

Insurrection: Holding History draws numerous parallels between the fate of African Americans then and now. Some of these are comic. Some are frightening. Some are both at once.

References crop up to movies and shows ranging from Roots to The Sound of Music, as well as The Wizard of Oz. And, a phone ringing today startles the characters in 1831.

Most of the actors play multiple roles – male, female, white, black, straight, gay, young, old. S. Ann Johnson is especially adept at switching on a dime. One minute she’s Ron’s African American aunt in the present; the next minute she’s the white plantation mistress in the past.

There is so much going on in Insurrection: Holding History, it might seem impossible to keep it all straight. Nudity, profanity, and at one point, even the hokey pokey add to the play’s bold juxtapositions and anachronisms.

Some of the performances could be clearer, and it may take theatergoers a minute to catch up. But director Kyle A. Jackson and his cast, aided by Rjyan Kidwell’s sound design and David Crandall’s projections, guide us through this complex material.

Insurrection: Holding History shows us that, while no one can change history, no one can get it exactly right, either. Even so, the effort to make sense of history may be the only hope not to repeat it.

Until it moves to its new shared theater on Howard Street, Annex is performing in a temporary space on the corner of Park Avenue and Clay Street. It’s little off the beaten track and so is this play, but both are worth discovering.


J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.