At Stage Left Theatre: Insurrection: Holding History Time Travels to Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion and Back

Breon Arzell (red shirt) as Ron with ensemble. Photo by Tyler Core. Insurrection: Holding History by Robert O’Hara is a satirical, time-traveling look at our history of slavery and repression, race and identity. O’Hara turns time on its head to take us back to Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, seen through the eyes of a gay African-American history graduate student from our era. (Not quite from our era; he listens to music on a CD Walkman. But we’re told at the outset that this is a “period play,” so we shouldn’t be surprised.) Stage Left Theatre’s production of Insurrection: Holding History, directed by Wardell Julius Clark, is raucous, funny and sometimes a bit confusing. It toys with our attitudes about history, slavery and sexual identity. In particular, it plays with our minds about what we remember (or prefer not to remember) about slavery, that peculiar institution that haunts us today. Breon Arzell (notable for his performances in An Octoroon, Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys and The Hairy Ape) plays Ron, a graduate student who is visiting his 189-year-old great-great grandfather TJ (Ian Martin). Ron is worried about getting back to New York for meetings on his graduate thesis on slavery and Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. Ron is obsessed with Nat Turner’s story; he says. “It won’t let me go!” TJ, motionless in his wheel chair, can only move one eye and one toe. But he’s alive and it’s his birthday, Ron insists to a reporter (Sam Baeck). Suddenly, Ron, TJ and Mutha Wit (Shariba Rivers) are in Ron’s rental car driving somewhere. Home, Mutha Wit says. And they end up back in Nat Turner’s time. Turner (Christopher W. Jones) is praying and encouraging other slaves to join his rebellion. (He plans to lead them from plantation to plantation, gathering guns and horses and killing white men, women and children.) The rest of the play leaps from era to era with plenty of opportunity for humorous anachronisms. Clark’s casting has Jones also playing the white Ova Sea Jones, who strips and whips slaves and then almost does the same to Ron. The mistress of the plantation, Mistress Mo’tel (played by Sydney Charles), flutters in wearing blonde wig, elegant gown and parasol. Hammet (Nathaniel Andrew) is a follower of Turner and becomes Ron’s love interest in another era. And Ron gets acquainted with TJ as a young slave. Kathy Arfken’s simple, wood-constructed scenic design owes its flexibility to a team of seven carpenters. Kaili Story handles lighting and Uriel Gomez is responsible for costumes. The sound design by Matthew Bonham Lockdall doesn’t adjust for the highly resonant studio theater space, which resounds with enthusiastic audience participation, so that sometimes actors can’t be heard. Two other plays by Robert O’Hara have been performed here recently: Strawdog’s very clever production of Barbecue and Windy City Playhouse’s Bootycandy. O’Hara directed the premiere of Insurrection at the Public Theatre in 1996; it won Newsday's Oppenheimer Award for Best New American Play. O’Hara is a company member at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. Insurrection: Holding History by Stage Left Theatre continues through February 11 at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport. Performances are Thursday-Sunday. Tickets are $22-32. The play runs about 2.5 hours, including one intermission.
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.