Insurrection: Holding History
By Elyse Sommer
A Public Theater premiere of a play by a young prodigy of George C. Wolfe's is enough to kindle a small fire of anticipation in anyone who has followed the history of the Public and the career Wolfe, the Public's current Producer. After all, the stages at 422 Lafayette Street have always been fertile ground for highly successful theatrical insurrections of one kind of another. Its very first production, Hair, was very much an insurrectionary musical. More recently, Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, (conceived, and directed by Wolfe and with O'Hara working as his assistant), gave us an exhilarating and authentic look at African-merican history through tap dancing. Thus a new play written and directed by a talented artist-in residence, Robert O'Hara, automatically engenders the hope that lightning will strike once again.
Given the new playwright's impressive credentials and the George Wolfe-like energy and enthusiasm he radiates--we scheduled to attend Insurrection prepared to be bowled over. As it turned out, we were impressed with the ambition and Chutzpa of his endeavor, but not sufficiently taken with his brand of irreverent wit to be bowled over.
The play's basic theme, like George C. Wolfe's 1986 satire of African-American theater history and stereotypes, The Colored Museum, centers on the importance of understanding and crediting the connection between our past and our present. Since the past, unlike the always-on-camera present, is often too fuzzy to maintain that link, Insurrection resurrects one segment of that past--a time just before the ill-fated uprising of a small band of slaves led by Nat Turner.
The playwright's stand-in character--a gay, black Columbia University graduate student-- becomes our camera eye to this unrecorded history. He travels back in time, not on a yellow brick road but on a flying bed, and accompanied by his 189-year-old great-grandfather. T.J. who actually lived through the Turner uprising can't move or hear or speak. Yet he has been communicating with Ron through the spirit of T.J.'s mother (the also dead Mutha Wit). He knows Ron is gay and he wants him to understand that everything he is and can be is because of the strength of those slaves who were crazy enough to want freedom against all odds.
So far so good. The trouble sets in when the flying bed lands in the less-than-magical land of slavery and Insurrection begins waving too many thematic banners and attempts to become a comedy of the absurd. Instead of the satiric bite delivered in the afore-mentioned The Colored Museum, O'Hara's humor bears the brush stroke of the cartoonist. This is understandable since slavery was something so wildly unreal that it defies realistic, linear treatment. However, as O'Hara has the horrendous realities of slavery collide with the comedic elements, the play seems to spin out of control and lose its balance -- as illustrated by the irreverence vis-à-vis slavesand their masters and the reverential and drawn-out love scene between Ron and the doomed-to-die rebel slave.
The sitcom humor which is clearly intentional is most successfully expressed through some of the visual touches--the flashlight used as whip, the microphone used to address the rebels, the red-brown-blue patchwork costumes (by Toni-Leslie James).
While a number of people in the audience seemed to find everything uproarious, a larger part of the audience at the performance I attended, remained stone-faced and almost too weary to respond to T.J.'s eloquent insistence that Ron listen and see and not try to change. "You breathe because of Nat Turner. You are what you are because of these slaves. They might die but they're going to WIN. You're the proof."
While the play's emotional impact is weakened by its kitchen sink thematics and the way the humor comes off, O'Hara does display considerable directing skills. He has his ten member company playing some eighteen parts and metamorphosing smoothly from black to white to black, from obsequious to "uppity." His use of music is equally effective. Vickilyn Reynolds' beautifully sung spirituals evoke T.J.'s world as the in-your-face-Rap echo the harsher elements of Ron's.
The cast ably switches from character to character. Ellen Cleghorne does a funny turn as a ditzy Southern belle. However, its obvious Saturday Night Live roots underscore our objections to the effect of play's comedic framework. The role that should have been the meatiest, that of the time-travelling, culturally conflicted Ron, (Robert Barry Fleming) turns out to be the least convincing. Zane Mark, whose composing skills were a major factor in Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, here makes a nice cameo contribution.