Don't Carry Me Back to Ol' Virginny

Way-back machine strips gears in continuum-tripping Insurrection

Those who enjoy wasting time and money on one spectacularly horrible theater production per season shouldn't miss Insurrection: Holding History. This perfectly execrable one-act is a co-production of Planet Earth Theatre and the Black Theatre Troupe, a fact that implicates twice as many theater hobbyists and proves that old adage about too many cooks spoiling the broth.

Twenty minutes into Robert O'Hara's tepid tale of time travel and American slavery, I found myself wishing I were watching a better production, because O'Hara seemed to have something to say about the past and about human compassion. But it became quickly apparent that the playwright's point was lost in a morass of sentimentality; I found it exhausting wading through O'Hara's mawkish metaphors, and finally gave up halfway through.

Despite its many flaws, this half-written history lesson had an auspicious launch. Originally workshopped at the Mark Taper Forum's New Works Festival, Insurrection was first produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival/Public Theater in 1996, and a shorter version of the show was presented at Columbia University's School of the Arts as O'Hara's directing thesis project.

This romanticized roman à clef concerns Ronnie Porter (Lendo Abdur-Rahman), a gay, African-American grad student who's writing a thesis on the history of slavery. He accompanies his 189-year-old great-great-grandfather, T.J., on a time-travel trip to the Virginia plantation where black revolutionary Nat Turner's mutiny began. There, Ronnie witnesses the horrors of slavery and the events that led to Turner's uprising.

Would that O'Hara had focused on the story of Turner's Confessions, his infamous memoirs taken down and modified by white slave owner Thomas Gray, or on Turner himself. Turner was both a powerful visionary and a complete lunatic, and would have made a captivating character study. Instead, this icon of Black American literature is presented as a preachy crackpot. It's just as well: By the time our hero confronts Turner, I'd lost interest, as well as my place, in the baffling story, which jumps from past to present and from comedy to drama with no apparent reason. The eventual insurrection is intercut with confusing present-time nonsense about the hero's pregnant sister and a search for the missing old man, who's slipped away into another time zone. All this flashing back dilutes the story's single interesting confrontation and disarms the very scene we've been waiting for.

I did like the bit about the grandfather carrying the metaphorical scars of slavery's past (T.J. is blind in one eye because his father had his eye poked out for looking at a white woman; he's lame because his mother's foot was cut off when she attempted to run away). But the device of having the mute old man voiced by another actor who follows him around the stage smacks of bad performance art, and the attempt to meld Nineties sensibilities with 19th-century legends results in a mishmash of styles. Dramatic scenes of slaves being abused and white masters being killed drone on so long that they have no impact.

There's nothing resembling a performance from any of the cast. Director Mike Traylor appears to have commanded his players to improvise their way through every scene, regardless of its content, so that murders and slapstick are played at the same pitch. Abdur-Rahman, in the lead, eschews traditional acting techniques. He displays humor with smirks and unfunny ad-libs, and expresses all other emotions by standing stock still, his eyes bugged out and his mouth open. As the mother, Joyce Gittoes displays some comic ability, but her performance amounts to little more than a lot of shrieking and head-wagging. And, when we laugh at her performance, it's because we're shocked to hear an elderly woman uttering the word "fuck," which she manages to do a half-dozen times.

The only other laughs on opening night were for the endless flubbed light and sound cues, though I could barely contain my guffaws during the mind-numbingly awful hip-hop number that closed the show. Sang and danced by the flat-footed, tone-deaf cast, this tuneless ditty chased its audience out into the night, where we marveled at what we'd just seen: a play about gay activism and black empowerment that said nothing about either.

Insurrection: Holding History continues through Saturday, April 3, at Planet Earth Theatre, 909 North Third Street.

 
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