Viewing "Insurrection: Holding History" was a lot like watching history unfold right in front of my eyes: What just happened?
Everything in Annex Theater's production of Robert O'Hara's play is remixed, repeated, and layered, from the actors' fluid transitions between multiple roles, Rjyan Kidwell's clubby sound design, and David Crandall's disorienting projections to director Kyle A. Jackson's anarchic weaving of dialogue, action, and tonal shifts—and, more important, the history these elements revisit.
Ron (Nathan Steven Couser), a Ph.D. candidate stressing over his doctoral thesis on Nat Turner's slave insurrection, turns to his 189-year-old great-great-grandfather TJ (Dominic Gladden), who, unable to speak or move in his extreme age, communicates with Ron through the matriarch Mutha Wit (Ama Brown). As Ron loses interest and faith in the importance of Turner and the insurrection, TJ—a former slave—transports him back to 1831 Southampton, Virginia, where, despite his studies and arrogance, Ron is shocked and shaken by the atrocities of slavery. The plot reminds us of the campy history education videos we watched back in grade school (remember "Our Friend Martin," millennials?), in which kids would travel back in time to witness history firsthand. Only this didn't shy away from depicting humanity at its most nauseating.
After Ron experiences an intensely gruesome and traumatic moment, TJ asks his great-great-grandson "What the hell you think you was gonna see? Some picture-book technicolor dream fantasy?"
Ironically, Andrea Crews' panoramic, cloudy pastel-colored set and Jordan Matthews' splatter-painted and sequin-accented costumes transform Annex's new space into a similar dreamland—not the kind of environment in which you'd expect to see the horrors of slavery. These details—in addition to cheesy film references ("The Wizard of Oz," "Gone With the Wind") and Jay Cruz's hammy choreography—demonstrate the futility of attempts to sugarcoat history. Bright, cheery colors that surround a naked slave as she receives several lashes do nothing to make the scene more palatable. The disparity between the play's visual context and thematic content highlights the bizarre psychological nightmare of history, which is continually embellished and painted over by a culture that wants to forget or diminish its own failures.
Often, certain plot points become lost in the drawn-out climaxes and overlapping action, which seems inevitable in a play that points to the complex, nonlinear, and ultimately incomprehensible nature of history. In this way, O'Hara reflects history as accurately as it can be portrayed.
That being said, the play could benefit from going further, with more starkly contrasted points of chaos and quiet, to heighten the overwhelming effect that it just begins to touch. As it is, thematic transitions merely feel rushed and condensed, with certain moments given inadequate attention. For example, Ron's cousin Octavia—one of the most intoxicating characters, played by the astounding Rachel Reckling—struggles over being perceived as empty-headed and sexually promiscuous. Her anxiety is heartbreaking and speaks worlds to her identity as a woman of color in a society that enforces toxic stereotypes, but her pain feels sidelined in its tangential attachment to the story.
But even in limited moments such as this, the actors' performances carry both the weight and hilarity of complex scenes. Writing this, I began to list the actors who gave particularly strong performances, but soon realized I'd written every name (and that rarely happens). Between fiery speeches and nuanced gestures, each of the nine actors draws at least one "holy shit" response from the audience, especially when the characters desperately attempt to disprove the world's perception of their identities: Octavia to her mother Gertha (S. Ann Johnson) that she's not a stupid floozy, Nat Turner (Khalid Bilal) to his fellow slaves that he's not insane, Ron to his great-great-grandfather that he is not defined by his sexuality, the Southern belle Mistress Mo'Tel (Johnson) to the violent Ovaseea Jones (Bilal) that she will not remain politely passive to his transgressions.
O'Hara explores an ambitious range of characters and themes in such a chaotic and brief period of time, but the actors enlighten his writing with the emotional history of an entire civilization, shifting fluidly between roles, time periods, and even races without breaking over the weight. The strength of the performances testify to the immense history one can hold in their body alone.
"Insurrection: Holding History" runs through Oct. 25 at Annex Theater at its new location at 219 Park Ave. For more information, visit baltimoreannextheater.org.