Insurrection: Holding History
a dramatic fantasy by Robert O’Hara
Department of Theatre & Drama
March 3-April 9, 2017 • Arthur Miller Theatre
Struggling with his graduate thesis on slavery, Ron, a gay, black student at Columbia, attends a family reunion to celebrate his great-great-grandfather T.J.’s 189th birthday. Despite the fact that T.J. can’t move, hear, or speak, T.J. (given voice by the spirit of Mutha Wit) convinces Ron to take him back to his old home in Virginia. Fracturing the space-time continuum as they go further south, they arrive on the eve of Nat Turner’s doomed 1831 uprising to see Nat Turner himself racing through the woods. Encouraged to understand his ‘past’ in order to understand his ‘present’ and the perception-altering confrontation with what it means to be ‘free’, Ron discovers that how the authenticity of history unfolds depends on the perception of the storyteller.
Winner of the Oppenheimer Award for Best New American Play in 1996, Insurrection: Holding History is a fanciful dramatization of Black history by multi award-winning playwright and director Robert O’Hara. Written during his artist-in-residency at the NY Public Theater, the play garnered immediate acclaim for the burgeoning playwright earning comparisons to a cross between Roots and The Wizard of Oz. The San Francisco Examiner called it “One seriously hilarious and hilariously serious play… remarkably exciting, deeply provocative, [and] comically profound.” Wonderfully witty with time-bending fantastical turns, Insurrection: Holding History is a wild, thrilling ride between past and present.
Director: Timothy Douglas
Scenic Designer: Eleanor Howell-Shryock
Costume Designer: Michaela Tanksley
Lighting Designer: Christian DeAngelis
Sound Designer: Vincent Olivieri
Stage Manager: Jacqueline Saldana
Nat Turner/Ova Seea Jones: Elyakeem Avraham
Gertha/Clerk Wife/Mistress Mo’tel: Erin Croom
Reporter/Cop/Clerk Husband/Buck Naked/Detective: Peter Donahue
Hammet: Vincent Ford, Jr.
Ron: Aaron Huey
Octavia/Katie Lynn: Chardanae Jameson
Mutha Wit/Mutha: Shaunie Lewis
Clerk Son/Izzie Mae: Rennia Rodney
T.J: Eddie Williams, Jr.
In 1995, at the crossroads where I was making the transition to directing, the first new play I had the great good fortune to work on was Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection: Holding History. I spent several weeks alongside the playwright as part of the team that assisted him in facilitating the further development of what can aptly be described as a fantasia on the journey into the self-seeking of genuine identity. Our work together culminated in a workshop production at LA’s Mark Taper Forum, and from there the playwright himself would direct the world premiere of the play at New York’s Public Theater. I, however, would continue the ongoing odyssey of this transcendent and theatrical tale by directing productions at Toi Whakaari (New Zealand), Berkshire Theatre Festival, Theatre Alliance (DC), and now at the University of Michigan.
I am always elated when returning to the play as it is akin to my visiting treasured and beloved family and friends during a high holiday and all its corresponding celebration and impromptu drama. By way of this play’s time-traveling way-showers Ron & TJ, we are guided through a vicarious and visceral journey into one’s own self and history – only this journey summons the spirit of African and African-American ancestors allowing them their shot at real-time chronicling of their unimaginably harsh lives and loves back on the plantation with as much authenticity, heart and irreverence as these young (in their careers) actors of production can muster.
I’m often asked how it is possible for this play to remain fresh for me having directed it so many times before. While it saddens me to say that each time I return to O’Hara’s masterpiece it proves itself potently relevant to social climate in which it is performed, I can also say with relief and anticipation that within the play is embedded its own healing properties and never fails to offer options for the way ahead.
— Timothy Douglas