U-M’s "Insurrection" uses drama, comedy in a swirling, challenging trip through time



Left to right: Shaunie Lewis as Mutha Wit, Aaron Huey as Ron, and Eddie Williams Jr. as T.J. in Insurrection: Holding History. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

Time travel is a hot topic with three new television series featuring characters who travel back to historic events and learn some lessons about history and themselves.

Robert O’Hara’s 1995 play Insurrection: Holding History takes a fantastical and theatrical approach to time travel to offer some rich insights into African-American history and the continuing friction between black and white Americans.

The production by the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre and Drama at the Arthur Miller Theatre takes a fine measure of O’Hara’s swirling combination of broad satirical comedy, cultural touchstones, and searing drama as Insurrection moves back and forth from the present to the doomed and bloody 1831 slave uprising of Nat Turner.

At the center of this fantasy is Ron, a graduate student at Columbia University struggling with a thesis on Turner’s incendiary uprising, and his 189-year-old great, great grandfather T.J. T.J. sits motionless, silent, with eyes closed able to move only one toe and an eye. He is cared for by Ron’s Aunt Gertha at the family home is Virginia. Ron is home for T.J.’s always memorable and historic birthday.

Ron hears T.J. speak to him in his mind, offering guidance. T.J.’s words are voiced on-stage by a woman.

Ron is troubled by Turner’s bloodbath and his mental instability and the futility of his revolt while fascinated by the singular importance in the fight to end slavery. He is also troubled about coming to terms with his sexuality.

U-M’s cast members play several roles in both time periods and move through sometimes dizzying changes in approach and style. Director Timothy Douglas has a long history with the play, having been with the writer at its inception and directing several subsequent productions. The play is often frenetic, abrasive, and overly theatrical. It is also often quite funny, unremittingly honest, and poignant. It’s an uneven stew but a fine cast makes excellent theater of the play’s finest moments.

T.J.’s voice urges Ron to take a trip down to Southampton, Va. Once there they see the ghosts of slaves running through the night and have an accident. When the dust settles two shoes stick out from a sheet, the feet of mean Masta Mo’tel and the slaves begin to dance and sing. This tribute to The Wizard of Oz reminds us that we are not "in Kansas anymore." The song they sing is very much like "The Wicked Witch Is Dead." From the wreckage Ron and a now young T.J. emerge in 1831 on the eve of Turner’s second attempt at revolt.

Earlier in the play O’Hara has had fun with race stereotypes. He’s taken a swipe at the strident and aimless attitudes of some young blacks, the simmering animosities in black and white interactions, and the sometimes troubled family relations exemplified by Aunt Gertha and her sassy daughter Octavia. The scenes of plantation life are treated as both broad comedy and disturbing drama. The comic moments are like Saturday Night Live skits but the points made are complex.

The second acts takes on a more naturalistic approach, dramatic and powerfully presented.

Douglas has drawn uniformly excellent performances from his cast.


Left to right: Shaunie Lewis as Mutha Wit, Eddie Williams Jr. as T.J., and Aaron Huey as Ron in U-M's Deptartment of Theatre & Drama’s production of Insurrection: Holding History Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

Aaron Huey’s Ron is still a boy becoming a man. He’s awkward, confused, but as that play goes along Huey gives his performance the growing sense of purpose and deeper empathy that makes him a vital center.

T.J. is first voiced by Shaunie Lewis who in the plantation scenes plays T.J.’s mother. Lewis plays the voice with wit, charm, and perfect timing, which makes the conceit work perfectly.

T.J.--after emerging from his aged cocoon--is played with searing intelligence by Eddie Williams, Jr. He captures the character's fire and also his love and concern for his bright but awkward descendant. He has one of the play's finest and most complex speeches and makes it real.

Elyakeem Avraham also makes it real playing two sides of the race war. He is briefly the snarling, petty Ova Seea Jones in a blond wig. He growls disdainfully and his voice alone conveys the overseer’s leer. But Avraham’s main role is that of Nat Turner, mad revolutionary, bloody barbarian, inflamed Christian martyr, first spark in a necessary upheaval, take your pick. Avraham is riveting as a bug-eyed, slacked-jawed man in the possession of a religious fervor. His speech/sermon at the beginning of Act II is exhausting and rousing theater.

Erin Croom plays high and low comedy with fine timing and broad strokes. She’s the level-headed Gertha, funny but firm in dealing with her daughter. In 1831, she’s Mistress Mo’tel, the plantation grande dame with a piercingly high voice and over the top sense of entitlement (think Carol Burnett sending up Gone With the Wind).

Chardanae Jameson gets to play sassy in two centuries as Octavia and the abused house slave Katie Lynn, who is not be messed within the end. She delivers her comedy lines with zest. Rennia Rodney plays the slave Izzie Mae, who comically delivers her “devotion” to the masta while showing all the pain it requires.

Vincent Ford Jr. is a warmly sympathetic Hammet, a slave caught between a desire for freedom, love, and companionship and the need for anger and mayhem.

Peter Donahue is white and takes many of the condescending or outright racist character parts played for a rough comedy. But his biggest role is as Buck Naked, a white slave caught between two worlds, which he delivers with the proper dazed confusion.

Eleanor Howell-Shyrock, a student set designer, gives the program an interesting backdrop. It’s an abstract series of what looks like crates behind a cyclone fence, suggesting both a cotton warehouse and an urban warehouse district, nicely tying the two eras together.

O’Hara’s play is sometimes too over the top, too broadly theatrical and drawn out, and even a bit confusing at times as eras blend together for comic effect. But this is a serious play that raises provocative ideas that challenge easy answers in the ongoing struggle for racial justice. The play has real wit and charm and offers a wide platform for a talented cast. But its real power is in its dramatic portrayal of the conflict between means and ends that is always at the center of revolutions. O’Hara has no easy answers, which is as it should be.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

"Insurrection: Holding History" continues at the Arthur Miller Theatre on the north campus of the University of Michigan. Shows are at 8 pm on March 31, April 1, April 7, and April 8; 7:30 pm on April 6; and 2 pm at April 2 and April 9. For tickets visit the League Ticket Office on the central campus, call 734-764-2538 or go online to tickets.music.umich.edu.