Review: Insurrection: Holding History at Annex Theater

TheatreBloom rating:

It is time for the first to become the last and the last to become the first. A mantra that echoes through the words of playwright Robert O’Hara’s work Insurrection: Holding History. Making its Baltimore debut on The Annex Theater stage under the Direction of Kyle A. Jackson, this provocative work draws forth questions of historical importance in a time that is often called into question, particularly in the way it effects current events. A graphically invested telling of a time that America cannot whitewash, O’Hara’s work attempts to explore whether or not the past can be left behind.

Nathan Steven Couser as Ron in Insurrection: Holding History at Annex Theater
Nathan Steven Couser as Ron in Insurrection: Holding History at Annex Theater Carly J. Bales

O’Hara’s work, while addressing a great many subjects that are worth addressing and discussing through the theatrical discourse that is live performance on stage, is unfocused. The biggest disappointment of the play is that O’Hara does not trust the exploration of his own narrative and character development to let the show stand on its own two feet. Instead he chooses to frame it through hackneyed tropes like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. By using these lenses and frameworks, O’Hara cheapens the poignancy of his story, which had the potential to be evocative and brutal, but instead becomes unoriginal and confusing.

O’Hara infuses so many different topics into the show that it’s difficult to place solid intent and sharp focus on any one of them, let alone all of them. Because of this, many of these touchy subjects— like abortion and homosexuality— appear glossed over and thrown haphazardly into the work for the sake of shock value. The play itself has great potential to speak on powerful subject matters, like the way the insurrections of history— particular the one in question with prophet Nat Turner— affected the future, but fails to do so because of its overall unstable foundations.

Approaching the piece from a surreal timeline, the blurred edges of reality clash with the actions of the play. This unconventional and unfortunately ill-executed plot device muddles what clarity there is to be had with the characters of the present reality as they start to simultaneously exist in the past and start to question their existence in both of these planes of time and space. This forced suspension of disbelief does nothing to service the intention behind the writing, and when it barrels into a scene near the end that obliterates the fourth wall, the result is a cheap laugh and an overall depreciation of the seriousness of the story. O’Hara brings too much to the table at once without enough focus to clearly guide his messages through the work.

Nathan Steven Couser (left) as Ron and Dominic Gladden (right) as TJ in Insurrection: Holding History
Nathan Steven Couser (left) as Ron and Dominic Gladden (right) as TJ in Insurrection: Holding History Carly J Bales

Director Kyle A. Jackson sites the work as being brutally comic and honest, going so far as to quote the playwright’s desire to “…want my audiences to choke.” Only Jackson’s approach to the muddled and overloaded themes and ambiguous emotional intentions only provides uncertainty. If the issues contained within— many of which are graphic in nature and depiction— are meant to make an audience ‘choke’ then pushing those issues beyond the comfort zone of the audience should be at the forefront of Jackson’s approach. Instead Jackson favors shying away and evoking the awkward humor of these situations, which is understandable considering the severity and gravity of some of these moments, but it does no service to the writer’s honest intentions, even if O’Hara is all over the place with those truths.

This is not to say that the work is not serving a purpose or is extremely important to be witnessed. The performances given throughout the piece are strong, even if different casting choices to further drive home the severity of the piece could have been made. Jackson’s approach to the pacing of the performance is splendid and the almost two-hour long production moves quickly through itself even if the writing leads to an overall disjointed feel. There are performances well worth appreciating throughout the piece, as well as design elements that really impact the production as a whole.

Costume Designer Jordan Matthews fabricates some honestly remarkable and colorful outfits for the Technicolor dreamscape of South Hampton, Virginia. And although the trope of ‘Dorothy landing in brightly lit Kansas’ is in play, Matthews’ costumes are more vividly reflective of the rich inner life that those of the slaves on the plantation cling to as they hope for freedom. The two most impressive pieces are the plantation gown for Mistress Mo’Tel and Katie Lynn, both wildly saturated with sprightly colors and glittery accents that pay homage to that first landing in Oz.

Mutha Wit (L- Ama Brown) Detective (C- David Iden) and Nat Turner (R- Khalid Bilal) in Insurrection: Holding History
Mutha Wit (L- Ama Brown) Detective (C- David Iden) and Nat Turner (R- Khalid Bilal) in Insurrection: Holding History Carly J. Bales

Set Designer Andrea Crews is transforms the found-discovery place at the Annex’s temporary transitional home on Park Avenue so that it is suitable for the myriad of projections that Designer David Crandall creates for the production. Crews also splatter paints the floor with rainbows, a deserving representation of the Technicolor theme lingering from the Wizard of Oz structures O’Hara has built into the play. Crandall’s use of projections to shift scenes from the present to the past and even from location to location within these set time constructs, is a sharp and modern move to work within the confines that the space creates. This is particularly effective when Crandall juxtaposes the modern apartment against the darkened woods of night in the past.

Sound Designer Rjyan Kidwell also adds a touch of realism to the bizarre surreality of the show with his sound effects that populate particular scenes. The most effective underscoring occurs during the evening scenes in the woods and swamp with the dull and yet frightening hum of the night bugs settling into their atmosphere. Kidwell also encourages enthusiasm with his musical choices, the immediate one coming to mind being the backbeat for the cast’s twisted rendition of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” which turns into a stomped rap upon the flying mattress crushing the plantation owner.

Roaring with passion in her performance, S. Ann Johnson takes on the fiery and sassy role of Gertha in the modern moment and Mistress Mo’Tel in the past. Johnson’s melodramatic blasting of the Gone with the Wind type moments as Mistress Mo’Tel are furiously grounded and she delivers a solid blow to Overseea Jones (Khalid Bilal) in that moment. Filled with sparks, Johnson is one of the most compelling performers on the stage. Bilal, who doubles as the Overseer and the Prophet Nat Turner, is equally driven in his passionate performance. When facing off against Ron (Nathan Steven Couser) his own spirited energies surge through his speech and really force the focus of his emotions to the forefront. Bilal, like Johnson, is versatile in his delivery and runs an emotional gamut of expressions throughout the performance.

Rachel Reckling (left) as Katie Lynn and Terena McLorn (right) as Izzy Mae in Insurrection: Holding History
Rachel Reckling (left) as Katie Lynn and Terena McLorn (right) as Izzy Mae in Insurrection: Holding History Carly J Bales

Other noteworthy performances include the taste of freedom speech given by Kenyon Parson as young Hammet. So wound up by the potential to taste freedom the elation that fills Parson’s soul almost becomes palpable in this moment. Rachel Reckling as Octavia and Katie Lynn as well as Terena McLorn as Izzy Mae also deliver strikingly impressive performances by grounding their characters by the truths of their realities. Both Reckling and McLorn fully develop the nuances of their characters and showcase their attitudes throughout the performance, their mouthing off at Prophet Nat Turner being just one of several moments coming to mind.

The work has merit to it and the performers are delivering intensity on many levels, making the production worth investigating.

Running Time: 110 minutes with no intermission

Insurrection: Holding History plays through October 25, 2015 at Annex Theater— 219 Park Avenue in Baltimore, MD. Tickets may be purchased at the door or in advance online.

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