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Theater Review

[whitespace] Holding History

By Millie

Who knew a play about history, sexual identity and slavery could be so much fun? Check out Robert O'Hara's Insurrection: Holding History for a wild and thought-provoking ride through the 1831 Nat Turner slave insurrection. With a equal parts camp and historical drama, Insurrection is like a cross between Amistad and Medea, the Musical.

Our guide is a gay black graduate student, Ron, played with glee by Gregory Wallace. Ron's search for identity is aided by his 189-year-old great-great-grandfather (L. Peter Callender), who whisks him back to Southhampton, Va., for a hallucinatory peek at life on the plantation on the eve of the rebellion. On the plantation, Ron gets caught up in a wacky song and dance number led by sassy slave Katie Lynn (Anika Noni Rose), a debate with Nat Turner himself (Steven Anthony Jones) and a sexy encounter with the idealistic slave Hammet (Raphael Peacock). The white folks, Mistress Mo'tel (played by a hilarious Shona Tucker) and Ova' Seea' Jones (Jones), dress in all-white cartoon costumes and skewer themselves with delicious idiocy. They are ridiculous and cruel at the same time.

The real weakness of the play is a slackness, a lack of central conflict. While the historical conflict is clear, the conflict for the protaganist is never articulated. The narrative flips back to the plight of Aunt Gertha (another riotous turn by Tucker) and cousin Octavia (Rose) searching for the missing Ron and T.J. However, this story as well never quite leads anywhere. Stakes are low, and there's little narrative tension driving the story forward. The result is an ending that comes too quickly, slipping into a sentimentality that seems inconsistent with the rest of the play.

In the end, it's hard to be too critical when there is so much to enjoy. Insurrection is big and bawdy enough to take on a range of hot-button issues without getting turgid or preachy. O'Hara and director Charles Randolph-Wright never sacrifice entertainment for fist-pounding. That's the brilliance of Insurrection. It approaches its complex subject matter with humor as much as outrage. However, the play really isn't about either. It's about joy.

At American Conservatory Theatre, 30 Grant Ave; through Feb 8; $14-$51; 415/834-3200.

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From the February 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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