'Insurrection: Holding History,' Now at Convergence-Continuum, Is Gripping, Timely Viewing

The play was written more than 20 years ago by the renowned Black playwright Robert O'Hara

click to enlarge 'Insurrection: Holding History,' Now at Convergence-Continuum, Is Gripping, Timely Viewing
Courtesy Photo

Every story about history is, to one degree or another, a ghost story. When we seek to revisit times past, the characters and their actions are both seen and not seen, ripe with both absence and potential. And when we receive those stories, they are often fragmented as our minds try to sort out the complexities.

That fragmentation is central while watching "Insurrection: Holding History," a compelling production now at Convergence-Continuum Theater. It takes us on a journey back to the days of slavery in the South and the bloody, failed revolution led by Nat Turner. As written more than 20 years ago by the renowned Black playwright Robert O'Hara and directed by Jeannine Gaskin, the production is both raw and giddy, deadly serious and lightly comic, as time and characters from different eras collide.

Ron (Wesley Allen) is a young, Black, gay grad student at Columbia, working on a treatise about American slavery, who is beset by a couple ghosts who seem remarkably insistent. One is his 189-year-old great great grandpa TJ (Drew Pope), who is mute and motionless in a wheelchair early on, with his thoughts expressed through his wife Mutha Wit (Kadijah Wingo).

They invite Ron on a time trip to see what it was really like for slaves during that horrific era. Thanks to a Wizard of Oz style hurricane, Ron is deposited in the past but one that is fractured with Black and white spirits fighting each other. Ron also meets and is drawn to Hammet (Isaiah Betts), a male slave who's been flirting with him.

Five other actors are double cast as different characters, and some of those identities and transitions get muddled a bit, intentionally and not. This storytelling rides the momentum of ghastly scenes of whipping and torture, along with the humorous moments when characters step out and take stock of where they are, and why.

Matthew Ruby Jule Raybeam splendidly plays both impassioned Nat Turner and a brutal plantation enforcer named Ova Seea Jones. Laprise Johnson and Sydney Smith are fine as the battling mother and daughter pair Gertha and Octavia, as well as other roles. Chelsea Anderson also switches parts smoothly, as does Mike Frye who plays all the white characters with a variety of tones and attacks.

With a script that ranges from mildly disorienting to startlingly evocative, the director Jeannine Gaskin draws some excellent performances out of her nine-person cast. But what resonates most clearly is the need to confront and understand our past for, as George Orwell said and this play reminds us, "He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past."

Those are important thoughts to consider, especially in a time when some governors in our country are busy trying to forbid teachers from instructing about our shared and brutal racial history.

Insurrection: Holding History
Through November 5 produced by Convergence-Continuum Theatre at The Liminis Theater, 2438 Scranton Road, Cleveland, 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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