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Seriously funny: That’s all you need to know about the uproar of a comedy at the H Street Playhouse.
OK, maybe you need to know it’s a (sometimes) musical comedy about black gay 20-somethings and their unwed-mother cousins, a postmodern farce starring a mammy and a snarling overseer and a Miss Scarlett clone, a self-referential vaudeville about African-American scholarship and Nat Turner’s rebellion that stops sharply every now and again to punch you in the gut. Did I mention there’s dancing?
If ever a show risked feeling scattered, it’s Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection: Holding History, a time-traveling absurdist tragicomedy mad enough to flirt with minstrelsy—and inspired enough, at least in Timothy Douglas’ smart-as-a-whip staging for the Theater Alliance, to carry it off more or less triumphantly. Sure, it sags (but just a little) in the second act; sure, it preaches (but just a little) toward the end; and sure, maybe it turns out, once you sit down to pick it apart, that O’Hara’s riffs on identity and history and how they’re constructed have got more razzle-dazzle than depth. But mostly Insurrection’s just hilariously unafraid to go practically wherever it wants to go—and any show that can get a guffaw out of a chorus of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has got my vote.
It’s present time when we start, and there’s a rousing party going on: Ron has come home from Columbia University, where he’s finishing up a Ph.D. in the history of slavery, for his great-great-grandpa T.J.’s 189th birthday celebration. Never mind the always-annoying TV reporters wondering whether there’s “any voodoo involved” in the old guy’s longevity, the party appears to be a rousing success—at least until Ron spies the fugitive Nat Turner in his Aunt Gertha’s backyard, on the run from the troops intent on avenging the 55 white deaths his 1831 uprising encompassed. By the time the dancers start fishtailing it en masse, and the TV guy starts taking down Turner’s suspiciously flowery “confession”—though his microphone says fox news, so you know it’s gotta be fair and balanced, right?—Insurrection has conclusively shown its hand: O’Hara’s planning on tackling some heavy stuff, and he’s going to have some fun doing it.
In short order, Ron and T.J. (who speaks to his descendant through some kind of ancestor telepathy) have hit the road for the rural Virginia county where Turner’s bloody rebellion occurred—and as they get closer to the place, they get closer to the time as well, until after a night of troubled sleep in a back-roads motel, they land on the plantation where T.J.’s friends and family will shortly live through, or perhaps die in, the uprising. Actually, they land on the plantation owner, whose bright red cowboy boots stick out from under the edge of the motel bed for much of the rest of the show; the actress who was playing Gertha turns up again in a hoop skirt and a wide-brimmed hat, and Ron’s cousin Octavia appears in a kerchief and an apron. The slaves shake their chains and sing a rousing parody of “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” complete with a tambourine and a bit of choreography so instantly and hysterically recognizable it would be criminal to describe it. Then Ron’s trying to change history, and T.J.’s telling him he needs to just watch closely and try to understand it—and the people who are busy making it all around him.
Insurrection whipsaws back and forth from moments of inspired parody, as O’Hara and Douglas seize on and send up nearly every pop-cultural image of blackness (and crackerness) they can squeeze into the story, to moments of real urgency as they explore the question of how Ron can contribute anything worthwhile to a history that’s already contained chapters as monumental as Nat’s and T.J.’s. The miraculous thing is how well it hangs together through those hairpin turns and how willingly the audience goes along. Douglas’ thoroughly committed cast and their sharply timed performances are critical reasons why: If any show’s an early shoo-in for a nomination in the Helen Hayes Awards’ new best-ensemble category, this is it. Tony Cisek’s barn-board-and-chain-link set works nicely, too, as do Dan Covey’s communicative lighting and Kate Turner-Walker’s costumes, sober and side-splittingly funny as needed.
And, of course, the success is Douglas’, too: He’s the guy who keeps the jokes from feeling smug and the drama from tipping over into melo-, the guy keeping O’Hara’s rocketing, pinwheeling, spark-shooting bundle of pyrotechnics from blowing up and taking off somebody’s leg. From the evidence onstage, he’s the kind of director who can turn a bunch of actors into a superbly drilled unit—and he’s led this bunch just about to the promised land. You really oughta follow while you can.