Try to define playwright Robert O'Hara's Insurrection: Holding History would likely result in confusion.
"I've been describing it, like, the playwright does Roots meets The Wizard of Oz meets In Living Color. With a big gay love story between two African Americans right in the middle of everything," said leading man Breon Arzell, who plays Ron, a gay historian swept into a time-tripping odyssey where fact, fiction, romance and adventure collide.
Zig-zagging from the present day to antebellum south, "Insurrection" is a genre-defying epic centered on Ron's doctoral research into Nat Turner, the preacher/slave ( played by Christopher Jones ) who led a doomed uprising against slavery in 1831.
Like the blockbuster musical "Hamilton," "Insurrection" asks who gets to tell the stories of history. In O'Hara's drama, the story of Nat Turnerwho he was, what he did and how he is rememberedlooms large in Ron's discovery of both his thesis material and his own self-discovery. The setting notwithstanding, O'Hara's narrative digs deepthis is not a story wholly focused on the evils of slavery and the centuries-long struggle to overcome it.
"I see this as a story of hope," Arzell adds, "It's about bringing things to the light, and taking them out of the darkness."
Leaf through most mainstream history texts and you'll find precious little light shed on Nat Turner. Beyond William Styron's engrossing but fictionalized novel "The Confessions of Nat Turner," the biography of the childhood preacher-turned-rebel leader remains largely unexplored in both popular culture and American history txts.
"We don't know more about Nat Turner because the very idea of Nat Turner is terrifying to many people," says director Wardell Julius Clark, "Turner is what happens when you disregard people's essential humanity. There's a reckoning. You can't rape and beat and starve someone and then expect them to lick your hand when you come around to pet them."
Turner's reckoning unfolded in 1831. A charismatic speaker since childhood, Turner gathered a group of slaves and free Blacks together and attempted to reclaim their lives. They unleashed havoc in Southampton County, Virginia, going from plantation to plantation, collecting arms and horses and leaving behind a trail of some 60 dead white people. The uprising was eventually crushed. In its aftermath, more than 100 Black peoplemany of them free and with no connection to the uprisingwere killed. Turner hid for two months before he was caught and hanged.
"Insurrection" takes off when Ron's ancient great-great-great grandfather offers to take the young historian back in time to meet Nat Turner in person. With a mix of magical realism and kitchen-sink grittiness, the plot spirals through centuries to show how events in Turner's time reverberate through the centuries.
"We might not physically have the chains anymore, but they're still there in many respects. We're still living with the aftermath, the residuals of what happened hundreds of years ago," says Arzell, "Years and years of degradation and dehumanization, they manifest in many ways. Self-doubt is one, believing that you can't accomplish something. That's embedded in a lot of people, and it can be a very real barrier toward success.
"Colorism is another example," he continues, "The whole idea that lighter is more beautiful and dark is notthat's not something ( people of color ) came up with on their own. Colorist is within our own community, but we didn't put it there.
"There's a line in the play where Ron's grandfather talks about carrying the scars of our ancestors," Arzell concludes, "To some extent, we all carry those scars still."
The love story near the heart of Ron's narrative offers both hope and speaks to the enduring legacy of those scars, says Clark. "Ron is trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs in the world. The idea of going back in time and learning something about yourself and your own historythat's integral here. Ron learns to open up. That's importantWe still have huge issues with homophobia in some communities, and we don't really talk about it.
"Especially in church communities there can be a deep-seated sense of homophobia. It's like, everybody knows the choir director might be gay, but no one wants to talk about it. With the love story in "Insurrection," we give light and a voice to something that's often hidden and problematic," Clark finishes, "The love story here, it's all part of ( the ) discovery when you accept who you really are and living in your truth."
Insurrection: Holding History will run through Sunday, Feb. 11, at Stage Left Theatre at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Admission is $22-$32 each; visit AthenaeumTheatre.org or call 773-935-6875.