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Your Past is Around the Corner: A Review of Annex Theater’s “Insurrection: Holding History”

If you want to see a play that forces you to think about how the past influences the present, Robert O’Hara’s Insurrection: Holding History, is a must-see. O’Hara, who wrote the play as his graduate thesis, explores themes of ancestry, race, and sexuality.

Ron (right) drives T.J. (left) home. Mutha Wit takes the backseat. (Photo courtesy of Annex Theater)

The play follows Ron (Nathan Steven Couser), a 25-year-old Columbia University doctoral history candidate who is finishing his thesis paper about Nat Turner’s rebellion. Accompanying the central character is his immobile, non-speaking 189-year-old great grandfather, T.J. (Dominic Gladden), who is a former slave. Ron is able to communicate with his grandfather through Mutha Wit (Anna Brown), who is an extension of T.J.’s psyche. Through Mutha Wit, we hear T.J. thoughts and his conversations with his great grandson. After celebrating his 189th birthday, T.J. tells his grandson to take him home.

What better way to get material for your looming thesis paper deadline than to travel with your grandfather to the slave plantation where he lived in Southampton, Virginia? Initially, the play reminds me of Octavia Butler’s Kindred (for those of you who haven’t read the novel, the protagonist is transplanted into slavery times). Although the play’s subject matter can be heavy and dark, especially the scene when the Black overseer (Kalid Bilal) forces both Izzie Mae (Terena McLorn) and Ron to strip in order to beat them, there are comical scenes. The musical dance break that the slaves perform when they discover the master’s dead body is hilarious.

“Yeah! Oh, he’s dead,” the slaves sing gleefully while an image of a cotton plantation is projected on the wall.

And you can’t have a play about slavery and not include the slave owner’s wife. S. Ann Johnson plays Mistress Mo’Tel superbly. There is Katie Lynn (Rachel Reckling), the house slave who cares for Mistress Mo’Tel’s baby, Wretched Jr. (and even that has a twist). Buck Naked (Dave Iden) is the lone White indentured servant who is treated no better than his Black counterparts.

Nat Turner (front) during a rousing sermon. Buck Naked (middle) and Mutha (far left) listen. (Photo courtesy of Annex Theater)

Nat Turner (front) during a rousing sermon. Buck Naked (middle) and Mutha (far left) listen. (Photo courtesy of Annex Theater)

Another aspect of the play is the role of religion. We see Nat Turner (Kalid Bilal), who claims he is a prophet and values the Bible; yet, he is able to justify brutally killing Whites. As Ron watches the brutality of the reality that surrounds him, he asks his grandfather does he believe in God. Fervently, the grandfather tells his grandson, “You are the proof. Slavery ends.”

As a viewer, the play challenges the notion that history is not connected to the present. O’Hara seems to suggest that life is a continuation of experiences that are rooted in the past. As T.J. puts it to Ron, “You wake up every morning breathing the air that Nat Turner fought for you to breathe and you sleep every night with no fear ’cause that crazy nigga shouted out at the moon asking his God for a way through this trouble.”

Insurrection also examines the quest for an individual to find his purpose. The question that Hammet (Kenyon Parson), Nat Turner’s right-hand man, asks Ron is a poignant one: “You ain’t got something you willing to die for?”

Insurrection runs through October 25th at the Annex Theater (219 Park Ave, Baltimore, MD). The play is directed by Kyle Jackson. Tickets are $15.00 (general admission) and $7.00 (students). Visit Annex Theater website for more information at http://www.baltimoreannextheater.org.

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Sherna Ann Johnson:an emerging Charm City playwright

Last Tuesday, I went to the Strand Theater to view a staged reading of Sherna Johnson’s latest play Sick Stories, Gentle Granddaddy (2011). Once, again Sherna wrote an awesome play that chronicles the life of an African-American man, a fellow Baltimorean who marries a Southern woman named Queen. What makes the play interesting is the narration, which is told from the granddaughter’s perspective. She knows her grandfather as a gentle caring man, which is a far departure from his abusive, alcoholic days. I don’t want to give too much away because I want to you to experience the play with fresh eyes. Hopefully, the play will be selected as a part of the 2011 Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Click here to listen to the dynamic play.

It is so awesome to see a good friend become successful at her craft. When I am an audience member, I become transfixed–I am immersed in the story. If Sick Stories, Gentle Granddaddy is selected, it would be Sherna’s second produced play. As mentioned in a previous post, Sherna’s first play, The XX Chromosome Genome Project, was selected as part of the second annual Friends and Neighbors Festival: Works by Women at the Strand Theater  in 2010. The play is reminiscent of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf.  You can purchase Sherna’s chapbook here for $7.95.  To learn more about Sherna and her creative endeavors, visit her website, sannjohnson.info. Sherna is a promising up-and-coming playwright who is on her way to the top!

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griots of America

I have been reading the works of Ms. Dael Orlandersmith, an award-winning playwright who grew up in Harlem. As mentioned in a previous post from Dreamer’s Paradise, I have read Orlandersmith’s Yellowman (2002), which was nominated for a 2002 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Orlandersmith was nominated the same year that Suzan-Lori Parks won a Pulitzer Prize for Topdog/Underdog (2001) and became the first African-American woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Maybe I’m not in the know when it comes to theater productions, but I don’t recall there being a lot of buzz for Yellowman, which goes to show you that just because you never heard of someone or something doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Yellowman takes place in South Carolina and follows the budding romance between dark-skinned, big-boned, and ambitious Alma and fair-skinned, sensitive, and somewhat of a slacker Eugene. In this play, Orlandersmith reveals the ugliness of colorism and classism within the African-American community. Eugene has a contentious relationship with his dark-skinned father, Robert Gaines, who despises and envies his light-hued son: You wanna fight me high yella, huh? You wanna fight? I think your best bet high yella is to get outta my face before I hurt you/ cause I will knock your high yella/ red ass down! (Orlandersmith 10). There are other parts in the play where the language is poetic and sensual. I could feel the sun beating on my skin and the speckles of red dust falling on my bare feet. I could feel the heat of Alma’s and Euguene’s first sexual encounter. When Alma attends college, I could hear the music blaring from the windows and smell the exotic foods of New York City. Although the ending is tragic and haunting, Yellowman is a must-read. I would have loved to see the original production of Orlandersmith’s play, which starred Dael Orlandersmith and Howard W. Overshown, but I will settle with any production that is well-directed. It’s funny that I had never heard of Orlandersmith before reading Yellowman—I think she is one of those talented artists that few people know, which is crazy considering that she is a Pulitzer Prize nominee who received an Obie Award in 1996 for Beauty’s Daughter. I often wonder why some artists are talented and gifted; yet, no one has heard of them. As far as Black female playwrights go, the ones I know are Lorraine Hansberry, who penned Raisin in the Sun (1959), and Suzan-Lori Parks, and that is simply sad because I know there are plenty of Black female playwrights that are doing their thing. For example, there is Latonia Valincia, a playwright who lives in Baltimore, who writes about the experiences of Black women. Last year, she debuted her play, Bootprints, at the University of Baltimore’s Emerging Voices showcase (click here to view UB’s lineup for 2010). Then, there is Sherna Ann Johnson, another playwright from Baltimore, who premiered her first play, “The XX Chromosome Genome Project” at The Strand Theater (click here, to read my play review). I love to read Black female playwrights because they tell stories that include me and my heritage. They are our griots.  Listen. Absorb. Reflect. Cherish. Share. 

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a playwright is born

Wow! Last week, I attended a powerful, new play entitled The XX Chromosome Genome Project (2010), which made its debut at The Strand Theater located in Baltimore City’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Out of 45 submissions, The XX Chromosome Genome Project along with three others plays were selected for The Strand’s Friends and Neighbors Festival: Works by Women. The play reminded me of  Ntzoke Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (1975), and I’m not just saying that because the playwright Sherna Johnson is a good friend. Instead of the women being identified by the color of their clothing, the actresses were identified by their “flavor”: Donisha Adams (Chocolate), Jessica Ruth Baker (Vanilla), Chrisovalandou Diakokomninos (Cinnamon), Naelis Ervin (Caramel), Nina Marti (Lemon), and Lauren Wardell (White Chocolate). Each flavor represents the woman’s ethnicity: African American (Chocolate), Latina (Caramel), Caucasian (Vanilla), Native American (Cinnamon), Asian American (Lemon), and biracial (White Chocolate). Sherna’s purpose for penning The XX Chromosome Genome Project is to show the commonality of women’s experiences. One of my favorite monologues is “B-more Girl Living in a Be-less World,” which was performed by Naelis Ervin. Although Ms. Ervin’s ethnicity is African American, I was convinced that she was Dominican. She had the accent down! Overall, I was pleased with the production, and I recommend that you see this play (unfortunately, the play’s last showing was held the previous week, but hopefully Sherna will do another production). Luckily, you can purchase Sherna’s chapbook at the website 2 Pens & Lint, an indie chapbook company located in Philadelphia, PA. To read the interview that was conducted by Henry Duncan, click here. If you know of any emerging playwrights that are on the rise, leave a post, so we can be in the know!

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free yourself, ladies and gentlemen

I just finished watching a powerful play entitled Blackbird at the Everyman Theatre located in Baltimore City. The show runs from May 12 to June 13th. Blackbird was first commissioned and presented by the Edinburgh International Festival at the King’s Theatre in August 2005. In 2006, it was presented at the Albery Theatre in the West End. The play made its American debut at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007. At first, the play is kind of slow, you are wondering, “What is going on?” But when the character, Una, asks the question, “Well, how many other 12-year-olds have you slept with?” the play has officially started. The playwright, David Harrower, tackles the taboo subject of child molestation, and what makes the matter even more complicated is Una’s inability to escape her fixation, obsession, and yearning for Ray, the man who had sex with her at age 12. There were many parts of the play that disturbed me. I found myself mad at Ray for portraying himself as the victim, and I was equally disgusted that Una still craved affection and approval from Ray. It actually made me sad. Una was still holding on to her childhood fantasies…she wanted the man who molested her to love her. After bearing witness to the play, Blackbird, I told myself I can never allow myself to be Una. The play made me evaluate myself: What toxicity am I holding on to? Are there things or people in my life that I’m enslaved to and in bondage to? The fact that this play raised so many questions is a marker of superb writing that goes underneath the surface.  A great playwright is unafraid to look at darkness and stare it right in the face. I’ll admit, I was disappointed that Una did not break free of her shackles, and part of me wanted to say that it was because the play was written from a male perspective. However, there are many people who are holding on to painful events in their past, holding on to toxic relationships, holding on to people who have damaged them, and they are dying inside because of their inability to let go, so I’m begging you, if you are holding on to hurt, please release it. Please do not be an Una.

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the role of the artist

Last Saturday, I saw August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) at Center Stage Theater located in Baltimore City. After viewing the play, I became interested in reading August Wilson’s ten plays, which chronicles the African-American experience for each decade of the 20th century. It is amazing that Wilson, a high school drop-out, became one of  America’s best playwrights. I love how Wilson dedicated his craft to depict  the history, struggle, and joy of African-Americans. He was not afraid to address controversial topics such as structural racism, exploitation, and self-hatred. In college, I took a course where we read and discussed various plays. For my presentation, I discussed August Wilson and Suzan-Lori Parks. I learned a lot. Before Wilson wrote a single play, he was a poet. As mentioned previously, he dropped out of school as a teenager. To occupy his free time, Wilson would spend hours at the local library reading books. Also, he studied the unemployed Black men he saw congregating on the street corners.  He paid attention to the men’s speech patterns, cadence, and gestures. Combining both his observation and word craftsmanship, Wilson has written literary gems. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes in Drama for Fences (1986)  and The Piano Lesson (1990). Sadly, in 2005, Wilson died at the age of 60 due to liver cancer; however, his legacy and work are here for eternity. I write all of this to say: Art should educate the masses. It should awaken people’s sensibilities. The best art makes the viewer question the perceived truths of the world. Being an artist involves making sacrifices. It means that you will ruffle feathers, but who cares? Artists are supposed to respond to the world. We are observers and commentators. We must take our craft seriously. We have the chance to impact lives. We have a gift. And a glorious burden.

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