Stage Left Theatre Company presents INSURRECTION: HOLDING HISTORY Review: Pure Honesty On Stage

Nathaniel Andrew as Hammet and Breon Arzell as Ron in INSURRECTION: HOLDING HISTORY by Robert O’Hara. Tyler Core

If you could hold history in the palm of your hand, what would you do?


 Written by Robert O’Hara and directed by Wardell Julius Clark, Insurrection: Holding History follows Ron (Breon Arzell), a young, gay African American graduate student. He is pursuing his PhD in slave history at Columbia University, and in the process of completing his thesis on Nat Turner’s rebellion. When Ron’s 189-year-old grandfather, TJ (Ian Martin), takes Ron back in time to meet Turner (Christopher W. Jones) and peek a glimpse at life back in the 1800s, Ron gains far more than a personal account for his dissertation.


Shariba Rivers as Mutha Wit, Ian Martin as TJ, Breon Arzell as Ron, and Sam Boeck as Cop in INSURRECTION: HOLDING HISTORY by Robert O’Hara. Tyler Core

What would you do to experience important history? If given the opportunity, would you change it, and at what cost? O’Hara asks these questions and more in this thrilling story. His thought-provoking and powerful script forces the audience to take a step back and truly examine the current state of American society. The story constantly switches between the 1800s and modern-day, and the repeated time jumps and the double casting of actors invites the audience to draw connections and question how much has really improved in the last 200 years.

The Design

 Helmed by Clark, the creative team makes excellent use of the Athenaeum’s intimate space, inviting the audience on the wild, time traveling ride that is O’Hara’s play.

Scenic Designer and Stage Left Ensemble Member Kathy Arfken utilizes the stage in an abstract but effective manner. Arfken fills the stage with wooden beams, creating various entrances and exits. Aside from those, the stage is fairly bare, with simple add-ons of chairs and tables as needed. The design allows for the easy transition between time periods, which is further enhanced by the work of Sound Designer Matthew Bonham Lockdall, whose musical interludes would often sharply contrast with the scene at hand, such as the choice to play modern-day rap music following a scene taking place back in the 1800s.

Ian Martin as TJ, Shariba Rivers as Mutha, Breon Arzell as Ron, Anna Dauzverdis as Katie Lynn, Sam Boeck as Buck Naked, Ayanna Bria Bakari as Izzie Mae, and Nathaniel Andrew as Hammet in INSURRECTION: HOLDING HISTORY by Robert O’Hara. Tyler Core

Clever Staging

Clark expertly utilizes the design elements to bring this idea of intrusions and clashes of time periods to life. One particularly striking scene occurs at the top of Act One, when the stage is bare except for Ron and his grandfather. Ron puts on a pair of headphones, and takes out a book to read. Shariba Rivers enters in older, rattier clothing that might be found on a woman of her status in the 1800s south, and she begins to sing a stunning lullaby. Two men – who the audience later learns to be Nat Turner (Christopher W. Jones) and Hammet (Nathaniel Andrew), run across the stage through various exits and entrances, and from off stage, the voices of three women can be heard partying and singing. Ron is left on stage, the only individual who notices the discrepancies of all of the various stimuli running through the room. The scene offers the perfect way to prepare the audience for the piece they are about to see – a wild journey that is constantly forcing the audience to ask questions and wonder what will come next.

Ayanna Bria Bakari as Izzie Mae and Cristopher W. Jones as Nat Turner in INSURRECTION: HOLDING HISTORY by Robert O’Hara. Photo by Tyler Core

Stellar Ensemble

 With constant jumps between time periods and double and triple casting, Insurrection presents quite the challenge for this ensemble of actors. However, this ensemble tackles the piece with ease, and successfully carries the audience from one moment to the next. Their ability to play complete opposites in their double/triple casting assignments is impeccable.

Sydney Charles as Mistress Mo’tel showcases a spot-on comedic timing that keeps the audience laughing with her every scene. Her Mo’tel provides a lovely contrast to Charles’ portrayal of Gertha, who carries a more dark, snarky humor. Charles and Anna Dauzvardis as Gertha’s daughter, Octavia, carry a hilarious stage chemistry with their constant and fast-paced bickering. In contrast, Dauzvardis’ Katie Lynn, a house slave to Mistress Mo’tel, is more solemn, and elicits a powerful sense of sympathy from the audience.

Christopher W. Jones brings inspiration to his performance as the slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, which creates an even sharper and more impressive contrast to his portrayal of Ova Sea Jones, the individual brought in to keep the slaves in line through punishment.

Anna Dauzvardis as Octavia/Katie Lynn and Sydney Charles as Gertha/Mistress Mo’tel in INSURRECTION: HOLDING HISTORY by Robert O’Hara. Tyler Core

Finally, Breon Arzell and Ian Martin as Ron and TJ showcase a beautiful relationship between grandfather and grandson that is a joy to watch unfold. Alone, they each carry a commanding presence. Martin holds the task of remaining still in a wheel chair until he time travels into his younger self, and his contrast, yet consistency in a bold, strong presence is remarkable. Arzell on the other hand showcases excellent comedic timing, but also brings a high level of honesty to the deeper and more tragic moments.

Dark humor and brutal honesty make Insurrection: Holding History a must-see event.

Breon Arzell as Ron and Ian Martin as TJ in INSURRECTION: HOLDING HISTORY by Robert O’Hara. Tyler Core


Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves



Playing through February 11, 2018

Thursdays at 8:00pm
Fridays at 8:00pm
Saturdays at 8:00pm
Sundays at 3:00pm

Run Time: 2 hours, with ten minute intermission.


Athenaeum Theatre

2936 N. Southport Avenue

Chicago, IL 60657


For tickets and information, visit the show page on the Athenaeum Theatre website.

Photo Credit:

Tyler Core


Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago


About the Author: 

Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters. 

Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.


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