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In time of racial tension, U of M stages a contemporary look at slavery

The set of "Insurrection: Holding History" at the Arthur Miller Theatre. The show opens March 30.
Cass Adair
The set of "Insurrection: Holding History" at the Arthur Miller Theatre. The show opens March 30.

 Stateside's conversation with director Timothy Douglas.

As Timothy Douglas gave his cast some advice before a recent rehearsal, giggles broke out when he mimicked one of the characters. Douglas laughed along with the University of Michigan student actors, who were taking notes from their seats in the campus’s Arthur Miller Theatre.

Soon after, however, he shifted his voice to a more serious register, telling the players to feel out the moment before staging the play’s more comedic lines.

“Don’t force it,” he said, “if it’s not there.”

The set of "Insurrection: Holding History" at the Arthur Miller Theatre. The show opens March 30.
Credit Cass Adair
The set of "Insurrection: Holding History" at the Arthur Miller Theatre. The show opens March 30.

Douglas’s mix of humor and sincerity is mirrored in the play that he’s directing for University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. As Douglas described it,Insurrection: Holding Historyis “a very complicated journey,” a story that others have called “Rootsmeets theWizard of Oz.”

The play centers around Ron Porter (Aaron Huey), a PhD Candidate in “Slave History” at Columbia University, and his 189-year old Great-Great-Great GrandfatherTJ(Eddie Williams), a former slave who is mysteriously still alive. Ron is writing a thesis about Nat Turner, the leader of a violent slave rebellion in 1831, but is stuck.TJ, it turns out, was actually there.

Time travel ensues.

Douglas said the play uses humor to bring to light the “dark history” of slavery. For example, when Ron andTJ’stime travel accidentally kills the plantation owner, there is a “'Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead'-type number."

Still, the theatrical sensibility does not sugar-coat the violence of slavery. “Within minutes,” Douglas said, “you’re dealing with a very real confrontation between the maniacal overseer and the slaves while he’s weighing the cotton.”

Douglas has producedInsurrection: Holding Historymultiple times before. In his experience, the reception of the show can sometimes depend on the demographics of the audience. Some white viewers will hesitate to laugh, which Douglas called a “DNA recognition that we’re still living with this atrocity.” Still, he said, the play “tells a story about family that anyone can relate to.”  

Conversations about race are in the public eye right now, which Douglas anticipated will lead to “a more potent response” to this performance. He can already tell that the students of color who make up the majority of the cast ofInsurrection: Holding Historyare benefiting from the “innate, connected, unbridled joy” of acting in a culturally-specific role.

"At its essence,” Douglas said, “it’s a play about knowing one’s history, that without knowing one’s history, one cannot really self-identify and move forward in a productive way in the world.”Insurrection: Holding Historyis “not for the meek, but very entertaining and necessary.”

Hear more from director Timothy Douglas, including a clip from the play, above.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. (Subscribe to the Stateside podcast on iTunesGoogle Play, or with this RSS link)

Copyright 2021 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Cass Adair is interning as a production assistant on Stateside and The Next Idea. He is also a fifth-year PhD Candidate in English Language and Literature at University of Michigan, specializing in contemporary literature and culture. He's from Virginia Beach, VA and went to college in Williamsburg, VA.
Read more about the Stateside.