The original book called Confessions of Nat Turner is a scholar's main source for whatever happened during the slave uprising that lasted four bloody nights in Southampton, Va., in 1831. But it was written by a white, slave-owning lawyer who said he put everything down the way Turner dictated. So what we know about this part of our past -- about any part of the past -- is filtered; and facts (as any fact-checker knows) are more like beads of mercury than solid little stones. With these ideas in mind Robert O'Hara wrote Insurrection: Holding History as a whacked and sprawling musical fantasia in a style you might call anti-Amistad. The hero, Ron, is a contemporary gay black graduate student trying to finish a thesis on Nat Turner; his 189-year-old grandfather, TJ, still alive, was actually involved in Nat Turner's rebellion. Ron learns this kind of late; on the verge of his thesis deadline they drive to Virginia, bed down for the night, and find themselves transported like Dorothy from Kansas to an 1831 plantation, where their flying bed kills the owner and gives his slaves an excuse to celebrate with a musical number evoking The Wiz.
Anti-Amistad with a vengeance: This describes only the first half-hour of the play. The rest of your evening involves an equally whacked and semihistorical buildup to the rebellion, climaxing with an attempt by Ron to quell it. He knows that the result of its blood will be the torture and murder of innocent slaves and the end of the abolitionist movement in the South. Ron's speech about blood is the first earnest scene of the play, in fact, and it's electric. His grandfather, in his younger guise, matches its passion in an answering speech about the reasons the rebellion should go on. This eloquently keeps Insurrection from warping history altogether, and in the process transforms Nat Turner -- who was probably messianic and crazed -- into a quixotic, tragic hero, rebelling against enormous odds for the distant ideal of freedom.
This play pulls O'Hara into an old debate over how Turner deserves to be remembered. William Styron wrote a modern, novel-version Confessions of Nat Turner; he believes that without the rebellion, slavery might have ended earlier, possibly without the Civil War. So Insurrection's attack on how we remember history could be seen as cheating, a way of skipping thorny "facts" to make Turner a folk hero. The play is a massive cartoon, not deep in any of its characters, in spite of some excellent acting by the whole cast, especially Gregory Wallace as Ron, and Shona Tucker as both his Aunt Gertha and the plantation owner's annoying wife. And the thing sprawls; it's made of bright and novel stuff that cloys. But it's also funny and elegant in the way it expresses this idea that the past is never quite knowable. "Nat Turner, slavery -- big deal, move on!" Ron says at the beginning. "But it won't let me go." History holds him, yet he can barely grasp it. What makes Insurrection so good is the nose-thumbing attitude it takes toward this terrible truth, refusing to treat history with the sentimental heaviness that sometimes keeps whole nations from moving on.
-- Michael Scott Moore
Tread Dance Theater. Choreography by Carmen Carnes, Robin Kurland, and Chantal Lucier. At ODC Performance Gallery Theater, 3153 17th St. (at South Van Ness), Jan. 16-24. Call 863-9834.
In the middle of Tread Dance Theater's recent show, when a clock face is projected across a dancer's torso, I awake with alarm to the time zone of the work: a woman's early 20s. At that age, we catch sight of time -- the way it moves, the fact that it surrounds us. It's as if time were people and they were constantly passing us by; we suddenly notice we're alone. Young enough to be denied the dubious comfort of treading the same ground over and over again, we're old enough to stand outside the moment and look backward to what feels irretrievable and forward to what feels like outer space. Tread, a newly formed company of young women, inhabits this state of mind. Its show keeps returning to the isolation of being -- and being female. For the most part, though, the choreographers don't illuminate this condition. Like the rest of us, they can't see what's overtaking them.
Robin Kurland's Part 1: Folds of Memory is an exception. In slouchy gray slacks with perfect pockets for anxious hands, four women dance variations on the theme of lonely waiting. The piece opens with them arrayed in a disheveled line; they stand at oblique angles to one another, bodies gawky with self-consciousness and faces looking off vaguely toward something that won't come near. Throughout the dance, they maintain close proximity but don't really notice each other until late along; then, they huddle together, trying to warm themselves with their neighbors' skin.
The piece jumps from one odd activity to another, accompanied by music that evokes the slap-slap of windshield wipers and a subway train's rush. Dancers scuttle crablike on their backs, suspend arms overhead as if hanging from a Muni bar, and crawl into the negative spaces of one another's rubbled bodies. The concerted awkwardness of these sequences contradicts the dancers' lush beauty, which exposed bellies and barely veiled breasts accentuate. The contrast between their bodies and how they use them merges the ideas of isolation and of nubile sexuality into a single entity. Folds of Memory suggests that as a young woman wades through the minutes and years suddenly at hand, even her body -- that thing ostensibly closest to her -- doesn't save her from feeling anxiously alone. In fact, it's part of the feeling. Her body refuses to belong to her.