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Who Holds History?

March 31, 2014—With any major event, there are two histories: the one we all know and another version of events that never makes it into history books. Alumnus Isaiah Wooden (C’04) recently returned to Georgetown to direct Insurrection: Holding History, a play that attempts to challenge our notions of time, race, and history. Insurrection will run April 4–12, 2014, in the Gonda Theatre.

Currently a doctoral student in theater and performance studies at Stanford University, Wooden is no stranger to directing at Georgetown. He directed his first play, Wit by alumna Margaret Edson (G’92), while still an undergraduate student. He also served as the artistic advisor for the Black Theatre Ensemble from 2005 to 2008.

“While at Georgetown, I discovered the importance of taking both artistic and intellectual risks,” Wooden said. “The opportunity to return to the community that first unearthed for me the ways that the critical and the creative, theory, and practice might dialogue—the community that inspired me to claim both scholar and artist as identities—was one that I welcomed enthusiastically,” he continued.

Insurrection: Holding History is written by playwright Robert O’Hara, who is often included in Wooden’s research and teaching. “Insurrection blurs, blends, and bends time to imagine myriad histories that have gone unrecorded or unremarked,” Wooden said. “Ron, the play’s central character, uncovers all sorts of absented realities while maneuvering and attempting to manipulate the past in the play.”

Ron is a gay, African American graduate student, who is in the middle of writing his thesis on American slave insurrections. Ron returns home to celebrate the birthday of his great-great-grandfather, T.J., a 189-year-old former slave. T.J. asks Ron if he will take him “home” to the 1830s. “In a scene that recalls Dorothy’s landing in Oz—a bed flies up in the air, spins, and comes crashing down on the owner of the plantation—the pair travel back in time,” Wooden said.

With its time travel, spirits, and ghosts, the play broaches “very large questions,” Wooden said. “In powerful ways, Insurrection troubles the notion of a singular, authoritative History (with a capital H) and instead, asks us to consider what might be gleaned if we attend to those secrets of the past, ghosting our present, waiting to be realized in time,” he continued.

In his trip through time, Ron encounters those secret pasts not included in our recorded histories, particularly when he meets Hammet, a slave and deputy in Nat Turner’s rebellion, who is also gay. “Ron and Hammet’s romance recalls the ghosts of many queer relationships absented from the archive,” Wooden explained.

As Ron encounters these untold portions of history, Insurrection asks, “What is history? Who has the right to tell history? Who determines what kinds of stories get documented or recorded?”

Wooden finds these types of questions intriguing, and they are the basis for much of his work as an artist and scholar. “My work has and continues to be animated by a commitment to pursue fully and rigorously a set of questions that I consider compelling and that I think demands my attention,” he explained. “As a director-dramaturge, I often choose projects that will allow me to pursue such questions in community, in conversation, [and] in collaboration with others,” he continued.

Robert O’Hara’s work is distinctive, Wooden says, because it “stretches boundaries and expands categories.” O’Hara is currently the playwright-in-residence at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in Washington, DC. To describe O’Hara’s plays, Wooden offers a quote from the playwright on how he approaches writing: “Everyone is welcome and no one is safe.”

“A willingness to experiment generously and dangerously is no doubt what O’Hara adds to the contemporary theater scene.”

—Elizabeth Wilson