Adrienne Kennedy festival: He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Ohio State Murders, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, Etta and Ella

“Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side,” a world premiere play about the deadly rivalry of two sisters, written by the 89-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy, begins the same way as the three previous productions in the online festival of her work by Round House and McCarter theaters, all four plays available through February 28th. (Update: The festival is extended through April 30, 2021.)  They each begin with a different set of theater artists, critics or scholars praising Kennedy’s work. A sample:

“I love Adrienne’s work because it always starts with something concrete and personal, and then through her genius she distills it into a kind of theatrical poetry that has the visceral power of a dream to take your breath away.”

A play by Adrienne Kennedy “gets inside of you, it provokes you, it haunts you…”

“….both deeply personal and epically political…”

“I love how she fuses dreamscape and history and nightmare….”

The admiration is clear, but it’s hard to imagine a festival of such Kennedy contemporaries as Edward Albee or Amiri Baraka needing testimonies to their genius or their plays’ impact. Even the official title of the festival – The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence – feels like an argument for her work.  The festival organizers’ underlying message seems to be: Her stuff is challenging, but worth it.   And the festival demonstrates this to be true…in half their productions.

January LaVoy as the Duchess of Hapsburg in Funnyhouse of a Negro

There is a reason for the festival’s implicit plea. Although Kennedy has authored some two dozen plays in a career spanning six decades, they are more frequently studied than produced, as she herself has complained. Many are difficult for directors to stage, and for audiences to absorb. It’s not surprising that none of her plays have been on Broadway. Her first play,  “Funnyhouse Of a Negro” from 1964,  is still her best known and most frequently mounted  — the latest production in New York on a bill with Edward Albee’s “The Sandbox” and Maria Irene Fornés’ “Drowning,” in 2016, while they were all still alive. (Now only Kennedy remains.)  The play takes place in the mind of  “Negro-Sarah,” a writer living on the Upper West Side who is obsessed with the color of her skin; her encounters with everybody from Queen Victoria to Patrice Lumumba to Jesus are presented in a swirl of sentences endlessly repeated and imagery straight out of a nightmare.

In my review of that production, I noted that, out of the three vintage absurdist dramas, Funnyhouse was “the most resistant to easy summarizing.”  A Kennedy play always offers much beneath and beyond whatever its surface story. But perhaps it’s no coincidence that the two plays I enjoyed most in this festival — appreciated without reservation — were the ones whose surface stories were the most straightforward.

He Brought Her Back in a Box

The first play presented in the festival, about a doomed interracial romance in a small Georgia town in 1941, debuted Off-Broadway three years ago, Kennedy’s first play in a decade. In “He Brought Her Head Back in a Box,” Chris (Michael Sweeney Hammond) and Kay (Maya Jackson) don’t so much talk to one another, as recite alternating monologues, telling ugly stories about their families and the town. Chris talks about his father, the town’s patriarch, a segregationist and white supremacist who sired several “Nigra children.” Kay,  the mixed-race daughter of a white man and a 15-year-old black woman who died shortly after giving birth, wants the answers to several gnawing mysteries: Did Kay’s mother kill herself, or was she killed? Did Kay’s father really, as everybody said, bring her mother’s heart back in a box?

There are layers of symbolism in the script, which is a lyrical collage of elements from theater of the absurd, Greek tragedy, Tennessee Williams, Hollywood movies, and the autobiographical rage and humiliations of a black woman born in the 1930s. The director Nicole A. Watson occasionally attempts to use quick imagery to underscore those elusive allusions:  For example, there is a close up of a hand that opens to reveal a  palm of mini tombstones. But those of us who saw the original stage production of this play by Theatre for a New Audience in 2018  frankly miss the vivid, haunting stagecraft. The new online production places the two actors side by side in front of music stands, to give what is essentially a reading. The 2018 production was only 50 minutes long, but, as I wrote in my review, “so fragmentary and impressionistic that it feels longer.”   The festival production is actually 20 minutes shorter – just half an hour – but feels longer still.

Sleep Deprivation Chamber

Written with her son Adam Kennedy in 1996, this 90-minute play is based on a true encounter between Adam and a police officer in Arlington, Virginia, who had stopped him for driving with a broken taillight. He beat the young man in front of his father’s driveway, then arrested him for resisting arrest and assault. Suzanne Alexander (Kim James Bey), the character who has frequently served as a stand-in for the playwright, is a middle-aged, middle-class writer shocked at the indignities visited upon her son Teddy (Deimoni Brewington.)  Panic-stricken, she writes letters repeatedly on her son’s behalf to the governor of Virginia, and to any other official she can think of, until the lawyer the family has hired tells her she’s making things worse.  The letters argue not just for her son’s innocence, but for the virtue of her entire family, as if they are all under attack.

“Sleep Deprivation Chamber” is the longest of the four plays in the festival, the most populated (with a 12-member cast ) and the most accessible. Indeed, some Kennedy aficionados have even thought it too much so, as the last third of the play is more or less a conventional courtroom drama, Teddy’s trial for assault.

But the play is not just extraordinarily timely, its reenactment driving home the humiliation, damning in its details (which include Teddy at one point screaming “I can’t breathe, can you please let me up, I can’t breathe.”)  Enhanced by Raymond O. Caldwell’s direction, the production is strafed with quick scenes – no more than flashes —  that inject a visceral jolt or provide a telling context. One extended example: Teddy is a student at Antioch, where he is involved in a production of “Hamlet.” We see the students there recite: “Ophelia, betrayal, disillusionment,” and later they take turns citing a series of differences between black and white

“Blacks: Touching of one’s hair by another person is often considered as offensive.”
“Whites: Touching of one’s hair by another person is a sign of affection.”

This reverberates during the trial, when a long, fascinating argument ensues over whether Teddy actually assaulted the officer, or simply touched him.

“Assault and battery is an unlawful touching however slight, done in an angry, rude or vengeful manner,” the officious prosecutor (Jjana Valentiner) recites.

Such moments present the real-life racist nightmare that’s at the heart of the play with a persuasive precision that makes “Sleep Deprivation Chamber” feel like unmediated perception, not polemic.

The Ohio State Murders
Suzanne appears again in this 1992 play, this time portrayed by Lynda Gravatt as a famous writer returning to her alma mater Ohio State (which is Kennedy’s alma mater), and by Billie Krishawn in flashbacks as Suzanne during her unhappy years as a student there.
“I was asked to talk about the violent imagery in my work, bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead Nazis, dying Jesus. The chairman said ‘we do want to hear about your brief years here at Ohio State, but we also want to talk to you about violent imagery in your stories and plays.” As Suzanne’s chilling story unfolds, it becomes clear the two — the violent imagery, and her time at Ohio State — are related. She begins with the geography of the campus, “which made me anxious.” — “the lawn behind the dorm where the white girls sunned, the ravine that would be the scene of the murder, and Mrs. Tyler’s boardinghouse in the Negro district….”

Hold on! Back up a bit. The murder?!

But we don’t hear another word about it, while the elder Suzanne talks about experiences as an undergraduate and we see scenes in black and white featuring the younger Suzanne.  We learn how 12 of the 600 girls in her dorm were black, and that they were shunned, and about how she wanted to major in English — we see her sitting rapt attending a lecture about Tess of the D’Urbervilles from a Professor Hampshire (Rex Daugherty, transformed from his role as the cop in Sleep Deprivation Chamber) — but no black woman student was an English major.  At a certain point, she is talking about somebody named Bobby and how she gave birth to twin daughters….and eventually we realize that Bobby and Professor Hampshire are one and the same, and that he is the father of her twin daughters.

But I’ve said too much. There is great craft in her oblique storytelling, which keeps us on edge rather than exasperated. Director Valerie Curtis Newton keeps us grounded in this drama that is gothic in its tragedies, and eerie in its execution — not least because Gravatt is deliberately matter-of-fact in tone, while Krishawn’s face is a lesson in feeling, as if the horrible events had made the elder Suzanne numb.  If, despite its even-tempered delivery, “Ohio State Murders” has an unmistakeable if subtle heft of Greek tragedy, it’s not just fate that brings the characters low; it’s racism.

Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side

One of the few things I can say with certainty about Kennedy’s newest play is that the sole performer in it, Caroline Clay, kept me riveted for all 35 baffling minutes.  I didn’t even realize she was portraying a character – I thought she was just the narrator – until I read the program, which identified her as Ella Harrison. I thought Ella was dead; her sister Etta calls her an apparition.

In any case, Clay the actress is the sole performer, and she sits at a table and tells the story of Ella and Etta, sisters and rivals. They both wear “upsweep hairdos and corsages and 1940s black dresses.” Their biographies are remarkably similar to one another – teachers and writers, literary miners of their lives  — and to their creator.

There is a direct allusion to “Ohio State Murders.” We learn from a character named Harold Troupe how he remembered “how Ella had written a play about her sister’s devastating college years and her play had received considerable attention in the Ohio press, and she’d sold it to television. The press ignores Etta’s version of her own life.” The two sisters “fought over the name Suzanne.”

I had a fleeting thought at this point that Adrienne Kennedy was satirizing herself, or at least having some fun. Perhaps she was leaving clues – but clues to what?

Like “Ohio State Murders,” there’s a tantalizing matter-of-fact reference up front to a murder – and several more such references sprinkled throughout the monologue.  Troupe, Clay says, “had forgotten about Etta and Ella Harrison. They weren’t prominent anymore in his circle, since the strangling incident and their public fights.”

Unlike “Ohio State Murders,” it’s never clear who murdered whom, or whether there actually was a murder.

The easy way out here is to say that this is a profile of a deteriorating mind – which is to say Etta’s. It’s Etta who lives across the street from Troupe, and leaves message after message on his answering machine (meant to trigger our recollection of the many letters that Suzanne wrote?) It’s Etta who starts worrying that Troupe is out to trap her. It’s Etta who receives visits from Ella’s apparition. And it’s Etta who goes to a police precinct, really upset, asking them “Why did you tear down the New Yorker?” (an old movie theater) Etta recites lines from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii.

In the last third of the monologue, suddenly all these new characters make an appearance – Boulting and James and Elizabeth and Rose. Some of them are members of the Vanishing Literary Club. That’s got to be a clue.

The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence is online through February 28th. $15 for each play (or $60 for the complete four-play festival.)  Program

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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