Reviews of two stunning plays by Adrienne Kennedy

by Lynn on December 5, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

Two plays from Adrienne Kennedy: He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box and Sleep Deprivation Chamber.

Streaming on-line from the Round House Theatre until Feb. 21 as part of a festival devoted to “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy, Inspiration and Influence.”

You can book tickets to the whole festival of four of her plays (and it’s a deal if you do), or you can book them individually. (Ohio State Murders streams Dec. 5 at 7:00 pm, Etta and Ella On The Upper West Side steams Dec. 12 at 7:00 pm)

NOTE: Adrienne (pronounced ADD-rienne) Kennedy might be considered one of the most accomplished, respected and honoured American playwrights you’ve never heard of. She is a great chronicler of the Black experience in America.  Her plays are mainly autobiographical and if the two I have just seen are any indication, they are astonishing. Her language is vivid. She is poetic in her writing, often surreal, references history and grips you  in the world of her plays.

He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box

Written by Adrienne Kennedy

Directed by Nicole A. Watson

Visual Effects by Kelly Colburn

Lighting by Sherrice Majgani

Sound by Darron L. West

Cast: Michael Sweeney Hammond

Mayo Jackson

A chilling history lesson from 1941 of Blacks in America.

Introduction to the play: The play was introduced by Jeremy O. Harris—a blazing young talent in the theatre.  He wrote Slave Play while he was still a student at Yale. It played on Broadway last year.  

Jeremy O. Harris said that he saw the premiere of He Brought Her Heart Back in A Box in Brooklyn in 2018. And he says of Adrienne Kennedy: “When I was a young playwright and theatre aspirant, Adrienne’s work has been a North Star for me.

I’ve always felt that it’s one of the playwright’s supreme duties to look at their own histories and their own traumas and draw from that some universal truth that can’t be denied no matter how dark or complex or unwieldy….

And if you are a playwright in which you decide that is the way you want to work, there is no other playwright to look at than Adrienne Kennedy.”

(I love that comment—‘When I was a young playwright…” Jeremy O. Harris is now 31 years old!)

The Story. He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is set in Montefiore, Georgia in June 1941.

Chris Ahern is a young, privileged white man. His grandfather established and ‘designed’ the town, making sure that the Blacks and the whites were separate.

The grandfather didn’t think the Blacks needed anything better than dirt roads, or needed grave markers in the cemetery, or should have mail delivery—they could go and pick up their mail and he felt they certainly should not be allowed to try on clothes at a certain department store.

Chris’s own father, Harrison Ahern, prospered and became a landowner. Harrison Ahern also fathered several black children in the town. He gave them some attention—made sure they went to the Black boarding school for an education, bought a piano for one of them to practice her music,  etc. Everybody knew Harrison Ahern fathered  those children. Chris’s father has passed away before the play begins.

Chris’s mother was none too happy about her husband’s wayward ways and made sure her husband’s illegitimate children never inherited any of the family’s property or wealth. On this particular day, Chris’s mother had just been buried. Chris did not seem too broken up about her death.

Kay is a young Black woman of the town and of course knew Chris. Kay’s mother gave birth to her when she was 15 and the shame of it drove her out of town. Kay’s father was Chris’s uncle. Kay’s father almost never acknowledged her if he saw her in the town.  

Chris has feelings for Kay and we see that now that both his parents are dead Chris can express them to her and tell her of his plans.  He says he wants to leave the town and go to New York and be an actor. And he wants to marry Kay and after the war they can go to Paris. From the way Adrienne Kennedy has established  the arrogant stiff-fisted attitudes the Ahern family, Chris would never have been allowed to have feelings for Kay or even think of being an actor.

Kay is mindful of the difference between them. He calls her Kay and calls him Mr. Chris.

Adrienne Kennedy establishes this complex world the powerful taking advantage of those that can’t fight back. She paints a vivid picture with language. At one point Chris says of his grandfather that he “understood how language can be used to humiliate.” At another point Adrienne Kennedy writes of “the devastation of the human spirit. “

The Production and Comment. Nicole A. Watson has directed a spare, economical, inventive production. The two actors have memorized their parts. (Agyeiwaa Asante read the stage directions)

If there is a reference to the Black boarding school, one of the characters holds a small model of it in her hand. Some small props are held up to establish artifacts in a store room that Chris is working in.

In their first scene, Chris and Kay are side by side looking out to the ‘unseen audience’.  Michael Sweeney Hammond as Chris is sweet, awkward, blinkered and clueless about his privilege.  But there is nuance in Hammond’s performance that suggests that Chris has some understanding of the inequity. Is it a step forward in his world that he actually wants to marry Kay, considering that both his father and uncle fathered children with young Black woman no older than 15-years-old it seems.  I would imagine that Chris knew his mother would never allow him to be an actor and certainly not marry a Black woman.  

As Kay, Mayo Jackson is savvy, aware, and you sense she internalizes everything rather than blurt out what she really thinks. There is an obvious difference between that white privilege and the ‘respectful Black person’ who has to endure the inequity, slurs and subtle innuendo.

In this exquisite one act play, Adrienne Kennedy harkens back to another time, and paints a compelling picture of that world in America in the 1940s.

Sleep Deprivation Chamber

Written by Adrienne Kennedy and Adam P. Kennedy

Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell

Lighting by Sherrice Majgani

Sound by Tosin Olufolabi

Cast: Kim Bey

Deimoni Brewington

Rex Daugherty

Marty A Lamar

David Schlumpf

Jjana Valentiner

Craig Wallace

Like a punch to the gut.

The Story. Teddy Alexander is a Black college student studying theatre at Antioch College Theatre Department. One night he’s driving home when he’s followed for a few blocks by a police car that has the siren and the lights going, wanting to pull him over. It turns out Teddy has a broken tail light. Teddy Alexander is very close to home and drives slowly but only gets out of the car when he drives into his driveway. Teddy gets out of the car to find out what the officer wants.

The police officer beats, drags, and pins him in the driveway of his family’s Arlington home—all because of a broken taillight. The officer beats up Teddy thinking Teddy is being difficult but he isn’t. And Teddy is charged with assaulting the officer which he says never happened.

The play alternates between Teddy being arrested, preparing for his trial and terrified he could go to jail, and his mother Suzanne fighting his cause. She writes endless letters to the governor, her senator, the police department, all in an effort to alert them to the injustice of the situation. She can’t sleep.  She has nightmares of Shakespearean dimensions—Suzanne teaches playwrighting.  

Teddy is told that if he pleads guilty to a lesser charge he could get off. Maybe. But Teddy is a man of principle, he knows he didn’t do anything wrong and won’t lie that he’s guilty. You look at his two accomplished parents who are still caught in that inequity.

Adrienne Kennedy does not paint a picture that is cliched, in which we would know what’s going to happen. Again, her language is chilling. For example, when Teddy is punched repeatedly in the chest he gasps. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.   I’m an American citizen, could you please let me up and breathe?”

Sound familiar? Here’s the chilling part, the play was written in 1996. And it actually happened to Adrienne Kennedy’s son Adam who co-wrote the play. So here we have an autobiographical play that just hits you in the gut. As the program note states:  “Sleep Deprivation Chamberis a chilling meditation on race and powerlessness that remains painfully relevant today”.

The Production and Comment.

Adrienne Kennedy paints the picture of a justice system that is different depending if one is Black or white.

Again, the actors had  their parts memorized. Director Raymond O. Caldwell used very effective close-up shots and lighting (kudos to Sherrice Majgani) to emphasize the claustrophobic world of being a Black person at the will and whim of a broken justice system.  Raymond O. Caldwell ramps up the tension as the action alternates from the courtroom and Suzanne trying to get someone to answer her letters.  

The acting is powerful with Kim Bey playing an impassioned Suzanne and Deimoni Brewington playing Teddy with dignity, emotion and a sense that his world is spiralling out of control. The knot in your gut is well earned.

Terrific play.

He Brought Her Heart Back In a Box and Sleep Depravation are streamed on line until Feb. 21.

Ohio State Murders begins streaming Dec. 5 at 7:00 pm and continues on demand until Feb. 21.

Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side begins streaming on Dec. 12 at 7:00 pm and continues on demand until Feb. 21.

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