It is 1991. In a northern Viriginia suburb, a white police officer pulls over an unarmed Black man. The driver, Adam Kennedy, parks in his own driveway, steps out of the car, and asks what is wrong. The policeman urges the driver to go back to his car. There is an altercation, and the police officer beats Kennedy. This is caught on film. Kennedy, not the officer, is charged with assault. These events are the painful facts of a moment in Kennedy’s life and the subject of his play, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, cowritten by his mother, multiple Obie award winner and Theater Hall of Fame inductee Adrienne Kennedy.
As the second offering in The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence, a virtual festival presented by Maryland’s Round House Theatre and McCarter Theatre Center, this arresting production alerts the viewer to Adrienne Kennedy’s continued relevance.
No protection from white supremacy
The play itself is a dizzying mash-up of testimony, recitation, and soliloquy. The main characters, mother and son Suzanne and Teddy Alexander, are semifictionalized stand-ins for Adrienne and Adam.
As Suzanne, Kim James Bey weaves a delicate thread in her portrayal of a broken-hearted mother, disturbed citizen, and influential artist. She conveys a porous strength that allows vulnerability to show. Still, she pens letters to politicians: Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know who we are? As the facets of her identity come into conflict, we see Bey’s Suzanne reckon with the fact that her family’s upper-middle-class status will not protect her son from the treacheries of white supremacy.
Deimoni Brewington delivers an electric performance as Teddy. He is at once outraged and terrified. In the harrowing context of 2020, his performance becomes emblematic of the constant fear and surveillance that Black men live with.
Kennedy still shines
In nonsequential fragments we see police interrogations, court proceedings, witness interviews, Suzanne’s desperate efforts to protect her son, theatrical ensemble work, and the event itself. This could all prove to be confusing and muddled on stage, but it works wonderfully when presented on film with fast-paced editing in Raymond O. Caldwell’s production. Even with the intended choppiness of the script, the tension in Brewington’s performance builds until its cathartic last moments.
A paternal Craig Wallace as Teddy’s father David, and Rex Daugherty as the police officer, round out the cast. An ensemble of five theater students from Howard University are well-utilized throughout the production.
There are many reasons to be bah-humbug about virtual theater. It can feel alienating, stilted, out of reach. But I can’t imagine a play better suited for this medium and this moment. We were lucky to have Adrienne Kennedy.
Image description: A photo of actor Kim James Bey in performance of Sleep Deprivation Chamber. She is a Black woman with short dark hair, wearing a purple cardigan. She holds a binder of papers and looks concerned.
What, When, Where
Round House Theatre presents, in association with McCarter Theatre Center and in partnership with the Department of Theatre Arts at Howard University, Sleep Deprivation Chamber by Adrienne and Adam Kennedy, directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, streams on demand through February 21, 2021. Purchase tickets at Round House Theatre online.