McCarter Presents Round House Theatre’s “Sleep Deprivation Chamber”; Video Continues Online Festival Honoring “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy”
“SLEEP DEPRIVATION CHAMBER”: Round House Theatre and McCarter Theatre Center are presenting “Sleep Deprivation Chamber.” Produced in partnership with the Department of Theatre Arts at Howard University, and directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, the video will be available online through February 28, 2021. Suzanne Alexander (Kim James Bey, left) and her son Teddy (Deimoni Brewington) discuss Suzanne’s efforts to ensure justice for Teddy. (Video still courtesy of Round House Theatre)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
McCarter is partnering with the Round House Theatre (based in Bethesda, Maryland) to present an online festival, The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence. The four-part series continues with a Round House video of Sleep Deprivation Chamber, which became available to view as of November 22.
The edgy production is directed by Raymond O. Caldwell. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is the director of photography, returning from the festival’s production of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box.
In a press release, McCarter’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen praises Kennedy — an African American playwright whose accolades include Obie Awards and an induction into the Theater Hall of Fame — for breaking “convention in the face of traditional barriers that prevented a much-deserved spotlight.” Round House Theatre’s Artistic Director Ryan Rilette adds that Kennedy’s plays are “beautiful, poetic conversations on race and power that are just as necessary now as they were 50 years ago.”
Sleep Deprivation Chamber premiered in 1996, presented by the Signature Theatre Company at the Public Theater. That year it won an Obie Award for Best New American Play (which it shared with another Adrienne Kennedy play, June and Jean in Concert).
Kennedy co-authored Sleep Deprivation Chamber with her son, Adam P. Kennedy. The harrowing drama, which examines police brutality and racial injustice, is based on real events in the playwrights’ lives.
A New York Times review published at the time of the 1996 premiere notes that Adam Kennedy “was beaten by a policeman who had stopped him for driving with a broken taillight and later charged him with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.”
In the published script Adam Kennedy credits “two great lawyers who outsmarted the police and the district attorney’s office at every turn.” In a dedication he also acknowledges that other African American men shared “their own horrible experiences with the police — it is a sobering reality that my experience is such a common one.”
A line of dialogue underlines the excruciating relevance of the play’s discussion of police brutality. Teddy Alexander, the character serving as an onstage surrogate for Adam Kennedy, inescapably echoes George Floyd when he pleads, “I can’t breathe.”
Early in the play we see Suzanne Alexander (a character infused with impassioned resolve by Kim James Bey’s portrayal) drafting the first of many letters. “Dear Governor Wilder,” she writes, “I have written you once before in February. I am writing to you again about the Arlington, Virginia Police Department.”
A siren punctuates the next sequence, which is presented as a split screen. As affably as possible, Teddy nervously asks the menacing Officer Holzer (Rex Daugherty), “What seems to be the problem? Can I help you?” Holzer snaps at Teddy to “get back in the car:” Teddy protests, “I live here; this is my house.”
The scene returns to Suzanne’s letter, which makes clear the considerable extent to which the character is based on Adrienne Kennedy: “We are an outstanding Black American Family,” she writes. “My plays and stories are published and taught widely.” (Later, Suzanne is named as the author of Kennedy’s Ohio State Murders, which is the next play that will be presented as part of this festival.)
In her letter Suzanne compares the police department’s treatment of Teddy to “the Deep South in the 1930s, or during Emmett Till’s time.” She goes on to describe how he was “knocked to the ground and beaten in the face; kicked repeatedly in the chest and stomach, and dragged in the mud” by Holzer.
Suzanne notes that Teddy is a student at Antioch, and that he wants to be a theater director, writer, and actor. We learn that his original offense is a malfunctioning taillight, but that a charge of assault and battery has been concocted.
In the subsequent scene Teddy is bombarded with questions about his encounter with the police. His interrogators are condescendingly unsympathetic — and unseen. A flashlight is shined in his face; although he is the victim, he is clearly the one being investigated.
Deimoni Brewington’s intense performance is outstanding here, as it captures Teddy’s frantic efforts to process and remember all the facts of his ordeal. The segment’s eeriness is enhanced by Tosin Olufalabi’s sound design, which adds a pained breathing noise; and by Sherrice Mojgani’s lighting.
Later, Teddy’s father, David Alexander (Craig Wallace) also faces an unseen questioner: one of the lawyers for the prosecution. Eventually, Teddy’s case is argued by his lawyer, Mr. Edelstein (David Shlumpf); Holzer and the police are championed by the opposing attorney, the haughty and manipulative Ms. Wagner (Jjana Valentiner).
The central narrative, which is presented with the realistic urgency of a docudrama, is interspersed with scenes that are overtly theatrical. These include a dream sequence involving Teddy’s uncle, March Alexander (portrayed with grim introspection by Marty Lamar); and segments involving an ensemble that functions rather like a Greek chorus. In one such scene the ensemble reads from a “police manual” containing disparate rules of decorum that society expects white and African American people to follow. (The ensemble includes Imani Branch, Sophia Early, Janelle Odom, Moses Princien, and Kayla Alexis Warren.)
These poetic segments are a bit of a double-edged sword. Teddy’s story commands attention, and some viewers may find the scenes that interrupt it to be a bit intrusive. On the other hand, they give the play an artfully disorienting feel — evocative of sleep deprivation. The playwrights seem to want the audience to experience a taste of the disruption that Teddy and David endure when they are being questioned. On that level the rapid intercutting of scenes, aided by Caldwell’s steady pacing, is effective.
For this festival honoring Adrienne Kennedy’s work, Sleep Deprivation Chamber is an apt successor to He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, because we get a chance to observe some hallmarks of her style. Letter writing is a crucial method of communication in both plays, and each reminds the audience of the racism in America’s past.
Additionally, each play opens with a literary quotation or reference. Sleep Deprivation Chamber contains a number of allusions to Hamlet, including the ensemble’s opening line, “Ophelia, betrayal, disillusionment.” In Hamlet the title character is faced with the task of avenging his father’s murder; in Sleep Deprivation Chamber David attempts to help fight the injustice that is done to his son.
Although helmed by different directors, the festival’s productions appear to be sharing certain elements as well. Like Nicole A. Watson’s staging of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Caldwell’s direction of Sleep Deprivation Chamber economically takes place on a bare stage; both productions use music stands, giving the appearance of a staged reading.
Like Watson, however, Caldwell takes full advantage of the medium of video. Visual effects are used effectively to demarcate scenes and enhance the restlessness that pervades the Kennedys’ powerful, deeply personal script.
Round House Theatre’s production of Sleep Deprivation Chamber will be available to view online through February 28, 2021. The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence will continue with Ohio State Murders (available to view on December 5); and the world premiere of Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side (December 12). For tickets, festival passes, and further information visit mccarter.org.