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A mother gets inducted into the movement in Adrienne Kennedy’s ‘Sleep Deprivation Chamber’

Revival of play about police brutality is unfortunately always ‘timely’

Perhaps the word most overused to characterize art that centers on police violence is “timely,” which seems a bit naive. Work about police or vigilante violence toward Black people is always timely because anti-Black violence is unceasing. And so, a new digital presentation of Sleep Deprivation Chamber, like so many other works produced in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, is timely, just as it was when playwright Adrienne Kennedy and her son first published it in 1996.

Before there was a name for them, Kennedy had become a Mother of the Movement. Like so many Black mothers, she found herself in anguish after an Arlington, Virginia, police officer assaulted her son, Adam P. Kennedy, in the driveway of his parents’ home in 1990.

The outcome for Adam Kennedy was a lucky one, comparatively speaking: He lived. But he was charged with assaulting the officer who arrested him, and Adam faced jail time. Though the officer sustained no injuries, Adam Kennedy’s body was covered with bruises. He was being prosecuted for his own police beating. This, of course, is a common experience among Black people who are assaulted by police. Just this year, a Louisville, Kentucky, police officer filed suit against Taylor’s boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, accusing him of committing battery, assault and intentional emotional distress on the night police raided Taylor’s apartment and killed her.

Sleep Deprivation Chamber meanders in time, connecting past events with the present, drifting through surrealist dreamscapes and memory to tell the story of Adam Kennedy’s arrest and the experiences that preceded and informed it.

Courtesy of Round House Theatre

The attack on Adam Kennedy was immortalized in the Obie Award-winning Sleep Deprivation Chamber, co-written by himself and his mother, and has been resurrected as part of a festival of Kennedy’s work, co-produced by Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, and McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey.

This new version isn’t a full production, but a staged reading, directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, as part of a tribute to one of America’s most fearless, experimental and underappreciated playwrights, now 89. The festival includes Kennedy’s most recent play, published in 2018, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, along with The Ohio State Murders (1992). A January premiere of Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side will conclude the festival. The plays are available on demand on the Round House Theatre website through Feb. 28.

Like the rest of Kennedy’s work, Sleep Deprivation Chamber meanders in time, connecting past events with the present, drifting through surrealist dreamscapes and memory to tell the story of Adam Kennedy’s arrest and the experiences that preceded and informed it. The names of the characters are changed, with the character based on Adam called Teddy (played by Deimoni Brewington). During Teddy’s trial for assaulting Officer Holzer (Rex Daugherty), Holzer repeatedly asserts that Teddy attacked him with “verbal violence,” though he never offers any examples of it. But Teddy, on the phone with his mother, Suzanne (Kim James Bey) as she’s pressing him about his own well-being — “Teddy, are you going to the group for victims of violent crime?” — recalls the actual verbal violence he endured during a different traffic stop that took place in California, when two police officers instructed Teddy and his cousin to “Get the f— out of the car, n—–s.”

Such juxtapositions allow the Kennedys to subtly delineate between truth and fiction, perception and reality. Suzanne, the character based on Kennedy, finds a new use for her way with words. She writes to the district attorney who is prosecuting him. She writes to the governor of Virginia. She writes to the NAACP. She writes, she writes, she writes, as her son quakes with uncertainty, not knowing whether he will be jailed for the crime of exiting his car in his own driveway while being Black and having a broken taillight.

Sleep Deprivation Chamber contrasts the genius of the Kennedys’ pens with student actors discovering the banal characterizations of Black and white articulated in a police training manual:

SUZANNE. I wonder where the policeman lives. Teddy would only say he has black hair. You mustn’t think of how he looks, Mom. I’m quite worried my letters of character are being intercepted. The precious letters I’ve spent time gathering for my son’s defense.

(As Suzanne’s speech fades, the lights come up on Teddy at rehearsal watching Student Actor on stage. As Actor speaks, Teddy holds the police manual which is on the table. Student Actor looks through manual.)

STUDENT ACTOR. This is what they teach at the police academy? This is the police manual?

(Teddy nods. Rehearsal stops. Student Actor reads fragment of manual. Cast stares at Teddy.)

Black people: Asking “personal questions” of someone one has met for the first time is seen as improper and intrusive.

White people: Inquiring about jobs, family, etc., of someone one has met for the first time is seen as friendly.

Black people: Use of direct questions is sometimes seen as harassment, e.g., asking when something will be finished is seen as rushing that person to finish.

White people: Use of direct questions for personal information is permissible.

As COVID-19 productions go, the Kennedy readings are among the more conventional ones to have emerged this year. Jordan E. Cooper’s Mama Got a Cough and Circle Jerk by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley embrace the internet as central to the work rather than just a delivery mechanism.

Nevertheless, even stripped down to just a few elements — actors, their script binders sitting atop music stands, lights, a stage — Sleep Deprivation Chamber reopens wounds with tragic elegance, casting anti-Black violence as an epidemic that brings Teddy’s scream through our speakers, an audience trapped inside our homes.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.