Round House Theatre, in association with McCarter Theatre Center, has announced updated details for The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence, a four-week festival highlighting the award-winning playwright. Between November 14 and December 12, 2020, four of Kennedy’s plays will be produced as virtual theatrical experiences, with a new play released online each week. Each play will be available on demand through February 28, 2021.
The plays in the festival are He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box directed by Nicole A. Watson, Sleep Deprivation Chamber directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, Ohio State Murders directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, and the world premiere of Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side directed by Timothy Douglas. The festival will also feature a series of dynamic discussions, with a new panel of artists and professionals reflecting each week on Kennedy’s lasting influence.
“So many people in American theater today are artistic descendants of Adrienne Kennedy. She is a prolific yet rarely produced living playwright whose work should not be lost to history,” said newly appointed McCarter Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson, who until recently was Associate Artistic Director at Round House. “I’m so excited that Round House and McCarter are able to come together to re-introduce this incredible and singular artist to a wider audience. Her work is especially well-suited to this challenging new landscape of digital theater—incredibly visual and dreamlike in its poetry, yet deeply rooted in real-life issues we should all be discussing.”
The festival begins on Saturday, November 14 with the release of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Kennedy’s newest work written in 2018. McCarter Associate Artistic Director Nicole A. Watson will direct the tragic memory play about a young interracial couple in 1940’s Georgia and New York. The cast features Maya Jackson (previously seen in Round House’s webseries Homebound) as Kay, Michael Sweeney Hammond (previously seen at Round House in Oslo) as Chris, and Agyeiwaa Asante (previously an episode playwright for Homebound) as Stage Directions.
Sleep Deprivation Chamber, directed by Producing Artistic Director of Theater Alliance Raymond O. Caldwell, will be released on November 21. Written by Adrienne Kennedy and her son Adam P. Kennedy, the Obie Award–winning drama is a semi-autobiographical account of the family’s harrowing experience of police brutality. The cast features Kim James Bey (previously at Round House as dialect coach for School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play) as Suzanne Alexander, Deimoni Brewington (Blood at the Root at Theater Alliance) as Teddy Alexander, Marty Austin Lamar (The Amen Corner at Shakespeare Theatre Company) as March Alexander, Round House Resident Artist Craig Wallace as David Alexander, David Schlumpf (South Pacific at Olney Theatre Center) as Mr. Edelstein, Jjana Valentiner (The City of Conversation at Arena Stage) as Ms. Wagner, and Rex Daugherty (Artistic Director at Solas Nua) as Officer Holzer. The ensemble roles will all be played by current Howard University students: Imani Branch (Blood at the Root at Theater Alliance), Sophia Early (semi-finalist in 2019 NextGen: Finding the Voices of Tomorrow 2019), Janelle Odom (Word Becomes Action Festival at Theater Alliance), Moses Princien (The Events at Theater Alliance), and Kayla Alexis Warren (Day of Absence at Theater Alliance).
After the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, the festival continues on December 5 with the release of Ohio State Murders, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, Head of Directing at the University of Washington’s School of Drama and Artistic Director of The Hansberry Project. The Lucille Lortel Award-winning one act is a startling exploration of lost innocence and American racism. The cast features Lynda Gravatt (Roman J. Israel, Esq.; The House That Will Not Stand at New York Theatre Workshop) as Suzanne Alexander (Present), Billie Krishawn (Blood at the Root at Theater Alliance) as Suzanne Alexander (1949–1952), Andrea Harris Smith (previously seen in Small Mouth Sounds) as Aunt Louise, Heather Gibson (She a Gem at the Kennedy Center) as Iris Ann, Rex Daugherty as Robert Hampshire, and Yao Dogbe (previously seen in Round House’s webseries Homebound) as David Alexander/Val.
The festival will conclude with the world premiere of Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side, directed by Timothy Douglas (Gem of the Ocean, Father Comes Home from the Wars [Parts 1, 2 & 3]). Mixing monologue, voiceover, and prose, Kennedy adapted the play from a narrative work originally written in 1999, and now Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side will be brought to theatrical life for the very first time. Caroline Clay (Skeleton Crew at Studio Theatre; Grey’s Anatomy) will star as Ella Harrison.
The creative teams for the online plays include Dramaturgy by Martine Kei Green-Rogers and Otis Ramsey-Zöe; Lighting Design by Sherrice Mojgani; Sound Design by Darron L West, Tosin Olufolabi, Larry Fowler, and Lindsay Jones; Production Assistance by Che Wernsman; Direction of Photography by Round House Resident Artist Maboud Ebrahimzadeh; and editing and videography by MindInMotion.
He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box
By Adrienne Kennedy
Directed by Nicole A. Watson
Streaming on demand beginning Saturday, November 14, 2020
It is 1941, and Kay and Chris are in love. Yet the letters they exchange are not tender professions, but painful reminiscences—of Chris’S wealthy white father who laid the architecture for local segregation, of Kay’s brutalized Black mother whose death remains a mystery, and of the myriad forces that separate them. Written in 2018, Adrienne Kennedy’s newest work is a brief but expansive memory play that conjures “dread, romance and a tragic surrealism all at once” (New York Times). He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is a heartbreaking collage of family memories, historical specters, and theatrical allusions, hypnotically woven together with a poetry that is distinctively Kennedy’s own.
Sleep Deprivation Chamber
By Adam P. Kennedy and Adrienne Kennedy
Directed by Raymond O. Caldwell
Streaming on demand beginning Saturday, November 21, 2020
“I’m an American citizen, could you please let me up and breathe?” Teddy Alexander gasps out these words to the police officer who has beaten, dragged, and pinned him in the driveway of his family’s Arlington home—all because of a broken taillight. Teddy is a young Black college student studying theater, but his senior year becomes a waking nightmare when the officer accuses him of assault. Written by Adrienne Kennedy and her own son, Adam, the semi-autobiographical drama shifts between Teddy’s trial and the unrelenting letters his sleepless mother writes in his defense. Although it won the Obie Award for Best New American Play nearly 25 years ago, Sleep Deprivation Chamber is a chilling meditation on race and powerlessness that remains painfully relevant today.
Ohio State Murders
By Adrienne Kennedy
Directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton
Streaming on demand beginning Saturday, December 5, 2020
When asked by Ohio State University to speak about the violent imagery in her work, Suzanne Alexander answers with her own story of brutality and betrayal. The accomplished writer attended Ohio State in the 1950s, but instead of academic sanctuary and self-discovery, Suzanne experienced a dark landscape of pain—not only exploitation, kidnapping, and murder, but also the insidious violence of segregation, ostracization, and misogynoir. Blending captivating monologue with haunting memories, Ohio State Murders is a poignant reminder of human cruelty, past and present.
Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side
By Adrienne Kennedy
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Streaming on demand beginning Saturday, December 12, 2020 | World Premiere
Etta and Ella Harrison are astoundingly gifted scholars, deeply connected sisters, and dangerously bitter rivals. They frequently write and teach together, and even their separate works are unnervingly similar, often sourced from their own family history. Now, after a lifetime of competition, they are on the verge of destroying each other. Adrienne Kennedy intricately blends monologue, dialogue, voiceover, and prose to create an experience that is part experimental play, part narrative thriller, and wholly unforgettable. Set against the gothic backdrop of their academic New York world, Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side is a taut, kaleidoscopic tale of ambition and madness—brought to theatrical life for the very first time.
The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence features four plays, which will be released between November 14 to December 12, 2020. Each play will be released on a specific date (as listed above) and will be available to view on demand until February 28, 2021. Festival passes to all four plays are available for $60 (with ticket handling fees waived), and tickets to each individual show are available for $15. Tickets can be purchased by calling 240-644-1100 or ordering online at RoundHouseTheatre.org.
In addition to the virtual productions, Round House and McCarter will present four in-depth panel discussions to further engage audiences. These events are free and open to the public, with a new panel released online each week. Panels will be streamed on Round House’s YouTube page and will remain available for later viewing. The schedule is as follows:
Monday, November 16: Influence & Imagination
A panel of contemporary playwrights whose work was influenced by Adrienne Kennedy, moderated by Eisa Davis (Bulrusher) and featuring Zakiyyah Alexander (10 Things to DoBefore I Die), Haruna Lee (Suicide Forest), and Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive).
Monday, November 30: Acting Adrienne Kennedy
A panel of actors who have previously performed in Adrienne Kennedy plays, moderated by Nicole A. Watson and featuring Caroline Clay and Crystal Dickinson (Clybourne Park, YouCan’t Take It With You).
Monday, December 7: Critical Reflections
A panel examining the critical and academic response to Adrienne Kennedy’s work, moderated by Dean of the College at Princeton University Jill Dolan and featuring Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks and Star Tribune reporter Rohan Preston.
Monday, December 14: The Black Avant-Garde
A panel exploring the history, evolution, and impact of avant-garde and experimental works by Black artists, moderated by Raymond O. Caldwell and featuring critically acclaimed performance artists Daniel Alexander Jones and Holly Bass.
ABOUT THE FESTIVAL
Hailed as “American theater’s greatest and least compromising experimentalist” (New York Times), Adrienne Kennedy is one of the most prolific and widely studied living playwrights. Since bursting onto the scene in 1964 with Funnyhouse of a Negro, Kennedy’s enthralling lyrical dramas have influenced generations of storytellers, from Suzan-Lori Parks to Robert O’Hara, Shonda Rhimes to Jeremy O. Harris. Despite her outsized influence, three Obie Awards, and induction into the Theater Hall of Fame, Adrienne Kennedy is not a household name. This festival is a celebration of why she should be. Round House Theatre and McCarter Theater Center team up to shine a light on four deeply personal stories from Kennedy’s astonishing body of work with four weeks of virtual theatrical experiences and dynamic conversations, offering audiences the opportunity to discover Kennedy’s singular voice—a startling mix of the surreal with the all too real.
ABOUT ADRIENNE KENNEDY
Award-winning playwright, lecturer, and author Adrienne Kennedy was born in Pittsburgh in 1931 and attended Ohio State University. Her plays include Funnyhouse of a Negro (Obie Award), June and Jean in Concert (Obie Award), A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, A Rat’s Mass, The Owl Answers, Motherhood 2000, Electra and Orestes (adaptation), She Talks to Beethoven, An Evening with Dead Essex, A Lesson in a Dead Language, and The Lennon Play. She is the recipient of an Obie Award for Sleep Deprivation Chamber, which she co-authored with her son Adam. It premiered at the Public Theater and was produced by Signature Theatre Company, which devoted an entire season to Ms. Kennedy’s work. Other awards include a Guggenheim award, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, and the American Book Award for 1990. Her published works include In One Act, Alexander Plays, and Deadly Triplets, all published by University of Minnesota Press, and People Who Led to My Plays (a memoir), originally published by Knopf and now in paperback by Theatre Communications Group, which will also publish He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box and Other Plays in fall of 2020. Her plays are taught in colleges throughout the country, in Europe, India, and Africa. She has been a visiting lecturer at Yale University, New York University, and University of California at Berkeley, where she was Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecturer in 1980 and 1986. She was also commissioned to write plays for Jerome Robbins, the Public Theater, Mark Taper Forum, Juilliard School, and the Royal Court in England. Ms. Kennedy has lived in Africa, Italy, and London and last fall was a visiting professor in Harvard University’s English Department.
In this Inside Look, the directors of the play festival discuss their admiration of Adrienne Kennedy’s work and how they are approaching the upcoming virtual productions.