The year was 1991. “Ohio State Murders,” the latest work by Cleveland native and influential black playwright Adrienne Kennedy, was being produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival at Playhouse Square.
Little did Kennedy know that at that moment, in Arlington, Va., the traumatic incident that would inspire her next play was transpiring in her front yard.
The same year Rodney King had his explosive encounter with Los Angeles police, Kennedy’s son Adam, who had been a theater major at Antioch College, was beaten and arrested by a white Virginia policeman after being pulled over for having a broken taillight. The officer claimed he applied physical force because Kennedy resisted arrest, but the charges were dismissed at trial. Adam later filed and won a civil suit against the officer.
It provoked Adrienne and Adam to co-author “Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” a hard-hitting theatrical portrayal of that evening and its aftermath. Caroline Jackson Smith, an associate professor of theater and chair of African-American studies at Oberlin College, has worked with Kennedy on several performances and directs the play this month at Cleveland Public Theatre.
What distinguishes an Adrienne Kennedy play? “Her gift is for deeply experiencing loss and conveying that experience to other people, and in expressing how art can be the counterbalance to what we experience in real life. She writes with a collage effect, and that can be hard for some people. But for me, her plays have never been a stretch to understand.”
How did Kennedy react to the incident, and how does she treat it in the play? “Even though she had a real awareness of racism issues, she was totally shocked that something like that could happen to her middle-class son. … In this play, she combines traces of things that actually happened — warring influences from real life — with the imaginary. And the imaginary is just as important as the real.”
Why were you interested in directing this play? “Because if people could be open to it, it could be very effective in shaking loose some old ideas.”— Zachary Lewis
“Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” by Adrienne and Adam Kennedy, Jan. 11 through 27 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave. For more information, visit www.cptonline.org
or call (216) 631-2727.