“Ohio State Murders” (1992) is one of the entries in an outstanding online festival of plays by the 89-year-old Kennedy, a great, eternally undersung American dramatist. Bethesda’s Round House Theatre, in association with the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., launched “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence” in November, and it will remain online through February at roundhousetheatre.org and mccarter.org.
The festival is also featuring Kennedy’s 1996 work “Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” expertly revived here under the direction of Raymond O. Caldwell, and “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” a short play directed by Nicole A. Watson that was first performed two years ago. All three plays are being offered on demand for $60 (or $15 for each show). This will also entitle you to view the world premiere, starting Jan. 9, of Kennedy’s latest drama, “Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side,” staged by Timothy Douglas and featuring the always intriguing Caroline Clay.
Ideally, of course, you’d see these plays unfold in the full, sensory-rich environment of an actual theater: The theatricality of Kennedy’s canon encompasses a singularity of style and rhythm. The tales navigate a framework of stark realism, embossed with flecks of treasured or upsetting memory, illuminating the experience of a Black woman growing up in a nation of maddening inequality. Thoughts and impressions often bump into one another, as if on the quickly flipped pages of a photo album. At other times, Kennedy reaches for Shakespeare or the novels of Thomas Hardy, identifying her as a writer-scholar (she has taught at a variety of universities, the arena in which her work has most typically been championed).
But the voice is that of a theater artist of unique stageworthy imagination, who has earned this platform and, when covid-19 is behind us, requires more of the traditional kind.
As it is, the virtual presentation is an easily accessed mini-anthology; the camera is not an unfriendly filter for Kennedy’s characters, all with pain behind their eyes. None of her work distills this more topically than “Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” the recounting of a police assault on a young Black man that Kennedy wrote with her own son, Adam. It has been remarked that the language of this more than 20-year-old play is less elliptical than is customary in Kennedy’s work. But given the outrages of 2020 inflicted by police officers on Black people, the play’s eloquence may be its plainer-spoken and prescient recognition of the world as it continues to unravel.
The anguished fury of Suzanne Alexander, played potently by Kim Bey, suffuses “Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” which chronicles her demand for redress after her son, Teddy (Deimoni Brewington), is followed home late one night by Virginia police and arrested in Suzanne’s driveway, purportedly for resisting and assaulting an officer. Based on actual events, the play notes that Teddy’s infraction was a broken taillight.
“Sir, I can’t breathe!” Teddy exclaims during a reenactment of his arrest. How little times have changed.
It’s instructive to experience a lyrical playwright’s account of the campaign to clear a son: Advised by Teddy’s lawyer to write two pleading letters to authorities, Suzanne writes 17. Of an encounter with a prosecutor — “a White woman with ruffled blouses,” she recalls — “I keep dreaming of suffocation.”
Caldwell’s deft directorial hand, assisted by a strong design team — photography director Maboud Ebrahimzadeh; editor Joshua Land; lighting designer Sherrice Mojgani; and sound designer Tosin Olufolabi — accommodates neatly the sharp pivots in the storytelling. This is also a compelling feature of the even more harrowing “Ohio State Murders,” in director Valerie Curtis-Newton’s splendid production.
The central of role of Suzanne Alexander — a recurring character in several of Kennedy’s plays — is shared in “Ohio State Murders” by Gravátt and Billie Krishawn, as her younger self. Linking the two is a story of kidnapping and homicide near the Ohio State University campus, and narrated by Gravátt so matter-of-factly you’d think that tragedy was as familiar to the character as her name.
Rex Daugherty ably plays the grim White professor of English who introduces Suzanne to the books of Hardy, whose late 19th- and early 20th-century novels are run through with doomed characters. The Ohio State professor will occupy for Suzanne a Hardyesque space of benighted destiny, as she faces a White world that poses only roadblocks and threats.
The taut grip in which “Ohio State Murders” holds you is not fully recognizable until that final, pulverizing line — a line that moves, unsettles and convinces a viewer that Kennedy has you exactly where she wants you.