Kennedy’s writing “might be great for this hybrid medium that we’re working in, because it’s so visually stunning and lives in poetic language,” theorizes Nicole A. Watson, who until recently was Round House’s associate artistic director and now holds the same title at the McCarter. Watson is the prime mover behind the festival, which will feature four plays, filmed onstage at Round House with multiple cameras and then enhanced with sound and visuals for digital release.
The month-long celebration will also include panel discussions about Kennedy’s influential, intense and often surreal plays, which smash together symbols, violent images, searing personal soliloquies, high- and pop-culture references, dream time, allusions to world history and clear-eyed witness to racism. The festival’s plays — “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” a tension-filled tale of a 1940s interracial romance; “Ohio State Murders,” about racism and intellectual coming-of-age at a 1950s university; “Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” about police brutality; and a world premiere, “Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side,” about a virulent sibling rivalry — include some of her more accessible works.
Kennedy, who is Black, has long married artistic daring to unflinching social vision. During this year’s ongoing national reckoning over racial injustice, in the aftermath of police killings of George Floyd and others, there’s piercing resonance to some of the festival offerings — especially the 1996 play “Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” which Kennedy wrote with her son, Adam P. Kennedy, based on an incident of police violence that he experienced in Arlington, Va.
“Adrienne has always been ahead of her time in speaking her mind,” says Watson.
The 89-year-old playwright, a Virginia resident, declined an interview through Round House. But her track record blazes through decades of drama. She made her name with “Funnyhouse,” a phantasmagoria in which the protagonist’s conflicting selves manifest as Queen Victoria, the assassinated Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba and others. Championed early on by Edward Albee, Kennedy went on to write other virtuosic plays, including “She Talks to Beethoven,” in which the composer chats with a writer in 1961 Ghana, and “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White,” an intimate family story haunted by such celebrities as Bette Davis and Marlon Brando.
“She is absurdist. She doesn’t mind that term applied to her work,” says Timothy Douglas, who is directing “Etta and Ella.” At the same time, he notes, her writing is “a perfect storm of addressing Black Lives Matter within the American theater.”
Kennedy has been hugely influential as a writer and a teacher (at Harvard University and elsewhere). Daring contemporary dramatists Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octoroon”) have proclaimed debts to her. Aleshea Harris (“What to Send Up When It Goes Down”) has called her “a liberating beacon reminding me that no structure, no mode of expression or subject matter is off limits to me as a dramatist.”
“So many writers who are experimenting with form and content are direct descendants of Adrienne’s work,” says Watson, a former history teacher whose graduate school thesis explored Kennedy’s rule-defying dramatization of the past.
Despite Kennedy’s genius, Watson notes, her scripts are underproduced. “It’s a failure of our institutional imagination across this country,” Watson says.
Round House artistic director Ryan Rilette agrees: “This is a writer who should be a major piece of the theatrical American canon and yet is often excluded from it,” he says. Rilette hypothesizes that institutional decision-makers, while admiring Kennedy’s work, may have thought, “‘This is both experimental and it is telling difficult stories about race, and it is written by a Black woman, and that just seems like a risky sales pitch.’”
Watson also notes a systemic issue, saying that, “The theaters that are not doing her work haven’t been designed to do Black work.” Also, she observes, Kennedy’s early artistic choices defied the kind of categorization that might have appealed to the times: “When she was writing in the 1960s, she wasn’t writing these Black Power anthems. She was excavating something else.”
Watson directs “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” which starts streaming Nov. 14, after which one virtual play will be released each week, through Dec, 12. The plays will remain available on demand through February.
Rilette says the decision to film the plays on a stage (with rigorous safety protocols) was made because audiences are tired of the Zoom aesthetic.
“We’re not trying to do fully produced digital shows,” he says. “We’re trying to do staged readings that really bring the plays to life, along with some sound and visuals that help flesh out the world.”
And even if those worlds dazzle on this virtual platform, the festival may not be Round House’s last word on the iconic playwright. “This will not be our only foray into Adrienne Kennedy’s work,” Rilette predicts.
If you go
The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence
Round House Theatre. roundhousetheatre.org.
Dates: Beginning Nov. 14, new productions will be released weekly through Dec. 12, and made available on demand through Feb. 28.
The first panel discussion streams Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. on Round House’s YouTube page, with additional discussions streaming on Nov. 30, Dec. 7 and Dec 14.
Prices: $17.50 per play; $60 for a festival pass. Panel discussions are free.