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Award-winning playwright Adrienne Kennedy debuts new play in upcoming festival

By Jordan Ealey

This article was first published November 2, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

When I first encountered Adrienne Kennedy, through her Obie award winning 1964 play Funnyhouse of a Negro as a student in graduate school, I was surprised I had never heard of her. After all, I had studied Theatre and English literature as an undergraduate, attended a woman’s college, and completed a great deal of coursework featuring female playwrights. Yet here was this Black woman writing experimental, challenging theatrical work in the 1960s, and I was not familiar with her.

While the Black Arts Movement is known primarily for names such as Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal and Sonia Sanchez, Kennedy is rarely included in this esteemed list. Despite her numerous career achievements in theatre, her creative collaboration with theatre giants such as Edward Albee, and the inclusion of her work in university classrooms, one would be hard-pressed to find her plays receiving full productions in regional theatres. Even though I have read her plays and written on them for courses, I have never even heard Kennedy’s words out loud, let alone experienced a full production.

Knowing that there were many people out there who also had never even heard of Adrienne Kennedy, let alone ever read or seen her work, Nicole A. Watson, former associate artistic director of Round House Theatre and incoming associate artistic director at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey, sought to change that. Two years prior, Watson directed a staged reading of Kennedy’s Sleep Deprivation Chamber at Shakespeare Theatre Company for its ReDiscovery Series, a program designed to introduce audiences to lesser-known playwrights. “It got me thinking,” Watson recalls, “Why wasn’t I directing her work? Or anybody?” An audience member during the talkback also asked the same question, further clarifying that this was a dearth that needed to be rectified.

And then, in March, the theatres shut down. In a discussion with another black woman about the state of theatre, Watson remembered saying, “We’re not bound by the things that go into a season selection.” The unprecedented amount of uncertainty accompanying the impact of the pandemic on the global theatre industry is certainly enough to be anxiety-inducing for theatre artists and professionals everywhere. But Watson considers that there is “a freedom in this moment to rethink” and that freedom led her to proposing the idea of a way to celebrate and produce Adrienne Kennedy’s work. Noting that her plays are “real, visual, and poetic,” Watson recognized that it could be interesting to produce Kennedy in the virtual platforms as they lend themselves to the form well.

Thus, “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence” was born. A partnership between Round House Theatre Company and McCarter Theatre Center, the virtual festival features four of Kennedy’s plays: He Brought Her Heart in a Box, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, Ohio State Murders, and Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side. Directors include Raymond O. Caldwell, Valerie Curtis-Newton, Timothy Douglas, and Watson herself.

Watson was drawn to He Brought Her Heart in a Box because of its timeliness for our current political and social moment. “In a time where we’re really being asked to examine our thinking and the way in which our thinking (or someone else’s historical thinking) has influenced racist institutions and white supremacy, to have [Kennedy] render that theatrically in such a direct way, I was so struck by it,” Watson remarked, also noting how Kennedy’s work is forward-thinking. One of the plays, Etta and Ella, marks the world premiere for the 89-year old playwright. Watson emphasized the decision was made to highlight this new work and its lyrical and incisive language, a trademark of Kennedy’s plays.

Another of the plays, Sleep Deprivation Chamber—which Kennedy co-wrote with her son, Adam Kennedy—has a timely and painful geographic relevance: the play details Adam’s personal experience with police brutality at the hands of the Arlington Police Department. Watson believes that this play had to be included, especially since Round House is located in a part of the DMV theatre community.

Watson sees it as the perfect bridge between her closing chapter at Round House and her new position at McCarter, which is funded by a BOLD grant for female-identifying leaders. But the partnership also has benefits for both theaters, which includes the reach to a wider audience, leading to more people being exposed to Kennedy’s life and work. Noting that it “allows for a different kind of access,” this is an opportunity to really demonstrate the importance of Adrienne Kennedy in the theatrical world. “For me, it feels like a huge gift,” Watson says.

4615 Theatre creates a museum of the future for museum 2040

A headshot of Jordan Friend.

By Julian Oquendo

This article was first published March 3, 2020 in DC Theatre Scene here.

Starting this week, Washington, DC is getting a new museum, and a different kind of immersive theatrical experience.

4615 Theatre’s upcoming production, Museum 2040, written by Renee Calarco and currently in its last few days of development by the cast and crew team at 4615, is set in a museum curated to highlight a domestic terror event that occurs in Washington, DC’s future, with exhibitions that detail the political atmosphere of the era.

Repurposing the northwest DC space Dance Loft on 14 to create The National Museum of American Reconciliation, the team behind 2040 is designing an entire museum wing, with audio-visual exhibitions, historical anecdotes, and TED-level talks being filmed, produced, and set up for display as part of the production.

Helming the project, 4615 Artistic Director Jordan Friend looks to the extraordinary future Calarco predicts: “It was the kernel for something extraordinary, but we knew history would be hot on our tail. We’ve spent the past year expanding it into something even more sprawling, terrifying and thrilling than before.”

Which means? The production team is trying to stay ahead of current events while extending out to the year 2040. In the midst of their rehearsal process script lines, exhibitions, and props are being altered based on what frenetic news as it hits. One example described by 4615’s production manager Jade Brooks-Bartlett, is how she thought about the exhibitions and props during the impeachment hearings and acquittal of President Donald Trump.

“Anything Trump related can be expected to change the day before or midway through the production,” Brooks-Bartlett says. A display may be removed or updated, news clips are constantly being added. “It’s a lot of designing as we go.”

The team behind the development of this museum of the future is still focused on creating a traditional immersive presentation of sorts, which they describe as ” providing dynamic historical interpretation of past events.” Their promotional strategy, however, is anything but traditional.

In the weeks leading up to opening, Friend has engaged in an acute marketing strategy, aiming to blend a little of the immersive experience that audiences can expect when they attend this performance. Social media has become their strongest asset. A website for The National Museum of American Reconciliation is up and running. They are offering walking tours of the National Mall of 2030 and other special events. A performance by Sean Harrison (Sean Chyun performing in character) was held at the Harp and Fiddle on February 20th.

Not content to stop there, the production invited small groups of audience members and individuals into their rehearsal process for a number of sessions they’ve dubbed as ‘Beta Testing.’ Picture a preview rehearsal weeks in advance, where actors get to practice their roles, improvising when necessary, among a live audience while they tour the exhibitions. Friend and the production team have been gathering feedback from the groups to continue to make changes.

Friend tells us what they learned from the Beta Testing:

“We had a lot of asks from the audience about what else exists in this [2040] world … For example, we had somebody ask “I wish I knew what happened to the Green New Deal?” and rather than go ‘Oh, we really should add something about this,’we instead go, ‘Ok, lets leave just a few more breadcrumbs about the climate, and then let people construct in their minds what that might imply’. That way, we aren’t just spoon feeding them with world-building, but we’re also identifying the place where people just need a little more of a lead.”

Going one step further, the 2040 team created the short film “I Am Simmons” which drops hints  while leaving breadcrumbs for the audiences.

For Calarco, a founding member of The Welders Playwrights Collective, this work is intended to be “unproducible,” impossible, and experimental” in any one specific iteration. When she first developed the piece in 2015, it was already clear that the news cycle would outpace the vision for for the future.

“By June 2016, Donald Trump declared his candidacy, and by January 20, 2017, it was clear that whatever scary fiction I’d invented might be exceeded by reality,” Calarco says.

“Another event is more recent,” Calarco says. “The emergence of the Coronavirus. There’s no mention of it in the play at the moment. As I’m answering this question, we’re five days from opening, so there’s theoretically time to add something.” “Stay tuned,” is a comment Friend and Calarco say often.

[Museum 2040] is a reckoning, not just with what is happening now, but with how we will choose to remember ourselves,” Friend says.

New Cleveland Park Library Exhibits Community’s Storied Past

by Jason Williams

This article was first published in The Northwest Current.

When the Cleveland Park Library reopens its doors Saturday after two years and a $20 million rebuild, the sparkling-new facility will prominently display 10 glass panels that pay tribute to a neighborhood icon’s definitive work. These glass panels connect two generations of artists, and library supporters.

Construction of the new library at Connecticut Avenue and Macomb Street NW was a joint venture by Perkins Eastman Architecture and Gilbane Building Co. to replace an aging structure that debuted in 1953. The D.C. Public Library system’s data show the Cleveland Park branch to be the busiest neighborhood library in the city.

The story of the art within the new library starts with Catherine Cate Coblentz, who graduated from George Washington University in 1930 and went on to write 12 children’s books over the next 20 years. The most acclaimed of the dozen, “The Blue Cat of Castle Town,” earned Coblentz a Lewis Carroll Shelf Award and a Newbery Honor. As Coblentz established herself as a noteworthy author, she also became deeply invested in raising funds for the parcel of land that would ultimately house the Cleveland Park Library, as explained in a branch history prepared by the Friends of the Cleveland Park Library in the 1990s.

Although Coblentz died before the 1953 opening, the Connecticut Avenue Citizens Association (now known as the Cleveland Park Citizens Association) recognized her contributions by commissioning 10 glass carvings for the library that would feature illustrations from her catalog of books. Harriton Carved Glass and then-partner Anthony D’Attilio created the carvings, which were placed in the original Cleveland Park Library. As time passed fewer people knew the story of the glass panels.

As the design team for the new Cleveland Park Library thought through ways to pay homage to the original library, Jill Bogard, the longtime president of the Friends of the Cleveland Park Library, had the idea to more prominently feature the glass panels. Bogard — like Coblentz, a lifelong resident of the Cleveland Park area and a staunch supporter of its library — went so far as to track down the son of the artist who had overseen the project.

“We should not forget the beauty and the importance of the past particularly as we face the future,” she said, explaining why she felt compelled to make sure Coblentz was honored in the new design she said.

Anthony D’Attilio’s son, Lawrence, is an artist who has worked in constructed photography, among other artistic mediums. He plans to visit the new Cleveland Park Library, where he’ll see a family legacy that stretches beyond his father. While his father was an important figure in the creation of the Coblentz panels, his uncles Dominick, Ralph and Phillip were also key contributors to the work that was produced by Harriton Carved Glass. Although he can’t make it to Saturday’s reopening, D’Attilio has committed to come back and share his knowledge of the subject of sandblasted glass and his family’s role in its development.

“The work done by Harriton Carved Glass walked that fine line between fine art and applied art,” Lawrence D’Attilio said in a recent interview. “It was fine art because of the process and what was produced, but it was also applied since the work started as window signs and had a very practical purpose.” As the doors reopen on Saturday to a brand-new facility that features conference rooms, study spaces and expandable meeting rooms–as well as the carved glass panels–the Cleveland Park Library is acknowledging and honoring its past and embracing what is on the horizon.