The incident detailed in Adrienne and Adam P. Kennedy‘s harrowing and autobiographical Sleep Deprivation Chamber (at
Penumbra, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul, penumbratheatre.org) is, unfortunately, as common as rain: a policeman commits a vicious assault and then concocts a lie in order to cover up his malfeasance. That an innocent man might go to prison as a result means little. The racial component (the victim, Teddy, is African-American and the offending officer is white) exacerbates the nastiness of the beating. In the fraught and perilous world of urban police work, and despite the concerted efforts of cities to increase police professionalism and achieve ethnic parity, this happens all too often. (Indeed, an article in today’s Minneapolis Tribune recounts a distressingly similar story) To say that Sleep Deprivation Chamber is relevant to our situation today is to put things mildly.
To a large degree, this play is fueled by outrage: how can this injustice have happened to us? Teddy’s mother, Suzanne Alexander, a brilliant academic, writes letter after letter, to the mayor, the governor, her U.S. senator, etc. A crackerjack attorney, Mr. Edelstein, is engaged to defend Teddy. Teddy’s father, David Alexander, witnesses the assault, and speaks with eerie effectiveness. On this level Sleep Deprivation Chamber succeeds extremely well. David’s final line, “They picked on the wrong family”, really resonates.
But personal outrage does not make for a fully satisfying evening of theater, and so the Kennedys utilize a surreal theatricality in order to draw parallels between what has happened to Teddy and to racism in general. There are some densely dream-like flashbacks to Suzanne’s past (the play is part of Adrienne’s Kennedy’s Alexander Plays, a cycle featuring Suzanne, her alter ego). All this significantly ups the power of the play but is mitigated by excessive (in my opinion) repetition: we hear the assault described a half dozen times, repeatedly see it re-enacted, onstage and in video.
If the play is occasionally unsatisfying, the production and performances are decidedly not. Director Robbie McCauley tackles the presentational style with no fake energy and no trickery. As a result the characters display a calm, poised and compelling passion. As Suzanne, Indira Addington possesses an unruffled stage presence even as she prowls the stage, insinuating herself into almost every scene. It’s an understated and lovely performance. Lucas Bellamy excels in the role of Teddy, progressing from youthful innocence to work-the-system toughness. Terry Bellamy as David stays calm, refusing to be provoked and thus gives us a passionate father. As Edelstein, the frazzled lawyer who meticulously devastates the hapless cop’s mendacious testimony, Stephen Cartmell is fabulous. Everyone is excellent.
It’s one of the biggest quandaries of the 21st century: can we have an effective, yet fair and well-behaved police force? We aren’t there yet. Are we getting closer? Sleep Deprivation Chamber makes a worthy contribution to this conversation.
For more information about John, check out his website.