By Emma C.
Sleep Deprivation Chamber is a play written by Adrienne Kennedy and her son Adam Kennedy. The play, based on Adam Kennedy and Adrienne Kennedy's true-life experience, explores the aftermath of Adam's brutal encounter with a Virginia policeman who pulled him over and beat him, and then later arrested him for assaulting a police officer. Throughout the thoroughly post-modern narrative, Adam Kennedy's beating as well as the courtroom story is told alongside his mother's story, which involves her experience writing letters to political officials to draw attention to the incident. At the same time, the play's narrative transcends time by using dream sequences, and play-within-a-play scenes to shed light on the tough topic of police brutality, Kennedy's approach is a creative one that attempts to reconceptualize the truth by blurring the lines between fiction and reality.
Adrienne Kennedy is a famous African-American playwright best known for her play Funnyhouse of a Negro. Most of her work centers around the black experience and African culture in connection to current events and past ones. In "Sleep" she submerges herself into a metaphorical "Sleep Deprivation Chamber," renaming herself an alter-ego-- "Suzanne Alexander". Suzanne is the narrator of dream sequences throughout the play and readers can follow her side of the story through the letters she writes. Suzanne is the only character who seems to be out of the loop with the incident that occurred between her son (Adam is renamed "Teddy" in the play) and Policeman Holzer. Her breaks from reality are made apparent in her desperate attempts to get attention from Governor Wilder through her letters. The letters reveal how Suzanne feels powerless, not only as a mother, but as a famous playwright and also as an African American. The content of her letters relay her cries for justice, but they also recount actions of her daily life, which adds a human touch to the play. In one of Suzanne’s letters she writes, “Dear Governor Wilder: I’ve received replies from the police chief, senators and county manager. I have a new list. But why should we have to defend ourselves with letters of character when we are innocent?...”
In addition to the letters and the act of writing being a critical point for power and powerlessness in the play, Kennedy also mentions several crucial people, places, and events in American history in order to emphasis that this type of discrimination has not changed throughout time. For instance, at one point she recalls Emmett Till, a 14 year old teen who was lynched and mutilated for flirting with white woman Carolyn Bryant in the 1950s. Stating, “...We are now a grieved family. Our son is being prosecuted by the Arlington Police Department just as surely as happened in the Deep South in the 1930s 0r during Emmett Till’s time.” In relation to her situation involving Teddy being beaten by a white officer, she is commenting on white privilege. Another incident she mentions is the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that collapsed a double-Decker freeway structure in Oakland California. Her use of historical figures and events adds to the play's topic of the black experience, because it is a reminder of how blacks in the U.S. are portrayed and treated. Although written in the 1990s, we can see a pattern of such events still occurring today, maybe not entirely alike but very similar. Currently this could be a story in connection to the Black Lives Matter movement, challenging historical issues of racism in the U.S.
Teddy, the secondary character in this play, is the alter-ego for her son. He is the most relatable character of the play. A victim of police brutality and racial discrimination, Teddy represents the many faces of young African-American men who suffer at the hands of a faulty justice system. Time after time Teddy is questioned about the specifics of the night he encountered officer Holzer, “The officer was pushing me on top of the car and because I had been kicked in the chest I had a very difficult time breathing and I asked the officer very politely-I said, “Sir, I can’t breathe,” I said, “I’m an American citizen, could you please let me up and breathe?”. This bit of information that Teddy provides is the starting to point to his whole situation. At some point he is even told by an African- American female lawyer, “It’s all right, you can tell me, even though your father’s here, you can tell me if you have been arrested before. Come on!” which leaves him in a state of shock. The importance of this one scene is how even amongst your so-called “brothers & sisters” there is a pre-deviant stereotype of what African-Americans are depicted as.
Kennedy's presentation of civil rights ideas and persons and the retelling of Adam's (Teddy's) story contribute to a larger conversation about Black identity while capturing the turbulent 1990s of America -- a time when Cold War ends, a truck bomb explodes under the world trade center, President Clinton signs the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, Oklahoma City bombings, O.J trails, and the Columbine High School murders. The Kennedy’s perhaps composed this play not only to develop an argument about the racist societal systems America has in place that contribute to the powerlessness many blacks today feel. Everything in this play from the encounter with the police, the interrogations, the letters, and dreams, all of it screams about the black experience in a racist, white America.
Sleep Deprivation Chamber is a play still so important today because it reflects much of the attitudes and experiences of Black lives. A short read that will stay with you for a long time.