Expectations are the WD-40 of our lives, the lubricant that allows us to maneuver through the world and get things done. We understandably expect that cars coming toward us will stay on their side of the road or that we can walk into a crowded store without fearing bodily harm. Without those expectations, and millions more like them, we would spend our lives cowering in the basement.
But what happens when normal expectations are reversed? What happens, say, to law-abiding blacks who are trailed through stores by security or stopped while driving through affluent neighborhoods, simply because their skin color has altered the expectations of their behavior? These are the tough questions addressed in Sleep Deprivation Chamber, an uneven but enormously affecting work by Adrienne Kennedy and her son Adam P. Kennedy, now at Cleveland Public Theatre.
Based on an actual event that occurred in the lives of the African American authors (renamed Suzanne and Teddy Alexander), the play explores the corrosive and disorienting effects on individuals that result when a person is singled out, abused, and then falsely accused by seemingly intractable powers. And, lest this sound like a throwback to the bad old days before civil rights, we should remember that Sean Bell, an unarmed black man in Queens, New York, was fatally shot by police on his wedding day less than two months ago.
Teddy's encounter with police is far less tragic, but still generates profound distress for the family involved. The young Alexander, a student at Antioch College, is three blocks from his father's home in Arlington County, Virginia, when a squad car spots his broken taillight and tries to pull him over. Teddy continues the short distance to the house, pulls into the driveway, and gets out of the car to see what the policeman wants.
At that point, Teddy's version of events diverges from the account of Officer Holzer, but the indisputable facts are that Teddy is beaten, repeatedly kicked, and then arrested for assaulting a law-enforcement official. His mother Suzanne is here at the time, working with the Great Lakes Theater Festival on a play called The Ohio State Murders, when she hears the shattering news about her son.
The play is told from the mother's point of view, and we feel her impotent rage as she launches a letter-writing campaign directed at Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder, Senator Chuck Robb, and other muckety-mucks. This event is especially troubling for her, since her parents -- and father, in particular -- had fought for civil rights and "a better life for Negroes in Cleveland."
One of the more telling images in this piece is watching Suzanne fill sheet after sheet of blank pages, annotating her son's academic achievements and her family's proud history, trying futilely to erect a paper shield between her beloved son and the inexorable force of the police and the prosecutor.
The impact of this struggle is further enhanced by the fragmented dreamscape structure of the piece, directed with smooth precision by Caroline Jackson Smith. We see bits of Hamlet (a play Teddy was involved with at Antioch) along with memory flashbacks to Suzanne's father and the idyllic times they spent at a summer cabin when she was a child. These moments, augmented by brief snatches of songs such as "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," are interspersed with interrogations of Teddy and his father by the police, and Teddy's phone conversations with his mother.
Although smaller roles in the show are read clumsily (there is much artificial teeth-grinding by various cops and the DA), the key parts are spot-on. Lisa Langford captures a nice mix of strength and vulnerability as Suzanne, and Daniel H. Taylor registers with total believability as Teddy, a young man thrown into a situation he is utterly unprepared to handle. Stuart Hoffman exudes a Mark Fuhrman-like arrogance as Officer Holzer, bridling defensively as his story is undermined by sarcastic defense attorney Edelstein (Derek Koger).
Unfortunately, the mordant lyricism of the first part of this 90-minute work gives way to a perfunctory judicial procedural, with the playwrights relying far too much on what seems to be the actual trial transcript. As important as the courtroom specifics are to those involved, they make for less than gripping theater -- especially as intentionally repeated facts begin to feel oppressively redundant.
To the credit of the script and the CPT performance, however, the dizzying disconnect of an individual who is unjustly under assault comes through loud and clear. After living life honorably and according to the rules, no one anticipates having the rug pulled out. But that is how vulnerable we all are, particularly those who don't get the benefit of the doubt from other people's expectations.
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