jakub | February 21, 2023

AMERICAN THEATRE | Film Noir as a Key to Adrienne Kennedy’s Style

Sarahjeen François and Tori Danner in a concept image for “Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side.”

“Troupe was determined to discover more of what led to Ella’s strangling.”

— from Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side by Adrienne Kennedy

Troupe, a Black music scholar, peers through the curtains of his brownstone window at the apartment across the street. There sits a woman named Etta, one of his former colleagues. Night after night she incessantly calls him to warn him of an upcoming murder. She’s a prominent Black writer—a playwright—who has a history of warring with her sister. Or possibly she’s warring with herself. Troupe is thrust into a role akin to a detective from a film noir, with a deep compulsion to discover more of what led to Etta’s madness.

The process of putting the pieces together—following clues, understanding the shards of glass spilled on the hardwood floor—that Troupe puzzles over in the first half of Adrienne Kennedy’s Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side is unbelievably similar to the process of directing this play’s world premiere (in a CalArts Center for New Performance production playing Feb. 23-25 at REDCAT in Los Angeles). Kennedy wrote this new work as an adaptation of her short story “Sisters Etta and Ella” from her publication The Adrienne Kennedy Reader. Written in a prosaic style that reads a lot like her short story, the play functions by way of characters reading the narration of their lives or having their story read for them. If I’m being honest, when I first read the play, it looked like word art on the page. Kennedy wrote dialogue and action as if she were writing lines and stanzas of poetry, incorporating purposeful page and line breaks. The play was confounding, but haunting. It compelled us to go deeper.

I felt uniquely qualified to tackle the play. Almost all of the core characters in the play are Black academics, an identity that runs deep in my family. On both sides of my family, there are professors, teachers, teachers who teach teachers, superintendents and principals that go back generations. After completing grad school at the California Institution of the Arts, I was fated to join their legacy. In fact, the recently published essay in Harper’s Bazaar about Kennedy’s work, occasioned by the Broadway production of Ohio State Murders, was written by my cousin Wendy S. Walters, director of the non-fiction concentration at Columbia University. I’m all too familiar with how revealing yourself in your work can feel like an act of bloody self-immolation, or how education can turn into compulsion, and compulsion into obsession—a deep rabbit hole with seemingly no bottom. This is what I could bring to the process.

We read the play out loud multiple times. We provided context for each reference that eluded us. We marked a timeline of the play across the rehearsal room walls. Still, that wasn’t enough. We read the short story from which it was adapted, Kennedy’s other work, her memoir The People Who Led to My Plays, an excerpt of a short story with the same characters read aloud by Eisa Davis. The more clues we found, the more we discovered that Etta and Ella were in fact one person: Adrienne herself. 

Adrienne Kennedy.

One day, I worked up the bravery to write Kennedy a letter. I did my best to assure her that we were doing everything to do right by this world premiere production. I wrote about this detailed investigation process, the resources we were using. I was relieved by a warm response from her. She sent pictures of the brownstone she lived in on the Upper West Side and a beautiful sepia-toned photograph of her parents with the message: “Etta. And. Ella. Have. Same parents. As. I do.” The clues started to line up. 

Adrienne Kennedy is a master storyteller. The play she’s written is only 31 pages, approximately 45 minutes, but it’s dense. It has layers. It’s engrossing, haunting, sometimes violent. And despite its complexity, it’s entertaining. Many people who know Kennedy cite her love of Turner Classic Movies—the glamor of old Hollywood, the deep desire to dance with Fred Astaire. Her plays have a dreamy, cinematic quality to them. They fade in and out of realities.

While you can see a wide breadth of American cinema in Kennedy’s work, it was specifically the moody shadows of film noir that revealed a possible influence on her new play. The design team and cast started sharing recommendations for a collective watchlist. Folding tables and chairs, scripts, pencils, and highlighters flickered in the dark room where we spent three rehearsals in a film noir movie marathon. Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) clued us into ideas in lighting and composition, how to move from one well-composed frame to another in rapid succession. Besides more clues about lighting, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) offered a complex femme fatale in Barbara Stanwyck’s performance. And last year’s Decision to Leave—an incredible Korean neo-noir film by Park Chan-wook—gave our actors the best understanding of how we could modernize the genre. Between these films and a few others (including John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Eddie Alcazar’s The Vandal, even the recent horror breakout Skinamarink by Kyle Edward Ball), we started to form a language for the style and genre of our story.

Monty Cole.

With the ability to grasp style, the play opened up for the actors. Suddenly it was possible to activate language and chew on the words that would otherwise be read in a short story. The physicality of the play became alive, more playful, as imaginative as Kennedy’s mind. A new logic was formed that disregarded time, dream, memory, and reality. Most importantly for me, a deep emotionality came forth that rang true for this story about Black academics. 

After all of this investigation, the creative team was interested in how we could build an experience that honored Adrienne Kennedy’s unique storytelling in a way that hasn’t been done before. Oscillating between live and pre-recorded footage, the production is both deeply cinematic and theatrical at the same time—just like Kennedy’s work. We’re creating a production in which the characters and their psychological horror literally leap off the screen—pitching Kennedy as a theatrical Hitchcock. Her work is so deeply layered and haunted; coupled with a cinematic language, it resonates in an excitingly emotional way.

We’re also accompanying the play with a live pianist who scores the experience, honoring Kennedy’s rhythmic language and calling back to the original movie houses. We’re looking to create something truly iconic that lifts up the work of this seminal living playwright. Kennedy’s words were built for visceral liveness and the emotional stoicism of the close-up, and that’s what Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side offers.

In one rehearsal, I remember the question emerging: Why is Troupe compelled to learn more about Etta? It’s the same reason we’re compelled by Adrienne Kennedy’s haunting work, after more than 60 years of writing plays for the American theatre. I wish I could tell you in words.

Monty Cole (he/him) is a theatre and film writer-director based in Chicago whose reinterpretations of classics from Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape to Hamlet have received awards and critical praise. He has directed for the Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf, Center Theatre Group, the Playwrights Center, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Victory Gardens Theater, CalArts Center for New Performance, Cape Cod Theatre Project, Alley Theatre, American Blues Theater, and others.

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