The Upper West Side in Your Living Room

Those who know me may think I sound like a broken record but I must say once again: one of the few positive things that has come out of the pandemic is that many arts experience have now gone online. As someone who lives in a small town and does not usually have access to world class museums or performing arts, finally being able to see some of the greatest work being created has been a breath of fresh air.

With February being Black History Month – I feel it is especially important to highlight the work of African American artists – one of whom is being celebrated with an online festival being put on by Washington DC’s Round House Theatre: Adrienne Kennedy.

Kennedy burst onto the 1960s theatre scene with her Obie Award-winning show Funnyhouse of a Negro. Her plays are surreal and poetic explorations of identity, race, society, history, and class. As a lover of film, I have always been especially fond of her show A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White which I was able to see performed at New York University in the 00s.

Though she has been well-studied and revered in theatre academia, performances of her work have been sparse, which is a travesty. Therefore, this online festival is creating an opportunity for her work to be available to never-before-reached audiences.

The festival includes the world premiere of her latest play, Etta and Ella in the Upper West Side, a sparsely staged poetry recitation that is indescribably captivating. Caroline Clay plays the titular Etta (or is it Ella?), spinning a tale of intrigue, mystery, and tragedy. As I listened, trying to hold on to the strings of who is who and how they all connected, I felt myself transported to this world of intelligentsia, just in the way Clay moves her hand as she says, “hair upswept.”

In addition to Etta and Ella, the celebration features three other Kennedy shows: He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box (if you like love stories), Sleep Deprivation Chamber (if you need an understanding of the relationship between the black community and the police), and Ohio State Murders (if you like intrigue). Be prepared for a touch of the tragic in all of her work. I highly recommend every show but definitely think seeing Ohio State Murders before seeing Etta and Ella will add insight and depth to those stories.

The Festival is available to stream through the end of February on the Round House website. Individual shows start at $17.50 and a full festival pass is $60 (cheaper than the cost of a single Broadway ticket). If you like bonus material, there are also panel discussions available, Free of Charge, where you can take a deeper dive into her work.

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