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Merciless Divinations: Adrienne Kennedy and the Anti-Theatre of Black Becoming

Photo of Black sailor, U.S. Naval Archives.
Fig. 1. U.S. Naval Archives. Public domain.

In the urgency of what sounds initially like an auteur’s command, the fictional “Director” of Adrienne Kennedy’s 1973 play-within-a-play, An Evening with Dead Essex, discloses the unnegotiable terms of his own captivity before the phantasmal image.

It is in the frequent repetition of a one-word imperative from the Director—to “flash”—that its operational binding (as the instruction by which to advance photographic images in a slide projector) can be perceived to shred. The demand is at once a managerial spur for his actors to make headway in grasping their subject matter, and an abyssal first step in the momentum of the collective going-under necessitated by its deepest realization.

The Director’s play is dispossessed of expressible intent by the seismic intensity of the historical event to which it is magnetized.  The effects and implications of that event cannot be reduced either to his play’s affirmation, disavowal, or even to its narration.

At the same time, his work never folds into the routines of a merely descriptive “chronicling.” Its obstinate silences, its unnarrated displays of archival photos and miscellaneous objects, its verbatim readings of “unrelated” newspaper stories, and its near-complete absenting of performative gesturality all function as figural evocations of understanding’s other. It is from within this alterity that each incongruency of form eviscerates the mediatic and literary/critical pretensions to organize, into transparencies of evidentiary “fact” and “motive,” such radical violence’s internal field of obsessions, vulnerabilities, and contradictions. Remnant shards of its undeveloped histories besiege the Director’s play from within. They demand nothing so falsifying as to be “represented.”

What these fragments assert—in either the sudden flash of photographic projection or in the discomfiting duration of their unexplained lingering—is their demand to be read as singularities of revenant force. To be “read” in this sense is not for any object to surrender itself to some external gaze or pressure; but for any object, in the blitheness of its own silent emergence, to penetrate and extract from that gaze an unprecedented intensity of involvement and responsibility.

Such experimental reading unfolds only in becoming hostage to the alterity of these mutely evaluative images and foregrounded ellipses. For the Director and his young, Black theater troupe, these figural fragments link onstage a timeless radius of socially disallowed private ambiguities, of sedimented accruals of unarticulated Black analysis, impulse, and insistence.

Hence the detonative force of Kennedy’s double-writing in An Evening with Dead Essex. Her play-within-a-play architecture assumes the obligation of making felt the driving passion and encumbrance of a Black phantasmal vision in relentless demand of its own obscure forms and temporalities—all from within a US cultural sphere whose understanding of itself is renewed in its continual inscribing of Blackness as that which is precisely without cognitive, perceptual, or spiritual drive beyond material circumstantiality. Without desire. Without life.

Across the claustrophobic and vaporizing one act of An Evening with Dead Essex, the ongoing scrambling of “identity” that characterizes so much of Kennedy’s lifework converges with the visceral disgorging of contemporary Western and US spectacle. For this play, such purgation is only a single spasm in the transfiguration of the permanent, white-over-black social order of American hierarchy—to which, as the legal scholar Anthony Farley reminds us, all members are supremely well-trained—and from which, the very possibilities of Black insurrectionary vision and vehemence are to be eradicated before the fact.[1]

People Under Pressure

The “interior plot” of Dead Essex is never more than a fevered search for one. Its action is its space—the cluttered studio of a Midtown film company, now used by a Black experimental theater troupe on its final day of rehearsal. Its artists struggle through a plan of performance that follows no script, beyond whatever inner metamorphoses are set off by each actor’s immersion in a vast archive of the violent attack’s news representations. At no point does the company’s work fall into the mimetic trap of forming “counterpoint” rejoinder to the surround-sound banality of US media cycles. Assembling their analyses from textual and image fragments of these cycles, the company gravitates slowly into an unanticipated poetics of Black dislocation from the stranglehold of that hyper-networked social circumference. This is how Kennedy sets the scenography: 

Studio in a film company on West 47th Street

Screening room

Screen, projector

Posters, rolled and stacked in shelves

Tape recorder

A phone table with a typewriter, chairs on the table, piles of newspaper clippings, photographs

The area is made to look enclosed and dim except for one center glaring ceiling light

To the rear with his back to the audience, the PROJECTIONIST (the only white character) at the projector.

The floor should be black . . . all the furniture should be dark, except for glaring silver film cans and white, rolled-up posters . . .

            The screen on which the pictures are projected is slightly bigger in scale than everything else. The pictures projected are razor sharp and as stated in the text vary in focus. These are people under pressure. It is the last night of rehearsal.[2]

A single figure evacuates any presumption of transparency from Kennedy’s double-architecture of phantasmal vision and its exigencies of formalization. The different orders of struggle driving her play originate in that figure’s relationship to the system of racialist capitalism—its logics of unchecked ownership and exchangeability cemented by what Frantz Fanon termed the “zone of nonbeing,” scripted within that matrix for Black existence.[3]

Kennedy never refuses the interpretive obstinance of her object—a Black man unable to assimilate a culture unable to assimilate his youthful desire to join it. She explores his unreadability as the vacuum that triggers the violence of that system’s insatiable demand for Black being’s unambiguous avowal of its subjugation. The routinized representational “satisfaction” of such demand (as observed in mediatic standardization of antiblack stereotype, in ongoing ubiquity), requires in turn the vertigo of figural ruptures by which Kennedy’s oeuvre exposes those satisfactions—whether termed “reality,” “history,” “knowledge,” or “news”—as no more than hardened circumferences of mediatically reimplanted fantasy projections.

So it is from within the uncrossable distance marked by the globally front-paged photographs of Mark Essex’s bullet-shredded corpse on the rooftop of a New Orleans hotel in January 1973—the distance separating the industrialized information-machinery of those same Western fantasy projections from the impenetrable, yet indisputable rigors foundational to Essex’s murderously explosive attack on the N.O.P.D.— that Adrienne Kennedy’s double-writing opens its critical investigation of the American scene. The violence at its center is less the articulation of Essex’s agency as decisional subject of violence than it is the most incendiary expression of that subjectivity’s vulnerability to an obsessional image of such thing as liberated Black existence. The massacre’s journalistic re-presentation exposes the white noise of Western dissemination machinery as the lead suspect in the continued valorization of a white-over-black world, out of which Mark Essex brutally burns and shoots his way. Cultural historian Mike Davis’ return to the scene is among the more effectively succinct:

A young Black Navy veteran who . . . had almost no formal weapons training, Essex boldly attacked the headquarters of the New Orleans Police Department on New Year’s Eve, 1972. After killing a Black police cadet and wounding a white lieutenant, Essex escaped to a nearby warehouse where he ambushed a K-9 unit and killed another cop.

For a week he eluded a vast manhunt before suddenly reappearing in the Downtown Howard Johnson Hotel across the street from City Hall. Going floor to floor, always warning the housekeepers to flee, he shot down hotel managers and white guests, setting rooms afire as he climbed toward the roof.

The New Orleans police rushed the hotel, but Essex with uncanny accuracy shot cops off fire ladders, mowed them down in stairwells and killed them as they stepped out of elevators or got out of their cars in the streets below.

By nightfall on 7 January 1973, Essex -- now bunkered on the roof of Howard Johnson -- had militarily defeated the entire New Orleans Police Department. He had shot 10 police officers (killing five, including a deputy chief) and 11 white civilians (killing four) while withstanding thousands of rounds of police fire without a wound.

Ultimately a Marine helicopter was brought in and after taking numerous hits from Essex in three runs at the hotel, a police sharpshooter finally killed the one-man Black liberation army. When the coroner received what remained of Essex he counted 200 bullet wounds.[4]

With benefit of forty years’ reflective synthesis, Davis mobilizes Essex as an historical and critical prism through which to read more recent “monstrosities” of individual, Black militaristic attacks on institutional power. Kennedy’s play, however, had only a few months in which to appropriate the means of journalistic reprojection, turning its axioms, parlances, and tonalities to the analytic scrutiny of those it delegitimates by the minute with each broadcast, story, and headline; disclosing the embedded consolidation of that culture industry and US war and repressive policy machines. Demonstrating through spectacular media’s own language of images the impossibility of “explaining” Essex’s attack without at once “explaining” the culture that assigns him to the zombified zones of nonbeing reserved for Black existence—the Director projects as many photographs and headlines representing the materiality of US authority (as personified by Nixon-Kissinger) as it does in detailing the actions of Mark Essex.

Evening: Studio empty—clutter on table—chairs disarray—flag in corner—screen empty. Assistant Director enters carrying a pile of blown-up posters . . . the top poster is one of a B-52 . . . He clears a place at the cluttered table, sits down. He opens note book, goes over aloud a check list of clippings—

Assistant Director (Slowly): Returning Home

Unbalanced, drug addicts

All the Peace at Hand Speeches

More war headlines

More photographs of Essex town

Death at the Olympics

Resuming the Bombing

Mining the Harbor

(Posters—the Director goes through them, looking at each one rather quickly).

Director: We’ll put them around the room. I want to see them at a distance...

(Director doesn’t say anything. Puts up posters around room.

Poster 1—B-52

Poster 2—Vietnamese children

Puts up Poster 3—Bombs

Assistant Director: This is what surrounded him—another list of news items and photos . . . surrounded by war and killing. (Kennedy, Reader, 130)

Because the idea of a reality beyond this Debordian room full of mirrors is now all but impossible to conjure, Kennedy’s play never leaves the material scene of informational dissemination, the mediatic nerve center of commercialized image processing—which is to say, the operations base of structural Black devaluation and decontextualization.  Everything in the play issues from the flatness of the unnarrated photos projected onto the massive screen at centerstage and from the monodrone of one-dimensional news clippings and broadcast news scripts.

If this studio-archive is the scene of cognitive dissemination, however, Kennedy’s staging of it marks the spot from which to rewrite cultural futurity. Her foregrounded shuttling of each slide-photo detaches, as a non sequitur questioning of the very provenances of the valuational and contextual framing of Black existence. While the photo-image is generally presumed a guarantor of representational delivery, Kennedy’s “random” projections slip from the enclosures through which Blackness is institutionally reified. Unnarrated, they force intensified, anxious reflection. Similar disorientation is installed by Kennedy’s evident refusal to write, speak, or act emotive densities (beyond occasional snickering) into any character’s reactions to any given image or news item read aloud. Kennedy’s structuring of silences into the play extracts from its reader or spectator an intensity of interpretive labor that commercial media saturation has already trained out of most, suggests Maurice Blanchot:

Hence the exigency—apparently laughable, apparently inconsequential, but necessary—that leads us to seek of the everyday an always more immediate knowledge . . . We want to be abreast of everything that takes place at the very instant that it passes and comes to pass. Not only are the images of events and the words that transmit them instantaneously inscribed on our screens and in our ears, but, finally, there is no event other than this movement of universal transmission; the reign of an enormous tautology . . . ” How many people turn on the radio and leave the room, satisfied with distant and sufficient noise? Is this absurd? Not in the least. What is essential is not that one particular person should speak and another hear, but that, with no one in particular speaking, and no one in particular listening, there should nonetheless be speech, and a kind of undefined promise to communicate guaranteed by the incessant coming and going of solitary words.[5]

Blanchot’s synopsis of “everyday speech” as the empty transcript of the mediatized society’s empty promise of penetrative meaning reverberates even more sharply if read alongside the moment in Dead Essex when the Director, searching for a copy of Henry Kissinger’s 1972 “Peace is at Hand” speech, can only come up with a stock photo of a smiling Kissinger joining a session of peace negotiations. “Yes, we want that picture over and over entering and leaving, entering and leaving the peace talkings with peace at hand—all this happening around Essex—all appearing deception to him . . . He too was entering and leaving many places” (Kennedy, Reader, 126). The coming and going, entering and leaving of some implicitly promised reality, say, of “peace,” or “equalness”— promised by the “incessant” flood of verbiage or of broadcast imagery—but never materialized at hand.

Richard Nixon pointing at a map of Cambodia
Fig. 2. Photo by Jack Kightlinger, White House Photo Office, April 30, 1970.  Public domain.

Absorbed with each “flash” of a different photo is either an acceleration or an arrest of the momentum with which any given image evaluates the system of representation in which it has been inscribed. This is why the flashing time of the projection is at once the time of abyssal plunge in Dead Essex, mandating an explorational rather than expansionist approach. It is the inscriptive torque of that flashing urgency; the force of an image’s pulling away from every established representational network, into the deep time beyond intent or interpretation. It is the turning that mutates the spectator’s colonizing gaze into an involvement or a passion—extracted from that spectator by the unnarrated image’s refusal to resolve. An abductive interval in which epistemological reserves of Black desire and invention might break from their molding within the auto-commoditizing logics of the most powerful engine of racialist exploitation in the West. Edouard Glissant’s writing returns frequently to this interval.

The flash is the art of blocking obscurity in its revealed light; the accumulation, that of consecrating evidence in its duration at last perceived. The flash is of the self, the accumulation is of all . . . The poetics of duration, in that it opposes itself, enclosing it, to the flash of the instant, authorizes a level of expression (where the poem is no longer the sole and aristocratic reservoir, the only conduit of poetic knowledge) this repositioning of smothered, deepened impositions of the relation. It suspends the imperiousness of speech, and in stages, in obscure and extracted strata, opens the being onto his lived relativities, suffered in the drama of the world.[6]

Glissant’s language opens felicitously onto figural time as it unfolds in Dead Essex. His differentiation between the flash that “blocks” the already suppressed impulse/insistence and the accumulation that “consecrates” the time taken to bring such suffocated thought to realization, makes accessible a haunting at the play’s meditative core. It is audible as something already determined in the Director’s frequent demand for the projectionist’s next image. The Director’s “flash” makes available the image that might unlock the submerged “relativities” of long “smothered” experience. His repeated call vocalizes the aesthetic severities of formally transcribing an inner transfixion. Part of what emerges throughout Dead Essex is that the Director’s enthrallment to the otherness of a nonmimetic imaging of Blackness interanimates the work of experimental figuration and the paroxysmal furor of insurrectionary violence. His every demand to flash the next imagistic reverberation of Mark Essex’s attack affirms the extent to which he is already penetrated by or hostage to that furor. His actions do not reflect his agency.  Each visual image, object, or word that becomes a focal point of the work is therefore experienced at once as evidence and enigma; as promise and betrayal; as covenant with and severance from the knowable—and it is this paradox, in the shaping of any figural image, that Kennedy’s double-writing installs as a running analytic of any nonmimetic Black image’s automatically arrested flight, in the instant of its projection and framing within any anti-Black sphere of perception.

We Did Want to Kill but We Had No Plot

The space of the play is the space of work. For its duration, the Director and his company are given over entirely to detailed artifacts and accounts of Essex’s attack. Research trances them out of theatricalized re-presentation. It is only through each actor’s lapsing into study and into its forgetting—movements seldom projected outward and frequently intoned, as if in constant clarification to themselves, in examination of how Mark Essex is altered by what “surrounds” him during his short traversal of the American social—that the Director and his actors are all gradually re-exposed to whatever it was about Essex’s final action that eclipses “Essex” as media concoction.

From within the hermetic momentums of their reading develops a deepened sensitivity to the untapped evocative force secreted within any artifact or image they consider. Such force might at any moment detach from the dust and compel the beaming of yet another image. The slow-burn crescendo of collective, prayerful incantation into which the play finally rises (or plunges) at the conclusion is stoked throughout its length by what evolves only fitfully during the company’s long vigil in the studio-archive. This evolution is an accumulative hiatus from practical reality on the part of each actor—but that breach is also the time of immersive involvement with the archive’s materials and atmosphere. It intensifies each actor’s realization of and recoil from the zombifying network of telemediatically habituated languages in which self and spectacle mutually infuse and petrify—thereby “ripping apart” Black existence in the same instant of luring its gaze. This repeating spiral of attraction and pulverization, localized in the arrhythmic play of the flashing slides and the actors’ disquieted rummaging of the boxes, is the play’s essential progression.

(DIRECTOR stares at photo a while, lights a cigarette and smokes . . . The photo on the screen remains. HE goes on smoking and goes through photos and clippings on the table . . . The PROJECTIONIST is looking through cans of film and boxes of slides . . . A young ACTOR comes in carrying Army and Navy gear, puts it down, looks up at the screen at Essex’s mother . . . The ACTOR stares at Essex’s mother. He is in his twenties, dark skin, afro, looks very tired. [They’ve been rehearsing a long time.]  . . .  (ACTOR sorts through clothing, the gear . . . comes up with an old G.I. jacket, walks around, preparing himself, stares at slide of Essex’s mother, stares into her eyes, takes a long time getting the jacket right, then pulls a chair out from the table, sits in it as if he is alone in a room. . . .  

ACTOR: About a year ago five of us G.Is were arrested. We used to meet in the cellar of one of our homes. It was in Cleveland. They said we had a plot to kill white people . . . We didn’t. But we did meet in that cellar almost every day and talk, just talk. We wished we had a plot to kill white people—we had a lot to say to each other—about our confusion about the deep racial significance of the war between the US and Viet Nam, white against nonwhite, about our joblessness—we did want to kill but we had no plot—we had a lot to say and we still have a lot to say—about Mark Essex—to us he is a hero . . .  After going over this material I do believe Essex was so deeply religious that he was torn to bits in spirit by having to serve alongside his white enemy . . .  (Kennedy, Reader, 118–20).

It is in the impassioned aimlessness of this foraging that one sees everything changing on stage, as the actors are transformed by the concentrations they exert on the documents and on each other. In trying to dig out from those boxes something that none has ever seen take shape, their very movements produce signs of unthreatened Black futurity. It’s not for nothing that the copious reading-aloud to each other of headlines and newspaper clippings largely displaces conventional dialogue. The actors’ ventriloquized passages of newspeak distill only slightly the industrialized Western circumscription of Blackness as a cognitive inconsequentiality, becoming ironic transcripts of insurgent Black analysis of anti-Black world order.

The actors instead impose nothing and impart nothing, other than the radical capacity to be so imparted with the desire for metamorphosis. They gravitate into no terminus of identification with Essex. They track instead the unfamiliarity of his horizons as these mutated before him, reconfiguring his own perceptual constitution during his late ‘60s American odyssey.

According to Peter Hernon’s 1978 study, A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper, Mark Essex was raised uneventfully in rural Emporia, Kansas—in what Kennedy’s Director speculates to have been the “innocence of someone who believed in the equalness of the hearts of those in his hometown. He believed in those white, Kansas faces . . . that open American look” (Kennedy, Reader, 120). Essex enlisted in the US Navy and after completing basic training near the top of his class, was sent to the Naval base at San Diego, where he became an “exemplary” dental technician. All the while, the physically diminutive Essex was subjected to daily physical, verbal and officially sanctioned forms of specifically anti-Black abuse and bullying by enlisted colleagues and by superior officers—forms for which nothing in nearly all-white Emporia had adequately prepared him.[7] After a year in San Diego, unable to “hack it anymore,” Essex left the base without permission, returning to his parents in Emporia for a month. After they urge him to return to the base and face the music, he admitted to having gone AWOL, was court-martialed, and was saved from imprisonment only by the testimony of the senior dentist for whom he had apprenticed. He drifted from Emporia to Manhattan, KS, where he tried to join the Black Panther Party, only to find the organization already disintegrating. In August 1972, Essex moved to New Orleans, perhaps to reconnect with an ex-Navy friend living there. He took night classes, read and radicalized further, while living in Black, profoundly poor sections of the city.

Front page of the Times Picayune, January 8, 1973.
Fig. 3. Front page of the Times Picayune, January 8, 1973.

In their trying to divine Essex’s catalysts through imagistic and textual inquiry of “everything that was happening, everything that preyed on his consciousness . . . all that was around him” the actors become subject to a similarly unsettling magnetization; an “economy of proximity . . . an inability not to understand.”[8] They are led by an alienating and yet closely felt presence, in their dispossession by and compulsion toward an otherness whose significance they cannot fail to grasp.  

The Writing on the Wall; or “Only a Pig . . . ”

For Kennedy’s Director, each forward flash of the projector is a step sinking further into the ensnarement of a phantasmal depth. Each flash exposes his authority as an actual enslavement— as a rapport with whatever alterity in the archive now directs him. Divining these forces, as he imagines they compelled Essex—or “getting there,” as he names this convergence—is the convulsive motion of the work’s radical becoming.

At some point in Mark Essex’s nearly destitute final weeks in New Orleans, he painted onto each of the walls of his rundown apartment a fragmentary monologue of such self-abandon, a thick shroud of language shredded into one-word war cries and insurrectionary phrases, some in Swahili, some in English, all unrecognizable as his to any who had known him well at any point prior. The walls are inscribed, it would seem, not in despair but in deepest thrall to an image of revolutionary Black fulfilment that splinters and saturates his mind and living space—much as the Midtown film studio blankets its inhabitants with evocative images of Essex himself. While the ferocity of Essex’s English-language meanings is clear enough, as quoted by Kennedy—“My Destiny Lies in the Death of Racist Pigs,” or “The quest for freedom is death . . . Then by death I shall escape to freedom,” her writing omits perhaps the most blithely scabrous signature of the impenetrable equilibrium in which he seems to have moved in this final period (Kennedy, Reader, 126, 132).[9] When detectives arrive to search the apartment after his death, they are greeted not only by the incendiary axioms on the four walls, but by a personal message left specifically for them as they look upward— “Only a pig would read shit on the ceiling” (Hernon, A Terrible Thunder, 262).

“Getting there” is what it means for the Director and his actors to finally with similar insouciance in reevaluation of their own transfiguration through analysis. Theirs is the no-longer-hesitant rhythm that first leads Essex off the exchange grid of losses and gains when he calmly explains to his Naval mentor why he no longer wants “anything to do with the Navy,” and will plead guilty to desertion even if it means imprisonment. “Essex’s hours,” a repeated and never-explained Kennedy reference throughout the play, seems to evoke such arrival in departure, suggesting those durations in which Essex is manifest and withdrawn, present and absent. It is, in the Director’s words, his troupe’s being “there with him now;” a space-time in which the artists are held involuntarily and intractably.  It is the compulsion of the flash’s repetition—the interval between the demand and the realization of a poetic image—the turning toward an image as that image breaks from its promise of manifest understanding.

“Nothing that attracts is alien,” writes Kodwo Eshun of the experimentalist’s gravitation.[10] Blanchot writes that for the artist “To err is to turn and return, to give oneself up to the magic of detour. . . . One who goes astray moves steadily ahead and stays at the same point. . . . And he is not at the same point, although being there by returning. The return effaces the point of departure” (Infinite Conversation, 26). In this sense, Adrienne Kennedy’s Dead Essex trains its spectator out of mimesis and to the passion of an unshakeable, if inarticulable, captivation into a more insurrectionary-because-more-involuntary responsiveness to what is murderous in the official hum of cultural representation.


[1] Anthony P. Farley, “Perfecting Slavery,” Loyola University Chicago Law Journal 36 (2005): 225–56.

[2]  Adrienne Kennedy, The Adrienne Kennedy Reader (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 117 – 18; emphasis in original.

[3] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008), xii.

[4] Mike Davis, “Christopher Dorner and the Exterminating Angels,” The Rag Blog, February 15, 2013, theragblog.com/mike-davis-christopher-dorner-and-the-exterminating-angels.

[5] Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, trans. Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 240.

[6] Edouard Glissant, Poetic Intention, trans. Nathalie Stephens (Callicoon, NY, Nightboat Books, 2010), 42.

[7] Peter Hernon, A Terrible Thunder: The Story of the New Orleans Sniper (New Orleans, LA: Garrett County Press, 2010), 25–31.

[8] Kennedy, Reader, 123; Joseph Libertson, Proximity, Levinas, Blanchot, Bataille and Communication (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1982), 99.

[9] Kennedy uses Essex’s apparently incomplete quoting from Huey P. Newton’s August 1970 eulogy for Jonathan Jackson and William Christmas. In full, the sentence reads, “If the penalty for the quest for freedom is death, then by death we escape to freedom.” See Huey P. Newton, “Eulogy for Jonathan Jackson and William Christmas: August 15, 1970,” in Newton, To Die for the People: The Writings of Huey P. Newton (New York: Vintage Books, 1972).

[10] Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction (London: Quartet Books, 1998), 104.