Joshua Kenna, one of the recipients of Southern Rensselaer County Rotary Club scholarship awards this year, was featured in a story in the Times Union about his latest accomplishment — having his original short play produced at Capital Repertory Theatre.
Josh, who graduated this year from Rensselaer Junior-Senior High School as class vice president, still plans to enroll at Keuka College in the fall, but the experience has changed his plans for a major. Read on for the details.
Inside his autistic brother’s head
Student wrote play in effort to understand sibling’s experience
By Claire Hughes
ALBANY — When 18-year-old Joshua Kenna’s English teacher nudged him to write his first play, the high school senior knew what he wanted to create: words to help understand what his older brother Joe was going through as they grew up.
Joe Kenna doesn’t talk. The 19-year-old Rensselaer man has autism and is mostly nonverbal.
So Joshua put down on the page a character named Ethan who reveals what Joe might have said, if he could have, as his parents struggled with his diagnosis, where to send him to school and their divorce.
This weekend, Ethan will come to life on the stage as the completion of Capital Repertory Theatre’s Young Playwright Contest. Joshua’s drama, “Inside My Head,” is an effort of empathy that changed him in the process of writing it.
With a scant 10 minutes in which to pack the story of Joe’s life — that’s the limit for the plays entered into the Cap Rep contest — Joshua carefully chose four scenes, with the last one harkening back to the first.
He knew a key scene well. It’s a fight he and Joe had. But for two others — Joe’s diagnosis and his parents’ decision to place him in a school for special-needs children — Joshua had to do some research. So he interviewed his parents.
The result is an honest and heartfelt drama with a maturity that Margaret Hall, the assistant to the artistic director at Capital Rep, called rare for a teen playwright. Joshua doesn’t hold back on the tough scenes, but it’s not the anger in the play that’s unusual. It’s the fact that he moves through it, Hall said.
“It’s different in that it takes a positive spin, even when the moments are difficult,” Hall said.
The play begins with Ethan’s diagnosis at age 2 1/2, and with his parents’ struggle to accept it. Then it fast-forwards several years to a fight his parents have over where to send him to school. It’s the kind of conflict many parents will recognize, perhaps especially those who have argued over how to address a difficult-to-absorb diagnosis: It’s emotionally raw with lots of yelling.
It wasn’t easy to watch as a parent, who remembered the moment from a different perspective, said Joshua’s father, Jack Kenna. When he watched it, he thought the father was a jerk. But Jack, as well as Joshua’s mother, Mary, and other brother, John, thought it would be OK to see some rough patches in their family history on stage if it would help others understand autism.
Jack and Mary are divorced, and that decision has a role in the play, too. Ethan blames the fighting on his autism.
But the real emotional kicker is the scene from Joshua’s own memory. Teenage Ethan and his younger brother Edward are fighting over getting to use the computer, when Edward screams in frustration, “Ethan, will you listen to me for once?!” “ARE YOU EVEN IN THERE?!” Ethan replies with a note: “Sorry for autism.”
Then Edward cries and apologizes. And an older Ethan, narrating, says to the audience, “That was the day when I finally understood nothing could or would change me. I am autistic, and that’s OK.”
And that is the message of Joshua’s play: It’s OK to be autistic or disabled. Or as Edward says to Ethan, “You’re my brother, buddy. You’ve nothing to be sorry for.”
Joshua, who graduated from Rensselaer Junior-Senior High School in June, thought he wanted to pursue writing in college. But he changed his mind after writing “Inside My Head.” He’s going to Keuka College to study occupational therapy, with a minor in creative writing.
“I realized I wanted to do something to help.”
YOUNG PLAYWRIGHTS CONTEST
• Where: Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 North Pearl Street, Albany
• When: 4 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 11 a.m. Saturday; 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission: Free
• More info: https://school.proctors.org/therep