Adrienne Kennedy 1931-
Full name Adrienne Lita Kennedy.
Kennedy's controversial, often violent plays symbolically portray African-American characters whose multiple or uncertain identities reflect their struggle for self-knowledge in a white-dominated society. Although some audiences have expressed discomfort with the dark, brutal nature of Kennedy's plays, critics have consistently praised their lyricism and expressionistic structure, frequently comparing them to poetry. Wolfgang Binder observed: "[These] dramas are to some degree exorcizing personal and collective racial traumas and have anger, the urge to communicate and (attempted) liberation as the motivating forces."
Kennedy grew up in a multi-ethnic, middle-class neighbor-hood in Cleveland, Ohio. She had an early interest in drama, but did not begin writing until she enrolled in a course on twentieth-century literature at Ohio State University. Shortly after graduating, Kennedy married, had her first child, and began writing plays while staying up late with the baby. Although her work was praised by writing instructors, she became discouraged by consistent rejections from publishers. At the age of twenty-nine Kennedy traveled to West Africa and Rome with her family, and the contrast between her African and European experiences provided the background for her first published play, Funnyhouse of a Negro. When she returned to the United States, she submitted the drama to a workshop taught by playwright Edward Albee. Soon afterward, the play enjoyed a successful off-Broadway run and won an Obie Award in 1964. Over the past several years, she has taught creative writing at such institutions as Yale University, Princeton University, and the University of California at Berkeley.
Kennedy is best known for Funnyhouse of a Negro, which focuses on a young girl named Sarah whose confusion regarding her identity arises from her mixed heritage: her mother is white and her father is black. Simultaneously obsessed with and alienated from Western culture, she is tormented by visions of figures who her represent the white, Western world, in particular her mother, Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Habsburg, and Jesus Christ. Kennedy's following work, Cities in Bezique, consists of two one-act plays, The Owl Answers and A Beast Story. Like Funnyhouse of a Negro, The Owl Answers portrays a African-American woman's quest for self-knowledge in a world dominated by white races. Other critically acclaimed works by Kennedy include the lesser-known A Rat's Mass and A Lesson in Dead Language, which present surrealistically distorted religions that precipitate the loss of child-hood innocence through sexual initiation rites. Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder, a short play about creation, is one of Kennedy's few dramas dominated by a male perspective. In 1980 she presented a children's play, A Lancashire Lad, a fictionalized version of Charlie Chaplin's childhood in England.
Kennedy's work is often praised by critics for its innovative and provocative use of poetic language and imagery to convey facets of the African-American experience. Commentators contend that several elements contribute to the highly expressionistic quality of her plays, particularly the lack of plot, rhythmic and repetitious dialogue, and use of characters from the mythical and historical past as well as allusions from her dreams and memory. As Robert L. Tener has asserted: "Set in the surrealistic theatre of the mind, her dramas are rich collages of ambiguities, metaphors, poetic insights, literary references, and mythic associations, all of which provide a dramatic form unique to Miss Kennedy."
Funnyhouse of a Negro 1962
The Owl Answers 1963
A Rat's Mass 1966
The Lennon Play: In His Own Write [with John Lennon and Victor Spinetti] 1967
A Lesson in Dead Language 1968
A Beast Story 1969
Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder 1970
An Evening with Dead Essex 1973
A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White 1976
Black Children's Day 1980
A Lancashire Lad 1980
Orestes and Electra 1980
The Ohio State Murders 1990
OTHER MAJOR WORKS
People Who Led to My Plays (memoir) 1987
In One Act (collection of plays) 1989
Deadly Triplets: A Theatre Mystery and Journal (novel and journal) 1990
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Interview with Kennedy (1990)
SOURCE: Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy, edited by Paul K. Bryant-Jackson and Lois More Overbeck, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pp. 3-12.
[In the following interview, conducted in February 1990, Kennedy discusses the background, influences, and stylistic and thematic aspects of her plays.]
[Adrienne Kennedy]: Joe [Chaikin] is … very important because when people had totally forgotten about me, in the mid-seventies, Joe was one of the people saying quite extravagant things about me, and working on my plays at his workshops. What he did with Movie Star  was a total moving image; it just never stopped moving. It was a masterpiece the way he did it.
[Lois More Overbeck]: So it was choreography?
No. It was the process of the Open Theater, Joe's troupe…. Joe and Michael Kahn, as far as I'm concerned, played the biggest role in keeping my morale up and for keeping my work in front of people throughout the seventies. Michael interested Juilliard in commissioning me.
What kind of a director was Michael Kahn with your work?
Very painstaking. And even as a very young director, he had phenomenal insight and vision.
Did you talk with him a great deal about the work?
We talked for...
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Overviews And General Studies
Susan E. Meigs (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "No Place but the Funnyhouse: The Struggle for Identity in Three Adrienne Kennedy Plays," in Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, pp. 172-83.
[In the following essay, Meigs addresses the "damaged social identity" of black Americans as presented in Kennedy's plays Funnyhouse of a Negro, The Owl Answers, and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White.]
I know no places. That is I cannot believe in places. To believe in places is to know hope and to know the emotion of hope is to know beauty. It links us across a horizon and connects us to the world. I find there are no places only my funnyhouse.
—Adrienne Kennedy, Funnyhouse of a Negro
In 1960, while dramatists were forging a rhetoric of black theater from the emerging black power movement, twenty-nine-year-old Adrienne Kennedy travelled to Africa with her husband and son. The trip would prove to be the catalyst for her career as one of America's most complex contemporary playwrights. At the time of her trip, Kennedy had been writing stories and plays for nearly ten years and had received virtually no public attention. Her failure to establish herself as a writer was made more discouraging by the recognition...
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Binder, Wolfgang. "A MEWS Interview: Adrienne Kennedy." MELUS 12, No. 3 (Fall 1985): 99-108.
Interview in which Kennedy discusses her artistic career and development.
Blau, Herbert. "The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepherd and Adrienne Kennedy." Modern Drama XXVII, No. 4 (December 1989): 520-39.
Discusses the concept of the "American dream" in relation to the plays of Shepherd and Kennedy.
Bryant-Jackson, Paul K., and Overbeck, Lois More, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990, 254 p.
Collection of critical essays.
Cohn, Ruby. "Black on Black: Baraka, Bullins, Kennedy." In her New American Dramatists: 1960-1980, pp. 94-115. New York: Grove Press, 1982.
Brief survey of Kennedy's work.
Curb, Rosemary K. "Re/cognition, Re/presentation, Re/creation in Woman-Conscious Drama: The Seer, the Seen, the Scene, the Obscene." Theatre Journal 37, No. 3 (October 1985): 302-16.
Interprets Funnyhouse of a Negro as a feminist drama, contending that in the play "a pivotal female character speaks in an intensely private voice of the anguish and paralysis she experiences as her identity is broken into stereotyped roles or alter egos."
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