Making its debut on January 14, 1964, at the East End Theater in New York City, Funnyhouse of a Negro was Adrienne Kennedy’s first produced play. Early on, critics and audiences recognized the importance of the work. It received an Obie Award from The Village Voice for most distinguished play and continued to be produced in the United States and abroad throughout the 1960s.
The play chronicles the last hours in the life of Sarah, a young black woman troubled by race and identity. Kennedy’s depiction of Sarah’s hallucinatory subconscious—struggling with self-hatred, race hatred, and alienation from the larger culture—was regarded as powerful by some critics of the era. Other critics were confused by the staging and subject matter of the work.
Many scholars contend that Funnyhouse of a Negro was revolutionary in a number of ways, especially Kennedy’s unique portrayal of what it was like to be black and a woman in the United States in the 1960s.
Funnyhouse of a Negro opens in front of a closed curtain; a wild-haired woman, the Mother, walks across the stage carrying a bald head in front of her. She mumbles to herself, appearing to be in a trance.
After she exits, the curtain opens to reveal the Queen’s chamber, with a tomb-like bed at center. In the chamber are two of Sarah’s inner selves: the Duchess of Hapsburg and Queen Victoria.
The women look identical and wear royal gowns and ghostly masks. When knocking is heard, the Queen announces that it must be her father looking for her. The Duchess notes that their father is a black man and she wishes he was dead.
They both complain about him; the Duchess accuses him of killing their mother. Victoria claims that he is dead before the loud knocking ends and the lights go out in the chamber.
The Mother returns on stage carrying the head. She announces that she was raped by the black man, Sarah’s father, then disappears. On another part of the stage, which features a square wall, Sarah (also known as the Negro) enters with a hangman’s rope around her neck and with blood on her face. She carries a patch of kinky hair that is missing from a spot on her head.
Sarah addresses the audience in a monologue: she describes the place where she lives, a room that is located in a brownstone in New York City. Claiming that she idolizes Queen Victoria, she describes her conversations with the Queen. In these conversations, she states that being black is bad.
Sarah also describes her background; particularly her education, interest in poetry, and her desire to live in a room with European antiques. In this scenario, Sarah makes it clear that she wants to surround herself with things from the white world in order to ignore her African American heritage. The pressure of this self-hatred has caused her hair to fall out; she is almost bald. She also has a boyfriend, Raymond; he is a Jewish poet who is interested in African American culture.
As Sarah continues to talk, her four inner selves stand together on stage: in addition to the Queen and the Duchess, a hunchbacked dwarf named Jesus and a black man with a split head named Patrice Lumumba make an appearance.
Sarah claims that she killed her father. Outside of Sarah’s room, in the hallway of the rooming house, the Landlady appears. She informs the audience that Sarah’s father hung himself inside a hotel in Harlem when Patrice Lumumba was murdered. The Landlady describes Sarah’s habit of hiding in her room.
Located above Sarah’s room is the funnyhouse— ruled by Raymond, known as the Funnyman. Raymond and the Duchess talk, with the Duchess clinging to Raymond’s leg. The...
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