The Play (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Funnyhouse of a Negro is the dreamlike enactment of Sarah’s internal struggle over who she is and where she belongs. Although many of the specific incidents in this one-act play are drawn from Adrienne Kennedy’s own life, the drama attempts, through the poetry of word and image, to enlarge these very personal conflicts and to make them relevant to problems in the culture at large. The style of this play is surrealistic, expressionistic, and absurdist. The plot of the play should not, therefore, be regarded as a credible or realistic story, nor should readers attempt to make literal sense of the dialogue or visual effects.
Although the play offers different specific settings such as Sarah’s room, the stair-case of the rooming house, Raymond’s room, and the jungle, the action depicted takes place inside Sarah’s mind. At the same time, this play is often quite openly theatrical in its use of space. From the opening scene, which has the Mother walk out in front of the drawn curtains, to the very end, in which walls fall away and the action jumps abruptly from one part of the stage to another, readers should try to imagine how the playwright intended the fully staged work to be seen and heard by an audience.
The play begins before the curtains have even opened. The Mother crosses in front of the white curtains. As she exits, the curtains part to reveal Queen Victoria Regina and the Duchess of Hapsburg, who converse about their...
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The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Funnyhouse of a Negro is a highly stylized theatrical piece. The setting of the play is the Negro-Sarah’s room. The space is dominated by dusty books, photographs, and relics. The other locales—the queen’s chamber, Raymond’s room, and the jungle—are all part of Sarah’s nightmare/fantasy. These are suggested environments, spaces created by lighting. The characters all represent facets of the Negro-Sarah’s fantasies.
Funnyhouse of a Negro begins with the stage in darkness. In front of a closed white curtain, a woman crosses the stage. She is wearing a white nightgown and carries a bald head. Her hair is “wild, straight, and black, and falls to her waist.” She is mumbling inaudibly. She crosses the stage and exits, and the curtain opens.
Queen Victoria Regina and the Duchess of Hapsburg are sitting in their chamber with their backs to the audience. They are dressed in the same ghastly white material as the curtain. Both have wild, frizzy hair and are missing patches of hair on the crowns of their heads. Their faces are white and immobile masks. A loud knocking is heard throughout the scene. They discuss their father, a Negro—the darkest of them all. He has come through the jungle to find them; he is knocking. He is dead, but he keeps returning. The lights black out.
The woman crosses the stage again, speaking about the black man whom she should never have let rape her. She is the mother. The...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Funnyhouse of a Negro invites the viewer into the mind of a very confused young black woman. The characters of the play are identified as facets of herself. She sees herself as omnipotent (Jesus), powerful (Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg), and revolutionary (Patrice Lumumba). According to the dream logic of the play, these diverse characters all suffer from the conflict between their father, a black man, and their mother, a light-complexioned black woman who was raped and driven to insanity. The characters evoke the era of European colonialism, the zealotry of Christian missionaries, and the subsequent search for liberation by the peoples of Africa.
The strongest facet of the play is its use of language. The playwright has the characters repeat images, phrases, and in some instances entire speeches. One speech is performed by all the characters in unison at varying speeds. The language takes on a weight of its own through the sheer force of repetition. The characters speak of horrible acts—rape, patricide, and suicide—with words that have the force of blows.
Another strong element of the play is its vivid visual imagery. The contrast between light and dark, repeated in many different forms, contributes to the ritualistic quality of the action. The Duchess and Queen Victoria are both very white and expressionless. Jesus is a hunchbacked, yellow-skinned dwarf, dressed in white rags and sandals. Patrice Lumumba is a black...
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In the United States, the early 1960s were marked by social and political transformations. One of the most important was the Civil Rights movement, which had been fighting for civil rights for African Americans for a number of years.
At the beginning of the decade, the fight for civil rights took several forms: sit-ins at segregated lunch counters; marches through segregated areas; and boycotts of discriminatory businesses. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed several lawsuits to serve a civil rights agenda. Hopes were high that newly elected President John F. Kennedy would fulfill his promises to pass civil rights legislation.
Kennedy never got a chance to fulfill his agenda; tragically, he was assassinated in November 1963. However, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, did continue the civil rights agenda. In 1964, he signed into law several bills that guaranteed civil rights for African Americans and other minorities.
The most important was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It guaranteed equal opportunity for employment and public places (such as hotels, theaters, and restaurants). Access to employment could not be denied based on race, gender, religion or national origin.
The Civil Rights Act also gave the federal government several means to enforce the law. For example, they could cut off funding to any lower form of government that did not comply. The Justice Department could bring...
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Because Funnyhouse of a Negro is a surreal play that takes place primarily inside Sarah’s mind, only a few aspects of the setting are ‘‘real.’’
Set in the early 1960s, the play takes place in Sarah’s room in a New York City brownstone. Her room features a large statue of Queen Victoria, other pictures of British monarchs, books, a bed, and a writing table. Some of the ‘‘realistic’’ action takes place on the landing and inside Raymond’s room.
The play has several settings specific to Sarah’s four selves. For example, the Queen has her own chamber with a tomb-like mahogany bed, a chandelier, and walls the color of wine. The Duchess has her own space: a ballroom with a chandelier, marbled floor, fake snow, and benches. In the final scenes, a jungle replaces these rooms, altering their symbolic meaning.
There is very little action and dialogue in Funnyhouse of a Negro; in fact, much of play is in the form of monologues. Kennedy uses the monologue to let the characters speak freely.
Sarah and her four inner selves use their monologues to relate a version of Sarah’s family background and emotional crisis. None are exactly the same, which illustrates her inability to come to terms with her life.
In the Landlady’s monologues, she relates stories about Sarah’s ‘‘real’’ life, as she has observed and understood it. Only...
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Compare and Contrast
1964: The poll tax is eliminated by the ratification of the twenty-fourth amendment to the Constitution. Throughout the summer, many volunteers travel to Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to promote voting rights among African Americans. In Mississippi, three civil rights activists are murdered.
Today: The right to vote is assured to African Americans.
1964: Interracial marriages are banned by sixteen states, mostly in the South.
Today: No state bans interracial marriages.
1964: Anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela is sentenced to life in prison for his activities in South Africa.
Today: After being imprisoned for twenty-six years, Mandela was released in 1990. He was elected as South Africa’s president in 1994. He has since retired from public life.
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Topics for Further Study
• Research the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s, in particular the effects of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. How do you think this movement impacted the lives of middle-class African Americans like Sarah?
• Review psychological writings on the children of interracial marriages. Discuss Sarah’s identity crisis, self-hatred, and subsequent suicide in light of your findings. Has society changed? Would Sarah feel this way today?
• The character of Sarah feels alienated from both her African-American heritage and white heritage. Write an essay discussing your own heritage and what it means to you. Does it help define who you are? What else defines you as a person?
• Compare and contrast the character of Sarah with Clara from Kennedy’s 1965 play The Owl Answers. Clara undergoes a similar racial identity crisis, which also involves historical figures. Why did Kennedy pick these specific people— what do they represent? What do the historical figures say about Sarah and Clara’s individual crises?
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What Do I Read Next?
• for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is a dramatic poem written by Ntozake Shange in 1974. Shange explores different facets of her life and struggles, relating a variety of experiences of African American women in the twentieth century.
• Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity (1995) is a book by Lisa Funderburg that features interviews with fortythree biracial Americans. They discuss the impact of being biracial on their lives.
• The Owl Answers is a play written by Kennedy in 1965. It chronicles the adventures of a young woman, Clara Passmore, who is troubled by her racial identity. Eventually, Passmore is imprisoned by several figures in British history, including William the Conqueror.
• Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families, is a collection of photographs and interviews by Gigi Kaeser, Peggy Gillespie and Glenda Valentine published in 1997. The thirty-nine portraits are accompanied by the stories of these multiracial families.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Billings, Joshua. A review, in The Nation, January 25, 1964, p. 79.
Brantley, Ben. ‘‘Theater Review: Glimpsing Solitude in Worlds Black and White,’’ in The New York Times, September 25, 1995, p. C11.
Brown, Lorraine A. ‘‘‘For the Characters Are Myself’: Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro,’’ in Negro American Literature Forum, 1975, p. 86.
Clurman, Harold. A review, in The Nation, February 10, 1964, p. 154.
Simon, John. ‘‘Playing with Herselves,’’ in New York, October 9, 1995, p. 82.
Taubman, Howard. ‘‘The Theater: Funnyhouse of a Negro,’’ in The New York Times, January 15, 1964, p. 25.
Binder, Wolfgang. ‘‘A MELUS Interview with Adrienne Kennedy,’’ in MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Fall, 1985, p. 99. This interview with Kennedy includes a discussion of race, culture, and her artistic development.
Bryant-Jackson, Paul K. and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, 254 p. A collection of critical essays on Kennedy’s plays.
Farber, David R. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s, Hill & Wang, 1994, 296 p. A historical overview of...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Binder, Wolfgang. “A MELUS Interview with Adrienne Kennedy.” MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 12 (Fall, 1985): 99-108. An interesting discussion with the playwright on issues of race and culture as they apply to her plays and to her concerns about writing for the theater.
Blau, Herbert. “The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy.” Modern Drama 27 (December, 1984): 520-539. An important article in which the noted theater critic discusses why both Shepard and Kennedy ought to be regarded as major American playwrights. This essay has had a significant influence on virtually all later commentators on Kennedy’s work.
Bryant-Jackson, Paul K., and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theater of Adrienne Kennedy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. A varied and comprehensive collection of essays dealing with diverse aspects of Kennedy’s works, including literary and theatrical criticism, discussion of the plays’ production histories, and several interviews with the playwright by theater scholars. A number of essays look at Funnyhouse of a Negro.
Diamond, Elin. “An Interview with Adrienne Kennedy.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 4...
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