Adrienne Kennedy

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Adrienne Lita Hawkins Kennedy was born on September 13, 1931, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Cornell Wallace Hawkins and Etta Haugabook Hawkins. After Kennedy learned to read at three years of age, she became a voracious reader who had moved alphabetically through her local library’s shelves before she reached high school.

In 1935, Kennedy’s family moved to an integrated, middle-class neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. Both parents, college graduates and professionals, influenced Kennedy’s writing style: her mother, through humorous stories edged with pathos; her father, a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) branch executive director, through nightly recitations of the poetry of Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others. Active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League, both parents instilled in Kennedy the importance of having a positive impact upon the world.

Throughout her elementary and her high-school years, Kennedy continued to be an all-consuming reader and a superb achiever. In fact, one of her elementary school teachers cautioned her mother that Kennedy could make herself ill from her own high expectations of herself.

Not until she began her freshman year at Ohio State University in 1949 did she experience overt racism that caused her to question her own identity. No longer was she judged on her abilities and her achievements; suddenly, she found herself prejudged on the basis of the color of her skin. The wrenching theme of a personal identity raging in a dissonant universe pervades Kennedy’s writings.

With the limited possibilities of education or social work for a major, Kennedy chose education. Although she satisfactorily completed the required course work, she did so without her customary intellectual avidity. In her senior year, however, she attended a course in twentieth century literature in order to fulfill the university’s requirements for a bachelor’s degree. In that course, Kennedy rediscovered her need to express herself as a writer.

Three weeks before her graduation, on May 15, 1953, she married Joseph C. Kennedy, a man who strongly supported her desire to write. After Joseph returned from service in Korea, the Kennedy family (now including a son, Joseph, Jr.) moved to New York so that he could attend Columbia University’s graduate school in social psychology. From 1954 to 1956, Adrienne cared for their son and took creative writing courses at Columbia University. Later, she also studied at the American Theatre Wing.

A turning point in Kennedy’s development as a writer came during a fourteen-month journey through Africa and Europe in 1960 and 1961 during which her husband conducted a research study. Kennedy absorbed the consciousness and the life rhythms of West Africa. Regenerated, she began to integrate the African use of masks and sound into her fragmented dramatic characterizations. In Europe, she assimilated the culture and the history that had fascinated her for years. While overseas, Kennedy completed Funnyhouse of a Negro (1962) and gave birth to a second son, Adam Patrice.

Upon returning to the United States, she submitted Funnyhouse of a Negro to Edward Albee’s Circle-in-the-Square playwriting competition and worked on the drama’s subsequent workshop production. Two years later, twelve years after Kennedy had begun writing and submitting manuscripts for publication, Funnyhouse of a Negro opened Off-Broadway at the East End Theater; the play won a 1964 Obie Award.

During the next twelve years, Kennedy wrote several one-act plays, including The Owl Answers (1963), A Rat’s Mass (1966), A Beast’s Story (1969), Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder (1968), A Lesson in Dead Language (1968), An Evening with Dead Essex (1973), and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and...

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White (1976). In 1980, under commission of the Juilliard School of Music, Kennedy adapted two Greek plays by Euripedes. The Alexander Plays (1992) is a series of four plays featuring the same character, Suzanne Alexander, as the protagonist.

Kennedy has also become known as an innovative autobiographer. People Who Led to My Plays (1986) is her response to frequently asked questions regarding the influences on her playwriting. This autobiography almost seems like a photo album, a montage of clear and honest snapshots taken from 1936 to 1961. Deadly Triplets: A Theatre Mystery and Journal (1990) is written in two parts. The first section, the mystery, interconnects real-life events and people within a British fictional section. The second section, the journal, is a memoir sketching some of the same events and people within the context of Kennedy’s Off-Broadway and London theater experiences. Kennedy ended the twentieth century with three more plays: The Ohio State Murders (1992), June and Jean in Concert (1995), and Sleep Deprivation Chamber (1996), which was written with her son, Adam Patrice Kennedy.

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