Adrienne Kennedy Drama Analysis
Adrienne Kennedy dares to be innovative both in her subject matter and in theatrical form. She writes difficult plays that raise questions rather than providing answers. From Funnyhouse of a Negro onward, Kennedy chose a subjective form that she has retained throughout her literary career. Her plays grow out of her own experiences as a sensitive and gifted black American who grew up in the Midwest. There may be little plot in Kennedy’s plays, but there is, to be sure, a wealth of symbolism concerning the inherent tensions of the African American experience. Kennedy’s daring break from a realistic style in theatrical writing, as well as her bold exploration of her own family history, cultural experience, and identity, provides a foundation for contemporary writers such as Suzan-Lori Parks, Ntozake Shange, and Anna Deveare Smith. These writers join Kennedy in expanding theatrical boundaries, creating theater that offers unforgettable images in culturally resonant, historically significant, and deeply personal plays.
Kennedy’s plays are consistent in their exploration of the double consciousness of biracial African Americans who are inheritors of both African and European American culture and tradition. Symbolically represented by the split in the head of Patrice Lumumba, one of the selves in Funnyhouse of a Negro, this double identity frequently results in a schizophrenic division in which a character’s selves or roles are at odds with one another. Typically it is the African identity with which the protagonist—who is often a sensitive, well-read young woman—is unable to come to grips. By using a surrealistic form to treat such a complex subject, Kennedy is able to suggest that truth can be arrived at only through the unraveling of distortion. Indeed, what Kennedy’s protagonist knows of Africa and of blacks has come to her filtered through the consciousness of others who are eager to label Africans and their descendants “bestial” or “deranged.” This seems to be what theater critic Clive Barnes meant when he said that Kennedy “thinks black, but she remembers white.” For this reason, animal imagery, as well as black and white color contrasts, dominates Kennedy’s plays.
Kennedy’s concerns with isolationism, identity conflict, and consciousness are presented primarily through character. She has called her plays “states of mind,” in which she attempts to bring the subconscious to the level of consciousness. She achieves this essentially by decoding her dreams. Indeed, many of the plays were actually dreams that she later translated into theatrical form. This surrealistic or dreamlike quality of her work has been compared to August Strindberg ’s dream plays, in that both dramatists render reality through the presentation of distortion. Extracting what is real from what is a distortion as one would with a dream is the puzzle Kennedy establishes for her characters, as well as for her audience, to unravel in each of her major plays: Funnyhouse of a Negro, The Owl Answers, A Rat’s Mass, and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White.
Funnyhouse of a Negro
As in life, truth in Kennedy’s plays is frequently a matter of subjectivity, and one character’s version of it is often brought into question by another’s. This is the case in Funnyhouse of a Negro, Kennedy’s most critically acclaimed play. From the moment a somnambulist woman walks across the stage “as if in a dream” at the beginning of the play, the audience is aware that it is not viewing a realistic performance. Such figures onstage as the woman sleepwalker, women with “wild, straight black hair,” a “hunchbacked yellow-skinned dwarf,” and objects such as the monumental ebony bed, which resembles a tomb, suggest a nightmarish setting. The action of the play takes place in four settings: Queen Victoria’s chamber, the Duchess of Hapsburg’s chamber, a Harlem hotel room, and the jungle. Nevertheless, it is not implausible to suggest that the real setting of Funnyhouse of a Negro is inside the head of Sarah, Kennedy’s protagonist. As Sarah tells the theater audience in her opening speech, the four rooms onstage are “[her] rooms.”
As with the four sets that are really one room, Sarah has four “selves” who help to reveal the complexity of her character. At first, Sarah appears to be a version of the kindhearted prostitute, or perhaps a reverse Electra who hates rather than loves her father. Kennedy builds on these types to show Sarah’s preoccupation with imagination and dreams, as well as her divided consciousness as a partaker of two cultures. Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg are identified with Sarah’s mother, or with her white European identity. The other two personalities, Jesus and Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese leader and martyr, on the other hand, are identified with Sarah’s father, or with her black African heritage. Significantly, Sarah’s four personalities tell the story of the parents’ marriage and subsequent trip to Africa and the rape of the mother, which results in the conception of Sarah, each of which events can be called into question by the dreamlike atmosphere of the play and by the mother’s insanity. One by one, the four alter egos add details to the story that allow the picture of Sarah’s family to build through accretion. Even so, this story is undermined by the final conversation between the landlady and Sarah’s boyfriend, Raymond. Doubling as “the Funnyman” to the landlady’s “Funnylady,” Raymond comes onstage after Sarah’s suicide to tell the audience the truth about Sarah’s father in the epilogue to the play. Although Sarah claimed to have killed her father, Raymond tells the audience that the father is not dead but rather...
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