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."