Adrienne Kennedy is a significant playwright largely because of her pioneering work in nonnaturalistic drama. Her scripts are confusing and difficult to read; in performance, however, there is a clear sense of the playwright probing the workings of the subconscious mind. Her plays are dreamscapes. As in Funnyhouse of a Negro, a character may see herself as more than one persona. In The Owl Answers (pr. 1963, pb. 1969), for example, the central character is Clara Passmore, “who is the Virgin Mary who is the Bastard who is the Owl.” This play also uses repetition of lines or fragments of lines to establish the character as a collage of people. Confusions of identity and inner conflicts are often imaged in Kennedy’s work in figures who are part human, part animal, as in A Rat’s Mass (pr. 1966, pb. 1968) and A Lesson in Dead Language (pr., pb. 1968).
Kennedy has refused to create the kind of simplistic, didactic writing about the African American experience that gained widespread attention in the 1960’s. Her plays instead treat the black experience in America on a variety of levels: intellectual, sexual, symbolic, and visceral. Her work has pushed other African American dramatists to explore alternative methods of expressing their common concerns. Similarly, as a woman writer, Kennedy has repeatedly raised issues about the tyranny of patriarchal culture, particularly as represented by the Church. She has made a significant contribution to the development of feminist theater in the United States.
Kennedy’s achievements as an innovator in dramatic form were acknowledged in 1964 when she received an Obie Award for Funnyhouse of a Negro. She has also been awarded several Rockefeller grants, a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1993, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in 1994.
She has continued to write to the African American experience and women’s experience; she has also written for children. Her autobiographical book People Who Led to My Plays (1987) gives an interesting account of the many influences on her work, and critics have noted that her 1992 collection The Alexander Plays, which encompasses a quartet of plays exploring the life of a woman named Suzanne Alexander, is likely a fictionalized version of Kennedy’s own life.