The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 (that is, about Sarah’s) life. All the while, there is a persistent knocking at the door; the knocking, they say, is their father, a black man who they say is dead but who keeps returning. Both characters are made up to appear as if they are black women trying to look white. Headdresses with thick black hair attached hide the fact that both characters seem to be going bald. Abruptly, lights fade. The Mother returns, this time carrying a severed bald head and saying that the black man has defiled her.

Lights come on to reveal Sarah in her room in a rooming house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She is wearing black, and her hair seems to be falling out. Her long monologue, delivered directly to the audience, describes her life, mixing the details of the real, external world with her troubled inner feelings. Implicit in her ramblings is her conflict between identifying with the white culture in which she has been raised and her realization that as an African American she is different from the white people whom she knows. Then, through a hole in the wall, four characters representing different parts of herself enter: the Duchess, the Queen, Jesus Christ, and Patrice Lumumba, represented as a black African whose bloody head appears to be split in two and who carries an ebony mask. Sarah addresses the audience again...

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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 lights come up again on the Negro-Sarah. She is very dark and faceless. She wears a hangman’s noose around her neck and is missing a patch of hair from her head. In a monologue, she reveals details of her life. She is a student and a writer, absorbed with writing in the style of Europeans. She lives in a brownstone in the West Nineties, and her boyfriend Raymond is a white man. Sarah must surround herself with whiteness, avoiding the reality of her blackness. Her only outstanding negroid feature is her hair. Sometimes she is herself, and sometimes she is Victoria Regina. The lights come up on the white Landlady in another area of the stage. She says that Sarah hides in her room, talks to herself, and thinks of herself as someone else. The lights go out.

The next scene takes place in...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

In the United States, the early 1960s were marked by social and political transformations. One of the most important was the Civil Rights...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Because Funnyhouse of a Negro is a surreal play that takes place primarily inside Sarah’s mind, only a few...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1964: The poll tax is eliminated by the ratification of the twenty-fourth amendment to the Constitution. Throughout the summer, many...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

• 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...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is a dramatic poem written by Ntozake Shange in 1974....

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)


Billings, Joshua. A review, in The Nation, January 25, 1964, p. 79.

Brantley, Ben....

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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....

(The entire section is 546 words.)