The Play

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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 and in the same illogical way tries to describe who these characters are.

The Landlady (also described as the Funnyhouse Lady), who is now revealed at the foot of the rooming house staircase, seems to be talking to someone offstage about Sarah’s life. She seems aware that Sarah’s imagination has magnified the girl’s guilt about her father’s alleged suicide and has caused her delusions about who she really is. In spite of the seriousness of the subject, her speech is filled with maddened laughter.

The lights black out and rise again on a different setting, the room of Raymond, Sarah’s boyfriend, a white Jewish poet. The room is located upstairs in the same rooming house. Raymond, referred to in the scene as the Funnyhouse Man, laughs maniacally throughout his conversation with Sarah, who does not appear. Her role is played by the Duchess of Hapsburg. The two discuss Sarah’s parents: her black father, who has hanged himself, and her white mother, who has gone mad and been put into an asylum.

Again, lights black out. The knocking from earlier in the play rises, and an obscure, faceless figure carrying a mask emerges. He addresses the audience directly, talking about his fears. He says that his hair has fallen out and that this is symptomatic of an African disease. After another blackout, the scene changes to the Queen’s bedchamber, where Queen Victoria and the Duchess examine their heads for baldness. The balding Duchess attempts to take the hair she has gathered in a red paper bag and return it to her scalp. The figure from the previous scene returns. He is Patrice Lumumba, and yet, because he is in reality an extension of Sarah’s inner being, he speaks to the audience of her life and expectations, reiterating much of what Sarah mentioned earlier in the play. A bald head appears mysteriously, but his monologue continues. The various elements of his irrational rant reveal more about Sarah. She believes that she has betrayed both of her parents.

The next scene is set in the Duchess’s ballroom, where the Duchess receives Jesus, who carries the red bag of hair from the previous scene. Both are almost completely bald. After a quick blackout, the Duchess and Jesus attempt to comb their remaining hair, until the knocking at the door from earlier in the play begins once more. Both characters speak in unison about their (again, Sarah’s) father.

The scene suddenly shifts to the Landlady at the stairs. She describes Sarah’s relationship with her father and recalls a time when he came to see his daughter and the two tried unsuccessfully to reconcile. The scene then shifts again, returning to the chamber of the Duchess, where Jesus, the Duchess at his side, awakes from a deep slumber and speaks to the audience about Sarah’s inner fears and fantasies.

Following a blackout, the stage is consumed with a new set, the jungle. Here, in slow motion, the different characters who are really embodiments of Sarah’s fragmented mind emerge from the lush growth, speaking frenetically of Sarah’s father and his role in her life. The black missionary who went to Africa may be dead, but he keeps returning to haunt Sarah’s life. Her desire to destroy his memory and to obliterate both him and that part of her that he has created sends the four characters into maniacal laughter.

In a final tableau, a wall falls away to reveal a hideous statue of Queen Victoria. Nearby, Sarah’s father accosts his daughter, who is in fact hanging from a rope, dead. Raymond and the Landlady (the Funnyhouse Man and Lady) talk about Sarah’s suicide. Raymond suggests that much of what the characters have said has been invented, that Sarah’s father never killed himself, that he is alive, living somewhere in New York City.

The Play

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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 Raymond’s room, which appears to be above the Negro-Sarah’s room. His room contains a bed and window blinds; the blinds cover a mirror. Raymond is talking with the partially disrobed Duchess of Hapsburg. The Duchess needs to hide from her father, who comes from Africa and pursues her. Throughout the scene, Raymond opens and closes the blinds and laughs. The Duchess is losing her hair, which resembles her mother’s hair. Her mother was of very light complexion, her father very dark; she is in between. She embraces Raymond “wildly” as the lights go out. A knocking is heard again in the distance.

The lights come up on a dark, faceless man carrying an ebony mask. He is Patrice Lumumba. He too is losing his hair; he dreams of his bald mother. After she was married, she became insane and her hair fell out. The lights black out. The lights come up in the queen’s chamber. In a dumb show, Queen Victoria awakens and discovers that her hair is falling out. The Duchess enters carrying a red paper bag; she removes hair from the bag and attempts to replace her own hair. Patrice Lumumba returns and delivers a monologue detailing his life. He is a student; his friends and surroundings all need to be white; he is losing his hair. A bald head on a string, and a wall are lowered onto the set.

The Negro-Sarah appears and speaks to the audience. Her mother worshiped her father; she wanted him to be Christ and save the race. This worship ended with the rape of her mother, who was committed to an asylum. Sarah says that she was in love with the light skin of her mother and rejected her father because of his dark skin. Her father hanged himself in a Harlem hotel.

The next scene is between the Duchess of Hapsburg and Jesus. In a dumb show, both discover that they are losing their hair, so they comb each other’s hair to hide their baldness. The Landlady appears and tells her version of the relationship between Sarah and her father: He came to see Sarah in New York, to beg her forgiveness, but she refused to talk with him. Jesus returns to tell the audience that he has tried to escape being black. He is going to Africa to kill Patrice Lumumba.

The scene changes to the jungle. The characters all appear wearing nimbuses. They talk together in overlapping speech about their father, who is the darkest of them all. He was supposed to be the savior. He was bludgeoned to death with an ebony mask, but he keeps returning. The speeches are first delivered very slowly, and then very quickly.

Another wall descends. The Negro-Sarah is in her room. A faceless dark figure comes to her. The lights black out; when the lights come up again, Sarah is hanging. The final scene is a conversation between Raymond and the Landlady. They talk about what a funny little liar Sarah was. Raymond points out that her father, still alive, is a doctor who lives in very elegant rooms and is married to a white whore.

Dramatic Devices

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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 man whose face appears split and who carries an ebony mask. Raymond and the Landlady, who are white, are dressed in black; Raymond’s attire suggests that he is an artist, and the Landlady wears a black and red hat. The Negro-Sarah is a faceless, dark character with a rope around her neck. The repeated blackouts between scenes reinforce the contrast between light and darkness.

The play is filled with bird imagery (a recurring motif in Kennedy’s work). There are ravens, great dark birds that fly through the queen’s chambers. Lumumba recalls his early relationship with his mother as a time when doves flew. The birds are a symbol of freedom.

The device of mirroring is integral to the play’s structure and action. All the characters are reflections of the Negro-Sarah. They are all losing their hair; they all perform the same activities. The scenes are similar, mirroring each other; the placement of characters onstage is often similar. The white characters, moreover, provide an alternate reflection of the information given by the black characters.

Historical Context

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In the United States, the early 1960s were marked by social and political transformations. One of the most important was the Civil Rights movement, which had been fighting for civil rights for African Americans for a number of years.

At the beginning of the decade, the fight for civil rights took several forms: sit-ins at segregated lunch counters; marches through segregated areas; and boycotts of discriminatory businesses. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed several lawsuits to serve a civil rights agenda. Hopes were high that newly elected President John F. Kennedy would fulfill his promises to pass civil rights legislation.

Kennedy never got a chance to fulfill his agenda; tragically, he was assassinated in November 1963. However, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, did continue the civil rights agenda. In 1964, he signed into law several bills that guaranteed civil rights for African Americans and other minorities.

The most important was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It guaranteed equal opportunity for employment and public places (such as hotels, theaters, and restaurants). Access to employment could not be denied based on race, gender, religion or national origin.

The Civil Rights Act also gave the federal government several means to enforce the law. For example, they could cut off funding to any lower form of government that did not comply. The Justice Department could bring lawsuits against those who failed to adhere to the provisions.

Johnson also signed into law the Equal Opportunity Act in 1964, which was designed to create jobs and fight poverty. Organizations like the United Steelworkers followed Johnson’s lead. The United Steelworkers and eleven major steel companies signed an agreement to end racial discrimination in their industry.

Despite such efforts, implementation of civil rights was not always easy. Schools and universities had been ordered to integrate as early as the 1950s, but such changes had been resisted, especially in the South. The Civil Rights Act allowed the government to withhold funds if they did not take measures towards integration.

Voting rights were also part of the Civil Rights agenda. State and local governments, especially in the South, had taken legal measures designed to prohibit African Americans from exercising their voting rights, including polls taxes and voter tests. Poll taxes were outlawed by the 24th Amendment to the Constitution in 1964.

Many civil rights activists traveled to Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to educate black voters about their rights and get them registered to vote. Many activists were arrested, beaten, and even killed.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an African-American leader in the civil rights movement who advocated nonviolence, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 included a provision for banning employment discrimination based on gender. Though this part of the Civil Rights Act was not enforced for several years, the role of women was already changing in American society.

Women entered the workforce in greater numbers. By the beginning of the 1960s, about one-third of American women were employed—often in part time, low-paying jobs to supplement income or as teachers.

In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, which suggested that women could find fulfillment in the workplace. That same year, an equal pay bill was passed.

The women’s rights movement would intensify and grow by the mid-1960s.

Literary Style

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Setting
Because Funnyhouse of a Negro is a surreal play that takes place primarily inside Sarah’s mind, only a few aspects of the setting are ‘‘real.’’

Set in the early 1960s, the play takes place in Sarah’s room in a New York City brownstone. Her room features a large statue of Queen Victoria, other pictures of British monarchs, books, a bed, and a writing table. Some of the ‘‘realistic’’ action takes place on the landing and inside Raymond’s room.

The play has several settings specific to Sarah’s four selves. For example, the Queen has her own chamber with a tomb-like mahogany bed, a chandelier, and walls the color of wine. The Duchess has her own space: a ballroom with a chandelier, marbled floor, fake snow, and benches. In the final scenes, a jungle replaces these rooms, altering their symbolic meaning.

Monologue
There is very little action and dialogue in Funnyhouse of a Negro; in fact, much of play is in the form of monologues. Kennedy uses the monologue to let the characters speak freely.

Sarah and her four inner selves use their monologues to relate a version of Sarah’s family background and emotional crisis. None are exactly the same, which illustrates her inability to come to terms with her life.

In the Landlady’s monologues, she relates stories about Sarah’s ‘‘real’’ life, as she has observed and understood it. Only Raymond lacks a true monologue. All of his words are part of a dialogue with other characters.

Symbolism/Imagery
Many of the ideas in Funnyhouse of a Negro are expressed by numerous symbols and images. Very little is realistic in the play. Even the characters are symbolic.

Sarah’s four selves represent different aspects of her identity: the Duchess and Queen Victoria wear masks or mask-like makeup and white clothing reminiscent of funeral shrouds; Jesus is a yellow-skinned hunch-backed dwarf; and Patrice Lumumba carries an ebony mask.

The character of Sarah’s mother is even more symbolic—she carries a bald head as she moves across stage several times. While Sarah’s mother is mentioned frequently, she speaks only once. Sarah’s mother only flits through her daughter’s unconscious: she is only to be discussed and interpreted, not really understood.

Kennedy’s stage directions calls for numerous physical symbols and complex images. For example, Sarah’s room is dominated by a statue of Queen Victoria, a white ideal of purity and royalty that she will never be able to match. Sarah walks around with a noose around her neck and a bloody face before the audience is told that she is dead. This emphasizes her inner pain as well as her eventual fate.

In the segment that introduces Queen Victoria and the Duchess, black ravens circle overhead, which contrasts with their white-tinged faces and bright white light. Raymond’s status as the Funnyman is emphasized by the mirrors behind the blinds in his room that he opens and closes repeatedly. These are but a few of the symbols used in the play to underscore Sarah’s state of mind.

Compare and Contrast

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1964: The poll tax is eliminated by the ratification of the twenty-fourth amendment to the Constitution. Throughout the summer, many volunteers travel to Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to promote voting rights among African Americans. In Mississippi, three civil rights activists are murdered.

Today: The right to vote is assured to African Americans.

1964: Interracial marriages are banned by sixteen states, mostly in the South.

Today: No state bans interracial marriages.

1964: Anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela is sentenced to life in prison for his activities in South Africa.

Today: After being imprisoned for twenty-six years, Mandela was released in 1990. He was elected as South Africa’s president in 1994. He has since retired from public life.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

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

Brantley, Ben. ‘‘Theater Review: Glimpsing Solitude in Worlds Black and White,’’ in The New York Times, September 25, 1995, p. C11.

Brown, Lorraine A. ‘‘‘For the Characters Are Myself’: Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro,’’ in Negro American Literature Forum, 1975, p. 86.

Clurman, Harold. A review, in The Nation, February 10, 1964, p. 154.

Simon, John. ‘‘Playing with Herselves,’’ in New York, October 9, 1995, p. 82.

Taubman, Howard. ‘‘The Theater: Funnyhouse of a Negro,’’ in The New York Times, January 15, 1964, p. 25.

Further Reading

Binder, Wolfgang. ‘‘A MELUS Interview with Adrienne Kennedy,’’ in MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, Fall, 1985, p. 99. This interview with Kennedy includes a discussion of race, culture, and her artistic development.

Bryant-Jackson, Paul K. and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy, University of Minnesota Press, 1992, 254 p. A collection of critical essays on Kennedy’s plays.

Farber, David R. The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s, Hill & Wang, 1994, 296 p. A historical overview of the 1960s, Farber’s book covers political, social, and cultural history, including the civil rights movement.

Kennedy, Adrienne. People Who Led to My Plays, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, 125 p. A nontraditional autobiography that uses vignettes and photographs from Kennedy’s life to explore her influences and interests.

Bibliography

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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. This essay has had a significant influence on virtually all later commentators on Kennedy’s work.

Bryant-Jackson, Paul K., and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theater of Adrienne Kennedy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. A varied and comprehensive collection of essays dealing with diverse aspects of Kennedy’s works, including literary and theatrical criticism, discussion of the plays’ production histories, and several interviews with the playwright by theater scholars. A number of essays look at Funnyhouse of a Negro.

Diamond, Elin. “An Interview with Adrienne Kennedy.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 4 (1989): 143-157. The playwright speaks at length about her personal and professional concerns and interests. Much of what Kennedy reveals here sheds light on the autobiographical dimension of her plays as well as on her experiences as a writer.

Kintz, Linda. The Subject’s Tragedy: Political Poetics, Feminist Theory, and Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. Chapter 4, which deals with Kennedy and offers an analysis of Funnyhouse of a Negro, is especially interesting in the context of feminist politics. The author is especially adept at exploring the ways Kennedy fuses art and politics.

Kolin, Philip C. “From the Zoo to the Funnyhouse: A Comparison of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story with Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro.” Theatre Southwest (April, 1989): 8-16. Examines and compares the two plays. Because Albee was an important influence on Kennedy (he was instrumental in the first production of Funnyhouse of a Negro), the critical connections and disparities are significant. Some of the differences between Kennedy’s use of absurdism and more traditional uses become apparent.

Meigs, Susan E. “No Place Like the Funnyhouse: The Struggle for Identity in Three Adrienne Kennedy Plays.” In Modern American Drama: The Female Canon, edited by June Schlueter. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990. A careful analysis of three of Kennedy’s plays, including Funnyhouse of a Negro, with an emphasis on the playwright’s concerns with individual and group identities.

Shinn, Thelma. “Living the Answer: The Emergence of African American Feminist Drama.” Studies in the Humanities 17 (December, 1990): 149-159. Looks at Kennedy’s plays in the context of the pioneering work of Lorraine Hansberry and the succeeding work of Ntozake Shange and other African American women dramatists. A line of development is drawn from Hansberry’s efforts through the work of the later generation of writers.

Sollors, Werner. “Owls and Rats in the American Funnyhouse.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 63 (September, 1991): 507-532. A highly useful study of several Kennedy plays, including Funnyhouse of a Negro, examining specific recurring motifs in the broad context of American culture. The author attempts to decipher some of Kennedy’s more idiosyncratic images.

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