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...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)