Death, maimed spirits, racial and cultural self-hatred, the joy of the imagination, of finding real-life metaphors to describe who you are, the propulsive force of anger, nightmares, humorous imaginings—where do all these hobgoblins and fancies come from? At the start of her original and groundbreaking memoir, “People Who Led to My Plays” (1987), Kennedy herself poses that question: “More and more often as my plays are performed in colleges and taught in universities, people ask me why I write as I do. . . . Who influenced you to write in such a nonlinear way? Who are your favorite playwrights? After I attempt to answer, naming this playwright or that one, as time progresses I realize I never go back far enough to the beginning.” The memoir is an attempt to go back to the beginning. Wonderfully, Kennedy doesn’t offer a straightforward biographical self-portrait, but “People Who Led to My Plays” brings into focus all that mattered to her as a girl, as a young woman, and as an artist, from paper dolls to Joe Louis to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
Kennedy was born Adrienne Lita Hawkins in Pittsburgh, but grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in such multiethnic neighborhoods as Mount Pleasant and Glenville. Her dark-skinned father, C. W. Hawkins, was a social worker, and her mother, Etta—who had a white father—was a schoolteacher. “It’s important to remember that I grew up in an immigrant neighborhood but was also a product of black middle-class culture,” Kennedy said in one interview. “I always tried to make sense of that. Tried to balance that. To understand where I fit into that world.” In school, she learned Latin. (Her astonishing 1968 play “A Lesson in Dead Language” takes place in a classroom, where the students’ menstrual blood stains the backs of their white dresses and the Latin teacher is a white dog.)
Kennedy loved the mornings she spent listening to her mother recount her dreams, which she sometimes believed were true, and she loved, too, the wildness of Emily Brontë’s prose and her story of unquenchable love. Kennedy and her brother, Cornell, spent summers visiting relatives in Montezuma, Georgia, their parents’ home town. (According to Kennedy, her mother was the illegitimate daughter of a powerful married white man.) The train journey to Georgia in the Jim Crow car was one that Kennedy never got over; trains figure prominently in her plays. In Montezuma, she saw “Colored” and “White” drinking fountains. Segregation was as real as her mother’s dreams. At the same time, Hitler was rolling through Europe. A lookout tower went up in Kennedy’s Ohio neighborhood. (In her play “A Rat’s Mass,” from 1966, two children have rat tails and worship at a Catholic altar, while shouting about Nazis as an imminent threat.)
Nazis, Lena Horne visiting Kennedy’s neighbors, the superb order of her mother’s house, her mother’s mixed-race background: all these things spoke to Kennedy’s imagination, just as Thomas Hardy’s grim and theatrical novels did when she discovered his work, as a student at Ohio State University, where she enrolled in 1949. (She was blown away by “Tess of the d’Urbervilles.”) It was in Columbus that she experienced racial hatred first hand; there were only a few black female students there, and Kennedy felt ostracized by her white classmates. The bitter lives of pastoral women that Hardy portrayed in his work were as significant to Kennedy as the characters in Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” From these authors she understood that one could write what one knew about family and the desire to wrench oneself away from it, and that women could speak at the speed of their own logic, if they chose to.
Kennedy’s degree in elementary education—one of the few fields open to black women, who were dissuaded from majoring in English—had little impact on her career. Shortly after her graduation, in 1953, she married a fellow-student, Joseph Kennedy. The couple eventually moved to New York, where they went to the theatre and immersed themselves in bohemian culture, while he worked on a Ph.D. in social psychology. Kennedy has said that her former husband—they were married for thirteen years—helped release her from “this image of myself as simply somebody who might teach second grade.”
In 1960, Joe Kennedy received a grant from the African Research Foundation. Off the couple went to Ghana, by way of Europe and North Africa. It was Kennedy’s first trip to England, Spain, Morocco—the places she had read about or seen in movies. The journey made her thoughts more fluid; fragments of her past came back to her, fragments that she wanted not to make whole but to shape. “The imagery in ‘Funnyhouse of a Negro’ was born by seeing those places,” Kennedy noted in an essay about the play. After several months in Accra, her husband travelled on to Nigeria and Kennedy moved to Rome, where she finished writing “Funnyhouse” the week before her second son was born. “I was twenty-nine,” she wrote. “And I believed if I didn’t complete this play before my child’s birth and before my thirtieth birthday I would never finish it.”
In the same essay, Kennedy noted that in Ghana, and for the rest of the trip, she had stopped straightening her hair. (Hair is central in “Funnyhouse.”) By refusing to allow her hair to be “processed,” Kennedy was turning her back on how a colored girl was supposed to look, let alone be, while grappling with the question that all black American intellectuals struggle with eventually, especially when living abroad: How did the African become a Negro? As a Negro, she was many things—black and white, a bastard child of cultures that were not her own, though she was part of them, a product both of Europe’s cultural schisms and of American racism. Dismantling her romanticism, in her plays she could curse England and Europe in their own language, while wondering what her yellow body would look like without them. Who would she have been without her dark-skinned father and the violations associated with his skin color? In an interview included in Paul K. Bryant-Jackson and Lois More Overbeck’s “Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy” (1992), Kennedy’s first director, Michael Kahn, talks about working on “Funnyhouse of a Negro”:
When I first met Adrienne, instead of explaining the play to me, she brought me loads and loads of photographs and reproductions of paintings. From that I really understood what the power of the images were for her. And for some reason, even though I was a white boy from Brooklyn, I shared a lot of those understandings of the same images.
Billie Allen, the actress who played Negro-Sarah when “Funnyhouse” premièred, remembered how angry the play made both whites and blacks—particularly blacks, who felt that it denigrated the race. Allen said that the work was clearly about “the depth of the damage of institutionalized racism.” But while that ever-present wound was a pressure point in a number of more traditionally crafted, narrative dramas and comedies by such brilliant black playwrights as Lorraine Hansberry and Alice Childress, Kennedy struck a nerve by failing to offer an explanation for it: the madness of being a Negro in America was . . . mad. Why filter it? In “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” Kennedy’s characters don’t so much talk to one another—there is no real connection through her dialogue—as hold up a mirror to the forces that are pulling their minds and bodies apart, leaving all that unique, pulsating language on the stage floor.
Unlike her black male contemporaries—Douglas Turner Ward, Amiri Baraka, the powerful and underrated Ed Bullins, and others—Kennedy did not make her politics central to the drama of being that her characters wrestle with. Although she may have agreed with the Baraka-founded Black Arts Movement and its credo—black stories for black audiences—race was just one of the front lines in her characters’ battle with the self. (Her beautiful 1969 monologue “Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder” says more about the leader’s psychological resonance than a zillion now forgotten get-whitey plays.) In a 1995 interview, Kennedy spoke about how “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” closed after fewer than fifty performances, in the wake of what she recalled as hostile or uncomprehending reviews. Still, the black and white artists who loved the play—Mike Nichols, James Earl Jones, and Jerome Robbins all went to see it; it was enthusiastically supported by Edward Albee and his Playwrights Unit—recognized something new in Kennedy’s language of heartbreak and revenge.