Adrienne Kennedy, Playwright


Throughout her writing career, Adrienne Kennedy has used her own life experiences as symbolic of the divisiveness of American race relations. Like Kennedy, the characters in her plays are often light-skinned black women torn between their blackness and whiteness.

Adrienne Hawkins was born in 1930 to Georgia-born parents who instilled in her a pride in black accomplishment. Her father, Cornell W. Hawkins, attended Morehouse College and served as executive director of the Cedar Branch of the Cleveland YMCA and on the City’s race relations staff. Her mother, Etta Hawkins, was a graduate of Atlanta University and a teacher.

Her parents and their friends—teachers, social and civic workers, doctors and lawyers—were members
of the NAACP and the Urban League, she notes
in her 1987 memoir, People Who Led to My
Plays. But Kennedy was aware from an early age that she also had white relatives whose ancestors had come from England, and she created alter egos who sought artistic and cultural fathers among the likes of Shakespeare, Chaucer and William the Conqueror.

Raised in the then interracial, middle-class Cleveland neighborhoods of Mt. Pleasant and Glenville, Kennedy found herself confronting prejudice for the first time at Ohio State University. “The immensity, the dark, rainy winters, the often open racial hatred of the girls in the dorm continued to demoralize me,” she would later write. She left college a person who “had lost my equilibrium” and spent the next decade struggling to find her own voice. Influences as diverse as Federico Garcia Lorca’s symbolic plays, the cadences of the psalms, the poetry of jazz, French surrealist movies, Picasso’s Guernica, Jackson Pollock’s abstract paintings,
and African masks liberated her from the confines of realism and paved the way for her distinctive lyrical, non-linear and dreamlike style.

It was on “a miraculous trip” to West Africa that Kennedy “discovered a strength in being a black person.” Returning to live in New York, she joined Edward Albee’s Playwrighting Workshop. Encouraged by Albee to let her “guts out on stage,” she wrote her first play, Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), which won an Obie. The decade that followed unleashed a torrent of dense surrealist plays that found a place in experimental theaters such as La Mama and the Open Theater, as well as the Public Theater of the New York Shakespeare Festival.

But Kennedy soon found herself in a kind of no man’s land as a black writer. As Billie Allen, who created the role of “Negro Sarah” in Funnyhouse, later noted, some black audiences were offended by Kennedy’s portrayal of black “secrets” on stage. “Hair, for example, had not been dealt with in the theater.” Her unabashed, though ambivalent love of things English and Hollywood presented difficulties for other critics.

Except for Joseph Chaikin’s 1976 production of her play A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, the ’70s saw no new work by Kennedy, who spent most of the decade as a visiting professor at several distinguished universities. But in the ’80s a new flurry of writing yielded Deadly Triplets: A Theatre Mystery and Journal (1990), her memoir and a cluster of new plays involving a character named Susan Alexander. One of these, Ohio State Murders, was commissioned by the Cleveland-based Great Lakes Theater Festival, of which Gerald Freedman was then producing director.

Alexander, a successful African-American writer (played in the 1992 Great Lakes production by Ruby Dee), has been asked to return to her alma mater to discuss the sources of violent imagery in her works. Spiraling back in a dreamlike journey through time, she relives the unspeakable prejudices that violated her student years in the early 1950s. As the literal murders of the play’s title are disclosed in the form of a mystery story, the spiritual murders that feed the secret wellspring of Alexander’s pain are also uncovered.

Circling closer and closer to the painful core of her story, Suzanne creates a bond of emotional intimacy between character and audience that compels our identification with her. Yet the play’s references to bloody revolution in the Eisenstein movie The Battleship Potemkin and to the dissolution of King Arthur’s Round Table point beyond Suzanne’s personal pain to the ways in which society has betrayed her and so many others like her. It is against this backdrop that we as “guilty bystanders” are left to locate our own culpability.

In 2000, Ohio State Murders was given a new production at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University. In his insightful introduction to The Adrienne Kennedy Reader, published the following year, Werner Sollors, a professor of English and Afro-American Studies at Harvard, called Kennedy “the quintessential modern voice on the American stage.” This long-overdue anthology made accessible to the general reading public, for the first time, the texts of Kennedy’s finest stage works—as well as a series of previously unpublished prose pieces including “Letter to My Students on My Sixty-first Birthday by Suzanne Alexander.”

A response to the arrest and beating of Kennedy’s son by a white police officer in 1991 while she was working on Ohio State Murders (the made-up charges were eventually dropped and Adam Kennedy won a civil lawsuit), “Letter” finds the playwright’s fictional alter-ego recalling how she once watched her son, the victim of a similar arrest and beating, perform the role of Hamlet. She remembers how she wept at the words the ghost speaks to the bewildered prince: “I am thy father’s spirit / doomed for a certain time to walk the night / And for the day confined to fast in fires / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.”

— Margaret Lynch


(The NEGRO stands by the wall and throughout her following speech, the following characters come through the wall, disappearing off into varying directions in the darkened night of the Stage: DUCHESS, QUEEN VICTORIA, JESUS, PATRICE LUMUMBA. JESUS is a hunchback, yellow-skinned dwarf, dressed in white rags and sandals. PATRICE LUMUMBA is a black man. His head appears to be split in two with blood and tissue in the eyes. He carries an ebony mask.)

SARAH (NEGRO). The rooms are my rooms; a Hapsburg chamber, a chamber in a Victorian castle, the hotel where I killed my father, the jungle. These are the places myselves [sic] exist in. I know no places. That is,m I cannot believe in places. To believe in places is to know hope and to know the emotion of hope is to know beauty. It links us across a horizon and connects us to the world. I find there are no places only my funnyhouse. Streets are rooms, cities are rooms, eternal rooms. I try to create a space for myselves in cities, New York, the midwest, a southern town, but it becomes a lie. I try to give myselves a logical relationship but that too is a lie. For relationships [sic] was one of my last religions. I clung loyally to the lie of relationships, again and again seeking to establish a connection between my characters. Jesus is Victoria's son. Mother loved my father before her hair fell out. A loving relationship exists between myself and Queen Victoria, a love between myself and Jesus but they are lies.

(Then to the Right front of the Stage comes the WHITE LIGHT. It goes to a suspended stairway. At the foot of it, stands the LANDLADY. She is a tall, thin, white woman dressed is a black and red hat and appears to be talking to someone in a suggested open doorway in a corridor of a rooming house. She laughs like a mad character in a funnyhouse throughout her speech.)



LANDLADY. (Who is looking up the stairway.) Ever since her father hung himself in a Harlem hotel when Patrice Lumumba was murdered she hides herself in her room. Each night she repeats: He keeps returning. How dare he enter the castle walls, he who is the darkest of them all, the darkest one? My mother looked like a white woman, hair as straight as any white woman's. And I am yellow but he, he is black, the blackest one of them all. I hoped he was dead. Yet he still comes through the jungle.

I tell her: Sarah, honey, the man hung himself. Its not your blame. But, no, she stares at me: No, Mrs. Conrad, he did not hang himself, that is only the way they understand it, they do, but the truth is that I bludgeoned his head with an ebony skull that he carries [sic] about with him. Wherever he goes, he carries [sic] black masks and heads.

She's suffering so till her hair has fallen out. But then she did always hide herself in that room with the walls of books and her statue. I always did know she thought she was somebody else, A Queen or something, somebody else.


- Funnyhouse of a Negro, in The Adrienne Kennedy Reader (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis-London, 2001)



SUZANNE (Present): I remember how I had grown to dread the blocks bound by the stadium, the High Street, the vast, modern, ugly buildings behind the Oval, then dark old Union that was abandoned by all except the Negro students. And too, we were spied upon by the headmistress. She made no secret of the fact that she examined our belongings. "That's our general practice," she said.

Bunny and her friends bragged often to the maids that Iris and I had nothing in common with them, that there was nothing to talk about with us. I felt such danger from them. Had they somehow sought out me and my babies? Of course I told no one this. But I knew whites had killed Negroes, although I had not witnessed it. Thoughts of secret white groups murdering singed the edge of my mind.

I was often so tense that I wound them plastic pink curlers in my hair so tightly that my head bled. When I went to the university health center the white intern tried to examine my head and at the same time not touch my scalp or hair.

"You're probably putting curlers in your hair too tightly," he said, looking away. Now I remembered my father's sermons on lynching and the photographic exhibitions we often had in our church of Negroes hanging from trees. Then I met David. He would come by and say hello to Mrs. Tyler. When he discovered Carol was my child he made every effort to talk to me. He sensed my sorrow. When he found out that Cathi had been tragically killed he started to come by every evening after he left the law library. He asked no questions but only treated me with such great tenderness. Finally I told him everything. My pregnancy, my expulsion, the murderer, and how I had returned to Columbus to see if I could find the murderer of my daughter.

-Ohio State Murders, in The Adrienne Kennedy Reader (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis-London, 2001)


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