At 88, African American Playwright Adrienne Kennedy Finally Gets Her Due

Download Audio

The Bret Adams & Paul Reisch Foundation is set to honor writer Adrienne Kennedy with its inaugural Tooth of Time Distinguished Career Award at its 2019 Idea Awards for Theatre.

Kennedy, who turned 88 this month, first burst onto the New York City theater scene in 1964 with “Funnyhouse of a Negro.” Since then she has published essays, poems, a memoir and more than 20 plays.

“Every playwright writing today writes in Adrienne Kennedy’s shadow,” says two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and 2016 MacArthur playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, “full stop.”

Kennedy was one of the first playwrights to put African American women at the center of her work. And she didn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths about race.

In “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” her characters grapple with racism within their families. The protagonist, Sarah, cherishes her mother, who is so light-skinned she can pass as white, and derides her darker-skinned father.

“I long to become an even more pallid negro than I am now,” she confides to the audience. “Pallid like Negroes on the covers of American Negro magazines.”

“Funnyhouse of a Negro,” which premiered in 1964, was selected as part of a workshop at Circle in the Square Theatre in New York City. Playwright Edward Albee produced the selected plays and Michael Kahn directed them.

Kennedy had been writing for most of her 20s without much success; “Funnyhouse” was her breakthrough. Then she became nervous at the prospect of sharing a very personal work with an audience.

Albee convinced her to go ahead, Kennedy recounted on WHYY’s Fresh Air in 1987:

“Do you see that stage?” he said, glancing at the circle's theater in the round. “Yes. Well, do you know what a playwright is? A playwright is someone who lets his guts out on the stage. And that's what you've done in this play.”

Sarah, the protagonist of “Funnyhouse,” has a background that echoes Kennedy’s. The writer’s parents grew up in a small town in rural Georgia. Her maternal grandmother worked in peach orchards and gave birth when she was a teenager; her grandfather was the owner of the plantation.

Kennedy wrote a poem for the Harvard Review about visiting him a handful of times. She writes, “we went to his house./his white wife wanted us to go in the back/door,/but he insisted we come into the front.” He paid for Kennedy’s mother to attend Atlanta University and later taught elementary school. Kennedy’s father graduated from Morehouse College and became a social worker. As a young couple, they settled in Cleveland, where Kennedy and her younger brother were raised.

Kennedy says her mother was haunted by her parentage.

“That always drove her crazy,” she says. “It drove her nuts. She would talk about her dreams. They were filled with imagery, tragedy and race.”

She was also an exacting parent, who expected her daughter to be an academic superstar and immaculately groomed. The one time she relented, Kennedy says, was during their weekly sojourn to the movies. The mother and daughter reveled in films like “Now, Voyager.”

“That’s what I wanted my life to be like,” Kennedy says. “I wanted to be Bette Davis.”

In one of her best-known plays, “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White,” Kennedy uses movie stars like Davis and Shelley Winters to tell the story of the main character, Clara, an African American woman whose life is coming apart. This is not the only unorthodox choice Kennedy makes in her plays. “Funnyhouse” features Queen Victoria and the Congolese patriot Patrice Lumumba as characters.

Margo Jefferson, who teaches at Columbia University, says a kind of alchemy occurs in Kennedy’s work. “These often at odds traditions — racial, gender, whatever — their hierarchical positions change,” she says. “And what appears to be the furtive — the secret, female, the black — becomes powerful.”

Kennedy is still writing. Her latest play, a reworking of “Madame Bovary,” will premiere in Dallas in February. While her work is more likely to be taught in universities than performed on the stage, she has had a profound influence on younger American playwrights.

“Whenever form is being contested or played within any cultural moment, it is because people are looking for new ways to see,” Jacobs-Jenkins says. “They need to refresh their sight. And I think there are a lot of artists right now who feel this need to refresh our sight who are tapping into that vein that people like Kennedy and Toni Morrison opened up for us.”

This segment aired on September 23, 2019.


More from Here & Now

Listen Live