People will be reading
Adrienne Kennedy’s works
for centuries to come.
—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Adrienne Kennedy has been a force in American theatre since the early 1960s, influencing generations of playwrights with her hauntingly fragmentary lyrical dramas. Kennedy is a three-time Obie-award winning American playwright whose works have been widely anthologized and performed around the world. Among her many honors are the Guggenheim fellowship and the American Academy of Arts and Letters award. In 2018, The New York Times called her “one of the American theater’s greatest and least compromising experimentalists.” In 1995, critic Michael Feingold of the Village Voice wrote, “with [Samuel] Beckett gone, Adrienne Kennedy is probably the boldest artist now writing for the theater.” On this day, Adrienne Kennedy will be inducted into the 2018 Theater Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement at the Gershwin Theatre in New York City.
To mark this tremendous honor, we are posting here an excerpt from The Adrienne Kennedy Reader (2001), the first comprehensive collection of her most important works, including the Obie-winning Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964).
On the Writing of Funnyhouse of a Negro
Funnyhouse of a Negro was completed in Rome, Italy, the week before our second son Adam was born in Salvator Mundi hospital. I was twenty-nine. 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.
My son Joe Jr. and I lived in a beautiful tranquil apartment about fifteen minutes from Piazza di Spagna. Hall steps led to a miniature living room that opened onto a terrace that overlooked Rome. I sat at the dark desk in the cool miniature room with pages I had started in Ghana on the campus of Legon (Achimota Guest House). They seemed a disjointed raging mass of paragraphs typed on thin transparent typing paper I had bought at the campus of Legon’s bookstore. The entire month of July each morning when my son Joe went to Fregene with a play group of children run by an American couple, I tried to put the pages in order.
Ten months earlier at the end of September 1960 my husband Joe and I left New York on the Queen Elizabeth. It was my first sight of Europe and Africa. We stopped in London, Paris, Madrid, Casablanca and lived in Monrovia, Liberia before we settled in Accra, Ghana.
The imagery in Funnyhouse of a Negro was born by seeing those places: Queen Victoria, the statue in front of Buckingham Palace, Patrice Lumumba on posters and small cards all over Ghana, murdered just after we arrived in Ghana, fall 1960; the savannahs in Ghana, the white frankopenny trees; the birth of Ghana newly freed from England, scenes of Nkrumah on cloth murals and posters. And this was the first time in my life that it was impossible to keep my hair straightened. In Ghana and for the rest of the thirteen-month trip I stopped straightening my hair.
After Ghana in February 1961 I had chosen Rome to wait for my husband to finish his work in Nigeria. Rome was the land my high school Latin teacher had sung of: the Forum, the Tiber, the Palatine, Caesar. When my son Joe was at the Parioli Day School I walked in the Forum for hours that spring of 1961. I rode the bus on the Appian Way, the rhythms of my teacher speaking out loud in my mind. Wandering through Rome while Joe was at school I was more alone than I had ever been. At noon I returned to the Pensioni Sabrina for lunch, often a pasta soup made of star-shaped pasta, then went into our room while waiting for my son to return on the bus at the American Embassy and stared at the pages. There were paragraphs about Patrice Lumumba and Queen Victoria. I had always liked the Duchess of Hapsburg since I’d seen the Chapultapec Palace in Mexico. There were lines about her. But the main character talked in monologues about her hair and savannahs in Africa. At that moment Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers were all a part of one work. It wasn’t until late July and the impetus of my son’s impending birth tha tthe two works split apart and my character Sarah (with her selves Queen Victoria, Patrice Lumumba, Duchess of Hapsburg and Jesus) was born.
In May, two months earlier, my mother had written me that my father had left Cleveland and returned to Georgia to live after thirty-five years. I cried when I read the letter, walking from American Express up the Piazza di Spagna steps. So Jesus (who I had always mixed with my social worker father) and the landscape and memories of Georgia and my grandparents became intertwined with the paragraphs on the Ghanian savannahs and Lumumba and his murder.
So trying (for the first time in my life) to comb my unstraightened hair, trying to out race the birth of my child, rereading the divorce news letters from my mother . . . in the July Italian summer mornings, alone in the miniature room, near the Roman Forum, I finished Funnyhouse of a Negro the last week of July 1961. Our son Adam was born August 1.
Also published by University of Minnesota Press:
The University Press Week blog tour begins today and continues throughout the week. Today, Duke University Press writes about its partnerships with museums. Athabasca University Press offers a playlist by author Mark A. McCutcheon. Rutgers University Press dedicates a post to Junctures in Women’s Leadership: The Arts by Judith Brodsky and Ferris Olin. Over at Yale University Press, check out a post by author Dominic Bradbury about how immigrants enrich a country’s art and architecture. Please enjoy all of these great #TurnItUP posts!
Happy #UPWeek and remember to #ReadUP.