Kennedy, Adrienne

views updated

KENNEDY, Adrienne

Born 13 September 1931, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Daughter of Cornell W. and Etta Haugabook Hawking; married Joseph C. Kennedy, 1953 (divorced 1966); children: Joseph, Adam

Adrienne Kennedy had a middle class upbringing in Cleveland, Ohio, and what she has described as an excellent public school education. After high school (Glenville, 1949) she went to Ohio State University, where she briefly studied social work (her father's profession) before majoring in elementary education (her mother's). A few weeks before graduation (1953) she married, eventually moving with her husband and first child to New York City. There she studied writing at Columbia University (1954-56), the New School for Social Research, the American Theatre Wing, and Circle in the Square (1962), where she was a member of playwright Edward Albee's workshop and saw her first play performed, Funnyhouse of a Negro. This play won an Off-Broadway Obie Award in 1964; she followed it with The Owl Answers (1965), her favorite among her works. By this time she had developed her own intense one-act style, among whose literary influences she credits, besides Albee, Tennessee Williams and Federico García Lorca.

Since the 1970s Kennedy has taught at universities around the country, among them Yale, Princeton, Brown, Berkeley, Rutgers, and Harvard. She has been on the PEN board of directors, and was a founding member of the Women's Theatre Council (established 1972). Kennedy has been commissioned to write for, among others, the Juilliard School of Music, the Royal Court Theatre in London, the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and the Empire State Youth Theatre Institute. Her many awards include Rockefeller and National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Yale Fellowship. In March 1992 Kennedy's work was celebrated in a month-long Adrienne Kennedy Festival organized by the Great Lakes Theatre Festival in her hometown of Cleveland.

Her work has been described as gothic, expressionist, and surrealist, but Kennedy's writings are also, as her interviews and autobiographical writings demonstrate, personal and introspective. It is difficult to keep the writer and her writing separate; and the absence of boundaries for establishing separate identities is a common theme and tactic in her work. Movie stars, dreams, her mother's scrapbooks, political figures, paintings, music, and statues are as alive in her writing as her own memories of childhood, her own rooms, her neighborhood. Commenting on the Wolf Man in her People Who Led to My Plays (1987), she writes, "Soon the characters in my plays and stories would be changing personae at an alarming rate." The strange, blinding vividness of her stage images—animals, people who turn into animals, people with smashed heads, people with worms in their hair, exploding body parts, blood pouring out of a fractured moon—images of violent brilliance unleash the possibilities of imaginative juxtapositions on the stage, the complex beauty and horror of dreams, the power of memory, and the transforming magic of the movies, theater, art, beauty, and fame.

Kennedy's later plays seem more directly concerned with the filmic properties of her work. In A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White (1976) a black woman named Clara is partly spoken for by the female stars of classic Hollywood movies. In An Evening with Dead Essex (1973) a group of performers rehearses a production based on Mark Essex's life and death, using music and photographs exhibited by a projectionist—the only white character in the play, and the only one dressed in black.

Kennedy's insistence on images of black on white, and her blazing use of color, are "typical" in more ways than one: race is both visual and felt in her work as the image and the tone of identity and conflict, which she suggests are complementary impulses. Her adaptations from Euripides, Electra and Orestes (1980), like her "Theatre Mystery" Deadly Triplets (1990), dramatize these tensions in somewhat more linear works about family loyalty and sibling rivalry. In The Alexander Plays (1992), Kennedy's alter ego from Deadly Triplets, "Suzanne Sand… playwright," seems to reappear as "Suzanne Alexander, a Writer." These plays continue her exploration of narrative, while also experimenting with sound in their use of radio, offstage noise, and music. The Film Club is a monologue by Suzanne, and The Dramatic Circle is a radio play. Meanwhile, the mise-en-scène in She Talks to Beethoven and The Ohio State Murders is less violent than in Kennedy's early work, and the narrator, Suzanne, seems more in control of the events she remembered. Kennedy's American Eurocentric influences—from Charlotte Brontë to Bette Davis—were released into her plays, interestingly, after she visited Africa in 1960. There she "discovered the place of my ancestors," bought an African mask, "a woman with a bird flying through her forehead," listened to the owls at night and was afraid, and thought about herself as a separate person: "The solitude under the African sun had brought out a darkness in me. I wanted to be more separate." This journey was a turning point in her writing and its influences are clear in the works that followed.

Other Works:

Cities in Bezique (1969). The Lennon Play: In His Own Write (with John Lennon and Victor Spinetti,1969). Adrienne Kennedy in One Act (1988). Sleep Deprivation Chamber: A Theatre Piece (1996).

Plays included in: Poet Lore (1965), Collision Course (1968), New American Plays (1968), New Black Playwrights: An Anthology (1968, 1996), Best Short Plays of 1970, Black Drama: An Anthology (1970), Black Theater (1971), Scripts One (1971), More Plays from Off-Off-Broadway (1972), Broadway Book (1972), Spontaneous Combustion (1972), Kintu Drama (1974), Woman as Writer (1978), Wordplay Three (1984), Moon Marked and Touched by Sun: Plays by African-American Women (1994), Black Theatre USA: Plays by African Americans 1847 to Today (1996), Plays for the End of the Century (1996), and others.


Brown, E. B., Shackles on a Writer's Pen: Dialogism in Plays by Alice Childress, Lorraine Hansberry, Adrienne Kennedy, and Ntozake Shange (1997). Martin, H. H., "Adrienne Kennedy: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography and Essay" (thesis, 1993). Page, J. A. Selected Black American Authors: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography (1977). Peterson, B. L., Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays: A Biographical Directory and Dramatic Index (1988). Robinson, M., The Other American Drama (1994). Singh, Y. Stages in the Funnyhouse: The Dramaturgy of Adrienne Kennedy (dissertation, 1998). Thomas, C. "The Daughter and Her Journey of Self-Definition in the Familial Plays of Adrienne Kennedy" (thesis, 1985).

Reference works:

Black Writers (1989). CA (1982, Online 1999). CANR (1989). Contemporary Dramatists (1988). Dictionary of the Black Theatre (1983). DLB (1985). Notable Women in the American Theatre (1989). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Women in American Theatre (1981).

Other references:

American Literature (Sept. 1991). American Theatre (1988). College Language Association Journal (1976). Drama Review (1977). MELUS (Fall 1985). Modern Drama (Dec. 1985, March 1986, March 1989). Negro American Literature Forum (1975). NYT (reviews of first productions: 14 Jan., 20 June, 9 July, 14 July 1964; 13 Jan., 19 Jan., 1 Nov. 1969; 11 March 1976; 21 May 1980; 20 Sept. 1985). Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present (1989). Studies in Black Literature (1975). Theatre Journal (March 1992, 1996) Theatre Southwest (April 1989).


About this article

Kennedy, Adrienne

Updated About content Print Article


Kennedy, Adrienne