Kennedy, Adrienne 1931—
Adrienne Kennedy 1931—
In 1995, the Village Voice observed that “with Beckett gone, Adrienne Kennedy (pronounced with a short “a” as in “had”) is probably the boldest artist now writing for the theater.” Since her Funnyhouse of a Negro was first produced off Broadway in 1964, Kennedy has generated a remarkable repertoire of highly acclaimed avant-garde plays that challenge traditional ideas regarding character, dialogue, and plot. Alisa Solomon commented in her foreword to Kennedy’s 1992 collection, The Alexander Plays, “Character is frequently split in Kennedy’s work, her protagonists projected through myriad personae--centuries-old royalty, contemporary revolutionaries, Hollywood movie stars, even owls and rats. Dialogue takes place not through conversational exchange of characters addressing each other, but through the fluid interplay of visual and verbal imagery. And plot, in its conventional sense, does not even exist.” Writing in American Theatre, Scott T. Cummings described Kennedy’s early plays as “interior monologues for the stage. Dense and violent in their imagery, often dazzling and bizarre in their theatricality, they are psychic collages governed by a troubled and erratic stream of consciousness. Each of these plays operates like a prism, which refracts its heroine into fragments, giving her multiple identities which resist reintegration.”
Kennedy’s nonlinear, surrealistic short plays have consistently pushed beyond the boundaries of experimental theater. The New York Times noted in 1995 that “her work, which blends time frames and historical characters, has been called upsetting and mysterious, often powerful on a visceral level, but not always easy to follow.” As a result, critical reaction has been sharply divided; from the beginning it has been clear that while some critics love Kennedy’s fragmented, hallucinogenic style, others hate it. This extreme response is clearly illustrated by the reviews of Funnyhouse in 1964. Called a disaster by one reviewer, the play closed after 46 performances, but won a prestigious Obie award for “most distinguished play.”
In the more than 30 years that Kennedy has been writing for the theater, her one-act plays have more often been studied in college courses and produced in workshops or on European stages rather than produced in resident theaters of the United States. Nevertheless, this unique artist, a pioneer of the off off Broadway movement of the sixties, has continued to write. Reviewer Nicole King, writing in the Theatre Journal, noted in 1993that Kennedy has been “credited with creating and delivering ’performance art’ long before the term was conceived. “
Kennedy’s memoir provides valuable insight to the themes of her work. A reviewer for Theatre Journal wrote in 1991 that “this journey through Kennedy’s interior landscape creates a fascinating portrait of a highly impressionable, brilliant individual, who never
Born Adrienne Lita Hawkins on September 13, 1931, in Pittsburgh, PA; daughter of Cornell Wallace (a social worker) and Etta (Haugabook) Hawkins (a teacher); married Joseph C Kennedy, 1953, (divorced 1966); two children, Joseph C, jr. and Adam Patrice Education: Ohio State University, B.S 1953; Attended Columbia University, 1954–56; New School of Social Research, American Theatre Wing, Circle in the Square Theatre School, 1957–58, 1962.
Playwright, lecturer, writer. Yale University, lecturer, 1972–74, Princeton University, lecturer, 1977; Brown University, visiting associate professor, 1979–80; Harvard University, 1990–91; Actor’s Studio, New York City, member, playwriting unit, 1962–65; International Theatre institute representative, Budapest, 1978; University of California at Berkeley, Distinguished Lecturer, 1980, 1986.
Selected awards: Obie award, Village Voice, for F urmy-house of a Negro, 1964; Pierre Lecomtedu Novy award, Lincoln Center, 1994; fellow, Guggenheim Foundation, 1968; Rockefeller foundation grants, 1967–69, 1974, 1976; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1973; CBS fellow, School of Drama, 1973; Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest grant, 1994; Yale fellow, 1974–75; Creative Artists Public Service grant, 1974.
Addresses; Agent-Bridget Aschenberg, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York, 10019.
loses the intense wonder of a child.”
Kennedy was born Adrienne Lita Hawkins on September 13, 1931, in Pittsburgh. She was a precocious child who learned to read at the age of three and grew up in a middle-class family in Cleveland, Ohio, where her parents had moved from the small Georgia town of Montezuma. Her father, Cornell Wallace Hawkins, was a social worker and executive secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association. Her mother, Etta Haugabook Hawkins, was a teacher. Both were college educated and prominent members of Cleveland’s black community. Adrienne and her brother, Cornell, led fairly sheltered childhoods, growing up in an integrated, culturally diverse neighborhood. Kennedy attended Cleve-land’s public schools and was encouraged by her parents to meet high standards of achievement. She began writing as a child, keeping diaries on the members of her family. However, she did not begin to write seriously until she was a senior in college.
During their childhood, Kennedy and her brother often took train trips back to Montezuma to visit their grandparents. They were required to travel by Jim Crow car south of Cincinnati on these trips. Her maternal grandfather was a wealthy white peach grower. Kennedy wrote in People Who Led to My Plays, “My mother often said that most of the white people of Montezuma’s families came from England. I realized dimly that this meant some of our ancestors too had come from England since, like most ‘Negro’ families in the town, we had white relations as well as ‘Negro.’ I became very interested in ‘England.”’
Kennedy did not encounter overt racism until she went to Columbus to attend Ohio State University. She was amazed that the intolerant atmosphere at Ohio State so closely mirrored the deep South rather than her native northern Ohio. The impact of this racism scarred Kennedy for life, prompting her to examine issues of race in her plays. She majored in education at Ohio State and, in general, found college to be very boring. As a senior, she took a course that surveyed twentieth-century drama. It piqued her interest, and she began writing.
Graduating in 1953, she married Joseph C. Kennedy one month later. Eventually, her husband was sent overseas to fight in the Korean War. While he was away, Kennedy lived with her parents, gave birth to she and her husband’s first son, Joseph, Jr., and continued to write. In 1955, her husband returned from Korea and moved the family to New York, where he attended graduate school. While her husband was in school, Kennedy began devoting more time to developing her literary talents, attending writing classes at the American Theatre Wing and Columbia University. She wrote her first play while in New York. That play, Pale Blue Flowers, was never published or produced, although not for lack of trying.
Many people encouraged Kennedy in those early years, particularly her husband, whom Kennedy credits with unflagging interest and support. But in seven years of writing plays, short stories, and a novel, Kennedy remained unpublished. Her despondency reached new lows. In 1960 her husband, by then a professor at Hunter College, received a grant from the Africa Research Foundation. The Kennedys traveled first to Europe and then to Ghana. The journey was the key to a critical turning point in Kennedy’s writing. Suddenly it was more focused, more powerful, more original. After arriving in Ghana, Kennedy discovered the literary magazine, Black Orpheus, and decided to submit a story she had finished on the trip, “Because of the King of France. “It was accepted and, after ten years of effort, Kennedy was published.
While the Kennedys lived in Ghana, the African liberation leader Patrice Lumumba of the Congo (now Zaire) was assassinated. This event affected Kennedy deeply. “Just when I had discovered the place of my ancestors, just when I had discovered this African hero,” Kennedy wrote in her autobiography, People Who Led to My Plays, “he had been murdered…. I felt I had been struck a blow. He became a character in my play… a man with a shattered head.” Another significant influence of the West African sojourn was Kennedy’s discovery of masks, which would mark many of her plays. Kennedy explained in People Who Led to My Plays, “A few years before, [Spanish artist Pablo] Picasso’s work had inspired me to exaggerate the physical appearances of my characters, but not until I bought a great African mask from a vendor on the streets of Accra [Ghana], of a woman with a bird flying through her forehead, did I totally break from realistic-looking characters.” Owls in the trees at night during her confined pregnancy in Ghana would figure as a character in 1965’s The Owl Anstuers.The shocking news of her parents’ separation at that time also caused Kennedy to reshape her vision of Jesus. A cruel Jesus would also figure prominently in her future work.
When she was 29, Kennedy wrote Funnyhouse of a Negro.The one-act play is about Sarah, a biracial girl, and her psychological agony over her mixed heritage. She is visited in her room by several historical personages: the Duchess of Hapsburg, Queen Victoria, Patrice Lamumba, and a hunchbacked Jesus, all of whom are described as “herselves.” The play was selected by Edward Albee to be produced in his workshop at New York City’s Circle in the Square and was thereafter produced at the Actors Studio in New York. It was co-produced by Albee and others at the East End Theatre in New York and ran from January 14, 1964, to February 9, 1964, with Michael Kahn directing. Criticism was mixed. Unprepared to deal with this stunning piece of experimental theater, some mainstream critics dismissed the work as irrelevant. Kennedy was also praised for her imaginative genius, and the play won one of the year’s Obie awards, but the harsh criticism instilled in Kennedy a lifelong dread of opening night.
Following the success of Funnyhouse, Kennedy’s play The Owl Answers was produced in 1965. Written in 1963 soon after Funnyhouse, the play is another avant-garde tale, the story of Clara Passmore, a Mulatto girl who is told she came from the owls, a girl who fits into neither white nor black society. On a subway train she encounters her ancestors, among them seventeenth-century poet and playwright William Shakespeare and sixteenth-century Queen of England Anne Boleyn. Werner Sollors wrote inAmerican Literatureihat ”Kennedy’s bird imagery … manages to remain evocative and does not settle on one meaning.” The Owl Answers, like Funnyhouse, won a Stanley award from Staten Island’s Wagner College. In the decade following Funnyhouse, Kennedy wrote several other one-act plays, including A Rat’s Mass, A Lesson in Dead Language, A Beast’s Story, Sun, and An Evening with Dead Essex.She stated inlnterviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, “It was a confident period…. I felt confident because I knew I had revealed my obsessions in Funnyhouse….I was riding an emotional crest. After all those years of rejection slips, people suddenly wanted to do my plays…. It made me very productive.”
A Rat’s Mass, the story of two light-skinned black children, siblings who are literally half human and half rat, was first produced in Rome and then by the Theatre Company of Boston in 1966. It was produced off Broadway by La Mama E.T.C, in 1969 and again in 1976. A Lesson in Dead Language finds a white dog teaching a class of adolescent girls. The central image is menstrual blood and its inherent trauma. It was first produced in London in 1968. A Beast’s Story was first produced in New York in 1965. This drama about a black woman’s sexual fears was also produced on a double bill with The Owl Answers, under the title Cities in Bezique in 1969. Cities in Bezique ran for 67 performances and was directed by Gerald Freedman.
The successes of these early works led to several grants, including a Guggenheim fellowship and several Rockefeller grants. In 1966, Kennedy divorced her husband, although they remain friendly. Commissioned by the Royal Court to write a play, Kennedy went to London, where she lived for the next three years. She recalled her time in London as “a very pleasurable living experience because of the literary community there. I met writers,” she told an interviewer in 1987 Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights, “I could write every day. And I met many people in theater. …it was a heyday for Americans in London.” Kennedy, working with Victor Spinetti, adapted John Lennon’s Jn HisOwn Write and A Spaniard in the Works to create The Lennon Play: In His Own Write in 1967. This celebration of wordplay was a simply staged exploration of growing up based on Lennon’s stories and poems. It was first produced in London by the National Theatre in 1967. Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder, a memorial monologue, was the result of the Royal Court commission. It was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London’s West End in 1969. Boats was produced at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1969.
Although less visible during the seventies and eighties, Kennedy continued to write plays while also teaching at various universities. She was a lecturer at Yale University from 1972 to 1974. During that time her play, An Evening with Dead Essex, a memorial to Mark Essex, a sniper slain by New Orleans police, was produced off Broadway at the American Place Theatre. In 1974, it became the first play by a woman to be produced by the Yale Repertory Theatre. A Rat’s Mass was adapted and staged as a jazz opera by Cecil Taylor in 1976, running for six weeks. A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White (1976) was first staged Off Off Broadway as an experimental workshop production, directed by Joseph Chaikin. In 1980, the Julliard Conservatory commissioned Kennedy to adapt the Greek classics,Electra and Orestes.Commissioned by the Empire State Youth Theatre, A Lancashire Lad was produced in Albany in May of 1980. The New York Times praised this fictionalized, Dickensian account of Charlie Chaplin’s childhood as “a beautiful play of great poetry and feeling.” In November of 1980, her play Black Children’s Day-commissioned by Brown University while Kennedy was artist-in-residence there--was produced at Brown’s Rites and Reason in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1985, Joseph Chaikin staged excerpts of three of Kennedy’s plays under the title Solo Voyages.Mel Gussow wrote in theNeiu York Times, “All three plays--and Solo Voyages itself-share a landscape of imagery that is alternately lofty and earthy.”
Kennedy published heavily during the end of the 1980s and into the next decade, starting with her scrapbook memoir, People Who Led to My Plays in 1987. A Theatre Journal reviewer described the autobiography as a “journey through Kennedy’s interior landscape [that] creates a fascinating portrait of a highly impressionable, brilliant individual, who never loses the intense wonder of a child. One year later, eight of Kennedy’s plays were collected in the volume In One Act.In 1990, the prose novella Deadly Triplets: A Theatre Mystery and Journal appeared, followed by a collection of four new plays-She Talks to Beethoven, The Ohio State Murders, The Film Club, and The Dramatic Circle- in 1992.
Known collectively as The Alexander Plays, the four dramas share a central character in the fictional personage of Suzanne Alexander, a writer. Alisa Solomon noted in her foreword to The Alexander Plays, “If in the early plays, Kennedy’s protagonists were hallucinators whose tortured psychosexual lives were being blasted open into a raw, relentless vision, in The Alexander Plays, the protagonist has stopped dreaming openly and started recounting.” Kennedy herself attributes this mellower tone to the self-reflective nature of her work.
Commenting on her life changes in the June 1992 issue of American Theatre Kennedy remarked, “I wouldn’t be alive if I had remained as fragmented as that person who wrote Funnyhouse and The Owl Answers.Over the years, these people came together inside me.” That view coincided with statements Kennedy made in 1977 in The Drama Review, when she explained that “Autobiographical work is the only thing that interests me, apparently because that is what I do best.”
The 1990s also saw a renewed interest in the staging of Kennedy’s works. In 1992, the Great Lakes Theatre Festival organized a month long celebration of her work, which included the official premiere of The Ohio State Murders and a one-day Kennedy symposium at Cleveland State University. A few years later The Signature Theatre Company honored Kennedy as playwright for its fall season, selecting seven of her plays to produce.
Although both Kennedy and her work have found acceptance, praise, and a new tranquillity in her search for identity, her successes still feel hollow to her. The New York Times quoted her as saying in 1995: “I feel that white America is against me in a struggle to take away my birthright. My only salvation is to write.”
Funnyhouse of a Negro (produced New York, 1964, London, 1968, New York, 1995), French, 1969.
The Owl Answers (produced, Westport, CT, and New York, 1965).
A Rat’s Mass (produced Rome, 1966, Boston, 1966, New York and London, 1970).
A Beast’s Story (produced New York, 1965, 1969).
(With John Lennon and Victor Spinetti) The Lennon Play: In His Own Write, adaptation of works by Lennon (produced London, 1967; revised version produced London, 1968; Albany, NY, 1969), Cape, 1968; Simon & Schuster, 1969.
A Lesson in Dead Language (produced New York and London, 1968).
Boats (produced Los Angeles, 1969).
Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder (produced London, 1969).
Cities in Bezique: 2 One-Act Plays: The Owl Answers and A Beast’s Story, French, 1969.
An Evening With Dead Essex (produced New York, 1973).
A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White (produced New York, 1976 and 1995).
Orestes and Electra (produced New York, 1980).
Black Children’s Day (produced Providence, RI, 1980).
A Lancashire Lad (for children; produced Albany, NY, 1980).
Solo Voyages (contains excerpts from The Owl An swers, A Rat’s Mass, and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, produced New York, 1985).
Diary of Lights (produced New York, 1987).
In One Act (includesFunnyhouse of a Negro, The Owl Answers, A Lesson in Dead Language, A Rat’s Mass, Sun, A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, Electra, Orestes), University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
The Alexander Plays (includesShe Talks to Beethoven, The Ohio State Murders, The Film Club, The Dramatic Circle), University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
People Who Led to My Plays (autobiography) Knopf, 1987.
Deadly Triplets: A Theatre Mystery and Journal (novella) University of Minnesota Press, 1990.
Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy, edited by Paul K. Bryant-Jackson and Lois More Overbeck, University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
Interviews with Women Playwrights, edited by Kath leen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, Beech Tree Books/William Morrow, 1987.
Kennedy, Adrienne, People Who Led to My Plays, Knopf, 1987.
Kennedy, Adrienne, The Alexander Plays, University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
Peterson, Bernard L., Jr., Contemporary Black Amer ican Playwrights and Their Plays, Greenwood Press, 1988.
African American Review, Summer 1994, pp. 293–304.
American Literature, September 1991.
American Theatre, June 1992, pp. 32–33.
Drama Review, December 1977, pp. 42–46.
Kenyon Review, Spring, 1993, pp. 86–99.
Library Journal, May 1, 1990, p. 114; August 1992,p. 99.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 12, 1987, p. 4.
Melus, Fall, 1985.
Modern Drama, December 1990, pp. 581–83.
New York Times, May 21, 1980, p. C30; September 20, 1985, p. C2; July 25, 1995, p. C13.
Theatre Journal, March 1991, pp. 125-28; March 1992, pp. 67–86; October 1993, pp. 406-08.
Village Voice, October 3, 1995, p. 93.
—Ellen Dennis French
"Kennedy, Adrienne 1931—." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/kennedy-adrienne-1931
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