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The Theatre
January 18, 2021 Issue

The Restlessly Inventive Plays of Adrienne Kennedy
A festival of readings of the playwright’s later works, from Round House Theatre, reveals a development in Kennedy’s thinking since her earlier, most famous play, “Funnyhouse of a Negro.”
By Vinson Cunningham
January 11, 2021
One motif in Kennedy’s work is the suspicion that the past has hijacked the present.Illustration by Jamiel Law
A weird thing happens when you watch an actor look down at a sheet of paper and read her lines. Suddenly, you’re aware—painfully or pleasantly, depending on the subtlety of the maneuver—that this character is a locomotive, moving inexorably along the track that is the script. One question in great dramas is how an individual’s free will might chafe against the world’s immovable fixtures. The actor’s eye on the page offers a slightly dark answer: maybe our liberty is an illusion, and our lives, like a play or a piece of music, are churning toward an inevitable destination. The slang for actors who haven’t yet learned all their lines is that they’re still “on book.” Perhaps that applies to all of us, just reading aloud and ambling toward our marks with some dim awareness of an ending.
I kept thinking about that awful possibility while watching “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence,” a digital “festival” of filmed readings put on by Round House Theatre, in association with McCarter Theatre Center. Kennedy, who is eighty-nine, is one of our greatest and least definable living playwrights, restlessly inventive and ruthlessly unshy about the pressures exerted by history upon our lives. If one motif hums through her work (besides herself: she is our foremost artist of theatrical autobiography), it is a nagging, sometimes unbearable suspicion that the past has hijacked the present.
Kennedy’s most famous play, the surrealist one-act “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” from 1964, is a kind of dream masquerade. A woman called Negro-Sarah—the specificity of a name smashed up against the bleak determinism of a category—sits surrounded by a chorus of hyperverbal historical figures who are meant to act as alternate “selves.” One is a Habsburg duchess; one is the Congolese freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba; another is Jesus. Sarah wears a noose around her neck like a victim-in-waiting but talks like a member of a cosseted—if a bit bugged-out—bourgeoisie. She’s “soulless, educated and irreligious,” she says. “I want to possess no moral value, particularly value as to my being. I want not to be. I ask nothing except anonymity.” Negro-Sarah would like to use her middle-classness as a talisman to ward off recognition and pain. She thinks of her white friends “as an embankment to keep me from reflecting too much upon the fact that I am a Negro.” And yet, irreversibly, that fact breaks the embankment like a flood. Because of the color of her skin and the history it holds, Sarah—like her selves, whose monologues are haunted by mixed parentage—signifies wildly, full of “moral value” well beyond her own control.
In “Funnyhouse,” with its gruesome contortions and mordant humor, Kennedy reminds me of the conceptual artist Adrian Piper, whose best gag might be the drawing “Self Portrait Exaggerating My Negroid Features.” For both artists, realism falls apart under the absurdity of race and the unction of history. Between who you are and how you’re seen lies a possibly unbridgeable gap.
The plays that are presented in “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy” come from later in the playwright’s career, and show a development in her thinking. “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” Kennedy’s most recent play, first produced in 2018, tells the story of a fraught romance between Kay (Maya Jackson), a Black woman of mixed ancestry, and Chris (Michael Sweeney Hammond), the white heir to a prominent family who rule the affairs of the Georgia town where they both were born and raised. The harrowing stakes of their courtship are clear from the start, but Kennedy’s mode of narration—a series of dreamy dispatches that never quite settle into dialogue—shows just how misty this doomed matter of the heart really is.
The Round House production, directed by Nicole A. Watson, doubles down on Kennedy’s suspenseful gauziness. There are quick cuts to highly symbolic representations of the actors’ words—somebody’s hand opens slowly to reveal, embedded on the palm, a series of graves—and the lighting (designed by Sherrice Mojgani) is a spectral, insistent blue. I came away thinking that Kennedy’s work is unusually well suited to filmic treatment: when her characters speak, they not only advance the plot but impart lush and unlikely images. A great filmmaker interested more in rhythm and the uncanny than in strict narrative—someone like Garrett Bradley or Kahlil Joseph—could make a Tarkovskian masterpiece after soaking in Kennedy’s œuvre.
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Still, despite the richness of the imagery, I kept thinking about the actors, who weren’t so much acting as reading out loud. Every once in a while, they’d steal a glance at the text, which made me think of them less as performers than as partakers in a closet play, trying to bring the show out into the living room, where the rest of us could hear. If the Kennedy of “Funnyhouse” was trying to find an identity, or a narrative, worth living out, she has, in later years, begun to acknowledge that somebody, somewhere, has already staked out a plan, like it or not. (The stage directions, read by Agyeiwaa Asante, give that sense a concrete voice.) Romantic choice is often a metaphor for the more drastic currents lurking elsewhere in our lives, eager to take us under.
That feeling grows stronger in a pair of plays written in the nineties—“Ohio State Murders” and “Sleep Deprivation Chamber”—which feature Kennedy’s alter ego, Suzanne Alexander. Suzanne, like Kennedy, is a celebrated playwright who travels to universities and gives talks about such topics as “the construction of a play with Aristotelian elements.” In “Ohio State Murders,” directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton, Suzanne (Lynda Gravátt) tries to explain the source of the violent imagery in her plays. Her lecture—confined to the page, a reminder of a lost feeling of freedom—is, in Kennedy’s hands, a roving monologue, which acts as a background for a story set in the past. The young Suzanne (Billie Krishawn) is a student at Ohio State University, infatuated with Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and, more problematically, her white English professor. Upward mobility, which Negro-Sarah hoped might earn her a pass from trouble, has introduced the young Suzanne to the beginning of an inevitable tragedy.
“Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” which Kennedy wrote in collaboration with her son Adam, and is directed here by Raymond O. Caldwell, tells the story of Suzanne’s son, Teddy, who was accosted by police outside his own front door—an eerie forecast of the incident involving the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge police, which was refereed by Barack Obama—and badly beaten. Absurdly, it’s Teddy (Deimoni Brewington) who stands accused of a crime. Again, Suzanne’s literary activity provides a pretext for narration. Between flashbacks to the assault and scenes of a deposition, Suzanne writes letters to public officials who might be able to help her son.
Suzanne seems to share—if a bit more jadedly—Negro-Sarah’s ill-fated hope in Black exceptionalism. In her letters, Suzanne talks about her brother-in-law, a Stanford professor emeritus who has fallen into a race-induced depression, and her daughter, also a lecturer at Stanford, making sure to mention her own success. She describes the indignity done to her son as something that has been done to “our son and our family.” Teddy’s father, livid, says that the police have “tangled with the wrong family.” “We are innocent,” Suzanne says—all of us. Even though, deep down, she knows that her family’s well-earned prestige won’t save Teddy, she can’t help but interpret the incident as an affront to the entire edifice of the Black middle class. It was supposed to help!
Instead, everybody’s following a script. When, in a flashback, Rex Daugherty, who plays the police officer, looked down at his pages, it felt like a revelation, a belated admission that his tough-guy spiel is, indeed, just a spiel, a play out of some book, just as his later violence would turn out to be. Teddy’s cries seem scripted, too. We all know them, and could even join in if the occasion ever arose. “Please let me up,” he says. “I can’t breathe!” ♦
An earlier version of this article misspelled the names of Nicole A. Watson and Sherrice Mojgani.
Published in the print edition of the January 18, 2021, issue, with the headline “On Book.”
Vinson Cunningham joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2016.
More:
Theatre
Plays
Race
Adrienne Kennedy
Racism
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