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“Kennedy’s work is radical, hallucinatory…relevatory, groundbreaking, and downright beautiful….raw, relentless visions…”   Critic Alisa Solomon

From the explosive  Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) to The Owl Answers (1965) to A Rat’s Mass (1966) to A Movie Star has to Star in Black and White (1976) to The Ohio State Murders,  Adrienne Kennedy has been an incredible groundbreaker—-bringing her unique voice to the dreams and nightmares of race and gender.




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Cherise Fisher                Denise Hungerford              Lizan Mitchell*           Matt Stapleton

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Elise Stone*           Antonio Edwards Suarez*         Chinaza Uche*          Dawn D. Wilkes



“With Beckett gone, Adrienne Kennedy is probably the boldest artist now writing for the theater,” Michael Feingold writes. Kennedy’s drama grows out of the entire dramatic tradition, from Greek tragedy to theatre of the absurd, from Euripides to Shakespeare, and from Chekhov to Tennessee Williams. Simultaneously, it recalls the work of Sam Shepard, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and Wole Soyinka. Inspired by the themes of Hollywood movies and responding to some of the English classics, Kennedy’s works have been praised as surrealistic dream plays, as hauntingly fragmentary and non-linear lyrical dramas, as high points in the development of the American one-act play, and as the forceful expression of feminist themes in contemporary black women’s writing.

Kennedy’s dramatic work has an unmistakable style, characterized by fragmentation, ritualistic repetition and variation, and radical experimentation with character, setting, and plot. “These are the places I exist in. I know no places. That is I cannot believe in places. To believe in places is to know hope and to know the emotion of hope is to know beauty. It links us across a horizon and connects us to the world. I find there are no places, only my funnyhouse,” the protagonist ruminates in Kennedy’s first play. Kennedy confronts and explores social and psychological terrors, past and present. The dramatic language speaks of blood and many forms of violence; and strange figures appear such as half-rats, owls, Jesus as a yellow-skinned hunchback dwarf, or Bette Davis from the Hollywood weepies. Kennedy’s drama is autobiographically inspired, shaped by her experience and generational vantage point, and packed with allusions to American popular culture. Kennedy’s most important works explore the tragic condition of daughter, mother, father, sibling, and lover in the painful web of American race and kin relations in which violence can erupt at any point.

Born Adrienne Hawkins in Pittsburgh in 1931, the playwright spent her childhood and youth in Cleveland, with frequent visits to her grandmothers in Montezuma, Georgia, where most of her relatives, black and white, were also living. It was there, she remembers, at a place she could only reach by Jim Crow car [a segregated train car], that she was both haunted and inspired by experiences which she incorporated into her later plays. Fairy tales, complicated stories about racial ancestry and denied relations, and the lore of a mythical literary England as the ultimate country of origin and the “home of Jane Eyre” further informed her sense of the South, with its “strange mesh of dark kinship between the races.”

In Cleveland, movies inspired the author-to-be. She immersed herself into the world of the Hollywood magazine Modern Screen, and admired such luminaries as Bette Davis, Paul Robeson, Lena Horne, and Orson Welles. After her years at Ohio State University–the setting of The Ohio State Murders–and marrying Joseph Kennedy, she moved to New York and began to write. In the big city she became an avid fan of modern art and the theater, especially Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, but also Chekhov and Lorca.

In the course of the 1960s and 1970s, after reading works by African writers Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka and studying masks in Ghana, Kennedy turned toward playwriting and soon began to create an impressive group of experimental plays. She became a force in modern drama circles, winning awards and collaborating on literary projects. From 1962 to 1965 she was a member of the playwriting unit of the Actors Studio. In 1967, while in London, she collaborated on the dramatization of John Lennon’s book In His Own Write, and her play Sun was commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre. She was awarded three Obie awards by the Village Voice, two Rockefeller grants, and a Guggenheim fellowship, and has taught drama and playwriting at various universities, including New York University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Harvard University.

The Ohio State Murders, first produced in 1992, is a murder play of a very unusual sort. There is neither a detective nor a search for suspects, and though the audience learns what really happened, the resolution is a public cover-up. The central character is doubled: Suzanne Alexander is both a playwright who serves as epic narrator in the present and a student of half a century ago, and there are frequent time shifts. As narrator, Suzanne promises to explore the reasons for her use of violent imagery; as college student, Suzanne experiences a traumatic year as aspiring English major at a just barely desegregated institution of higher learning. Social slights and personal horrors come together in the murder of the twins Cathi and Carol. Characters include the assistant professor Robert Hampshire, who reads aloud from Beowulf and Tess of the d’Urbervilles; David Alexander, Suzanne’s husband-to-be who looks like Frantz Fanon; and a landlady, a friend, a roommate, and the head of the dorm complete the cast. The color line is omnipresent in the relations between white and black girls in the dorm and in the role assigned to black students by the English Department. “The schools I had attended in Cleveland were an even mixture of immigrant and black. You were judged on grades. But here race was foremost,” Suzanne states. “Kennedy’s visions of the black world include the white” (American Academy of Arts and Letters); but her visions also point to the failure of these worlds to interact as equals.

Suzanne speaks about the presence of “bloodied heads, severed limbs, dead father, dead Nazis, dying Jesus” in her drama, and such Gothic elements also appear in Kennedy’s plays, as do allusions to films like Now Voyager or A Place in the Sun. In its own use of violent imagery and its division of a central character,The Ohio State Murders is a self-reflexive continuation of Kennedy’s career as a playwright that started with her first Obie-winning play, Funnyhouse of a Negro(1964). “Working outside the familiar realistic style,” states an entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Kennedy “ventures into uncharted territory of the theater as well as the mind.” This is true for The Ohio State Murders as it is for Kennedy’s work as a whole.

Funnyhouse presented four aspects of the character “Sarah”: Lumumba, Christ, Queen Victoria, and the romantic Duchess of Hapsburg (the wife of the ill-fated Austrian Emperor of Mexico) played by Bette Davis in Juarez. Clara’s four “selves” embody contradictions such as black and white, male and female, colonialism and independence, yet they are also strangely identical, speaking and repeating the same lines, at times in unison, Greek-chorus fashion. In The Owl Answers (1965), the set is a collage of Old and New World places all of which strangely coexist: “The scene is a New York subway car is the Tower of London is a Harlem hotel room is St. Peter’s.” The characters have alternating identities and the figures of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and William the Conqueror form the chorus of an English literary tradition that challenges Clara’s claim to an English ancestry. The avidJane Eyre reader Clara repeatedly speaks the loaded sentence, “I was the only Negro there.” The main characters in A Rat’s Mass (1966) are two “pale Negro children,” siblings who are also surrealistically half rats: “BROTHER RAT has a rat’s head, a human body, a tail. SISTER RAT has a rat’s belly, a human head, a tail.” A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White (1976) opens with the Columbia Pictures Lady; there is film music, and the actors are made up to look exactly like Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Jean Peters, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters. “Supporting roles are played by the mother, the father, the husband.” Each scene is simultaneously set in a film and in a “real” place. In the tradition of such works as Countée Cullen’s Medea (1934) and Wole Soyinka’s Bacchae (1973), Kennedy has also written adaptations of Euripides, her Electra and Orestes (1980). In June and Jean in Concert (1995) June and Jean are twins who play the piano, sing, and write, in Kennedy’s autobiographic voice, about a magical and haunting past that includes “Dead Aunt Ella,” Mother, Father, and other characters; and the play explores the central traumatic event of June’s death in 1943.

The drama cycle The Alexander Plays (1992)–of which The Ohio State Murders is part, and which also includes She Talks to BeethovenThe Film Club, and The Dramatic Circle–extends Kennedy’s familiar division of a lyrical persona into antithetical selves, a Nkrumah and a Beethoven, a Thomas Hardy and a Frantz Fanon; the lyrical monologue The Film Club specifically continues Kennedy’s fascination with Bette Davis; and in all four plays the central character is the authorial projection Suzanne Alexander, whose persona suggests the level of mature self-reflexivity which Kennedy’s work has reached. The Suzanne Alexander of these plays is thus the summation of all of Kennedy’s heroines, and The Ohio State Murders also offers a partial answer to questions about the origins of Kennedy’s work.

In 1991, while Kennedy was working on The Ohio State Murders, her son Adam Kennedy was beaten and arrested by a white police officer and then accused of striking him. The trumped-up charges against Adam were ultimately dismissed, and he later also won a civil lawsuit. Kennedy wrote “Letter to My Students on My Sixty-First Birthday by Suzanne Alexander” about her anxieties during that process, interspersing memory narrative with documents, letters, and depositions.Motherhood 2000 (1994) continues Kennedy’s dramatic rumination about this senseless beating of her son. Set in the near future, the play brings the policeman who was responsible right to Kennedy’s New York neighborhood, and the miracle play that unfolds ends when the writer strikes this policeman with a hammer.

Robert Brustein, director of the American Repertory Theater, has commented that Kennedy’s plays are “strong dreams that reveal us in our most vulnerable moments.” Kennedy is the quintessential modern voice on the American stage. Thirty-five years after Funnyhouse, Village Voice writer Lisa Jones recognized Kennedy as the creator of “out-of-kilter, lyrical, and drop-dead brilliant work for the American theater.”

In addition to her drama, Adrienne Kennedy has published various prose pieces, from the short story “Because of the King of France” (1963) to “A Letter to Flowers” (1996), an autobiography, People Who Led to My Plays (1987), and the experimental novel Deadly Triplets: A Theatre Mystery and Journal (1990). Joseph Papp summed up her achievement when he said: “Adrienne Kennedy is one of this country’s most important and impassioned writers.”

Kennedy has received the Third Manhattan Borough President’s Award for Excellence, a Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund Writers’ Award, an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Pierre LeComte duNouy Foundation Award. Kennedy is represented in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature and is one of only five playwrights to be included in the Third Edition of the The Norton Anthology of American Literature. She was also the subject of a dramatic retrospective during the 1995/1996 season at Signature Theatre in New York that provided an occasion for renewed public and critical attention.*

Werner Sollors is Professor of English Literature and Professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University.

*These remarks are adapted from the introduction to the forthcoming Adrienne Kennedy Reader (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2001). Minnesota Press has in the past decade published much of Kennedy’s works, including The Alexander Plays.