By Pia Wilson ’93
The first time Adrienne Kennedy submitted her one-act play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, to the Stanley Drama Award competition at Wagner College, she didn’t win. Her groundbreaking play, which dealt with racism’s effect on the African American female identity, was part of her application for Edward Albee’s playwriting workshop at Wagner College in 1962. She lost out to Albee’s boyfriend and fellow playwright, Terrence McNally.
The next year, however, she won, and it was a big deal — for her and for Black female playwrights to come, like me.
Fast forward about 45 years. I’m sitting in the Public Theater, watching Adrienne Kennedy’s Mom, How Did You Meet The Beatles, a piece she had co-written with her son Adam P. Kennedy. I had just become a member of the Public’s inaugural Emerging Writers Group. The staff at the theater is very excited about this production. It’s the first thing Ms. Kennedy has done in a long time. I can feel in everyone’s energy how important this is. I can see it in the joy and tension in their faces. It’s important, though I don’t know exactly why. So, I go, even though I’m very sick with a cold.
And I didn’t get it — not the play, not why it was done at the Public, not why everyone had been so enthusiastically terrified. I didn’t know who Ms. Kennedy was. But then, I didn’t fully know who I was as a playwright either. At least, not at the time. I know now. I am of her theatrical lineage. And writing this essay has been like going through family history.
Adrienne Kennedy and Wagner College
When Ms. Kennedy won the Stanley Drama Award, it was only a few years old. It had been established in 1957 by Staten Island philanthropist Alma Guyon Timolat Stanley to encourage and support aspiring playwrights, first through the New York City Writers Conference at Wagner, and then through the Wagner College theater department, which still administers the award annually. (Read more about the history of the Stanley Drama Award.)
In 1957, Ms. Kennedy was a 26-year-old wife and mother. She had finished studying creative writing at Columbia University the year before. By 1960, Ms. Kennedy and her husband were living abroad in Africa, and then later Italy, with their sons Adam and Joe Jr. What Ms. Kennedy saw and experienced in Ghana inspired her to write Funnyhouse. She and the family returned to the States in October 1961 with the play in tow.
Edward Albee led the playwriting workshop at the New York City Writers Conference, a 10-day program held each summer at Wagner College for aspiring fiction writers, poets, and playwrights. He exercised a magnetic force on Adrienne Kennedy and many others who entered his orbit. Decades later, Kennedy wrote of Albee, “He affected me like a tremendous narcotic ... his eyes ... his voice ... fame ... his wealth, his fierce celebrated work, I was spellbound […]. He became the center of the Earth, his promise to produce Funnyhouse (it took two years) made me as crazy as anything had before or has since.”
Albee, along with Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder, produced Funnyhouse of a Negro in January 1964 at New York City’s East End Theater. It closed after 50 performances. Most critics and audiences didn’t get the one-act play, which drew from Ms. Kennedy’s African and European heritage. Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes it as an exploration of a “black woman’s psyche, driven by personal and inherited psychosis, at the root of which is the ambiguously double failure of both rapacious white society and its burdened yet also distorted victims.”
The critics didn’t see what the judges for the 1963 Stanley Award — actor Shelly Winters, playwright Edward Albee, Living Theatre co-director Julian Beck, and Wagner College drama professor John Hruby — saw in her work. They didn’t see the genius. It didn’t sound like other plays. There was symbolism that they didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, understand.
Time carried on.
Kennedy’s Place in Theatrical History
Over the course of the next 55 years, Ms. Kennedy earned a reputation as a strong, poetic writer. Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold wrote in 1995, “With [Samuel] Beckett gone, Adrienne Kennedy is probably the boldest artist now writing for the theater.” Hilton Als, writing about Ms. Kennedy for The New Yorker in 2018, characterized her body of work as “shimmering” and “original.”
“Taken together, Kennedy’s twenty-odd plays form a long and startling fugue, composed of language that is impactful and impacted but ever-moving, ever-shifting, as her protagonists, usually women of color, stand on the precipice of disaster, madness, or loss,” Als writes.
Funnyhouse is about a young woman named Sarah who is obsessed with whiteness. She’s going mad with this obsession. The surreal play takes place completely in Sarah’s mind, with historical figures like Queen Victoria and Jesus manifesting different aspects of Sarah’s racial makeup. The audience can feel Sarah’s pain, confusion, and anxiety as a light-skinned Black woman.
Wagner Literary Magazine published Funnyhouse in 1964. Willard Maas, who had been director of the New York City Writers Conference in 1963, when Kennedy won the Stanley, published the play in full in issue No. 4. (Fun side note: Maas and his wife, experimental filmmaker Marie Menken, were the inspiration for George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
Ms. Kennedy was active in the Black Arts Movement and was a founding member of the Women’s Theatre Council in 1971. Her work was the feminine counterpoint to the masculine force that sparked the movement. As important as Amiri Baraka was to the movement by strongly rejecting racism and oppression against Black people, Adrienne Kennedy was important in her representations of Black women as vulnerable, sensitive human beings. Her plays laid bare the oppression they endure not only as Black people but as women. In 1964, Ms. Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro received the Obie Award for Distinguished Play, while Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman was named the Obie Best American Play.
Discovering My Literary Lineage
By the time I arrived on Wagner’s campus, the literary magazine was defunct. We brought it back — The Nimbus, as it was called then. At least, that’s the way I remember it. I published a couple of poems in The Nimbus under a ridiculous pen name that I’m too embarrassed to share.
For an English major who was plotting her path to becoming the next great American novelist, working on the literary magazine made sense. It’s funny, though, how fate plays a hand: I really loved my major, but I hung out with so many theater majors that people thought I was one. Maybe all that love for theater sunk into my subconscious, into my soul, and after more than a decade, that love fashioned me into a playwright.
I’m doing all right by most accounts. I’ve won awards. My work has been produced. I was a Traveling Master for the Dramatists Guild last year! Most importantly, at least to the nerd in me, my work has been taught at the collegiate level. Earlier this year, students in the Black Arts Movement class at Franklin and Marshall College studied my work alongside that of Spike Lee and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
The students in the class linked the themes and techniques used in my plays with works created in the Black Arts Movement of the ’60s and ’70s. They did not look specifically at Ms. Kennedy’s work, but having re-read some of her work these past few weeks, I can see the connection.
Much of Ms. Kennedy’s work — like Funnyhouse — explores the Black cultural and historical experience in America. I, too, write about the American identity: what does it mean to be an American; who gets to call themselves American and why; what does it mean to be a Black woman in America.
To convey these ideas, I have even drawn on literary techniques similar to those found in Ms. Kennedy’s plays. For example, Funnyhouse employs masks to subvert the legacy of minstrel shows. I likewise use masks in the beginning of my play, Black Bee, for the same purpose.
Another similarity between Ms. Kennedy’s work and mine is that I explore not only racism but also colorism, which is the discrimination within communities of color, all around the world, based on skin color, with light skin being valued more highly than dark skin. In the African American community, colorism is a legacy of slavery and a wound that may take a hundred more years to heal.
My play Back to the Real, produced last year by Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey, took a close look at colorism through the framework of the relationships between two dark-skinned siblings and the two light-skinned women they are dating. One of the enduring ways colorism is exhibited in the African American community is through grading our hair. There is “good hair,” which is closer to Caucasian hair, and “bad hair,” which is associated with an African heritage.
Mandy, one of the light-skinned characters, introduces this notion in a dialogue that quickly turns into a dispute with dark-skinned Yolanda and light-skinned Katrina.
Good hair, though. Automatically means Black hair is bad. It isn’t. It’s actually very delicate.
It’s not treated that way. Y’all have got good hair.
Why? Because our great, great, great grandmothers were raped more often.
Well, I wasn’t going to go there, but —
Why not? That’s what so-called good hair is. Closer to white. And you know how we got so close to white? That’s how.
God bless your ancestors and mine, but let’s not pretend y’all haven’t had it easier than me and my nappy hair.
I saw somewhere that our great-grandmothers’ trauma are in our DNA. They leave little scars.
I’m not saying we didn’t have it easier.
Sounded like it. You don’t know what it’s like to be a dark-skinned Black woman in America.
Don’t we though?
We hear it from you all the time. Look at how you just tried to shut down our pain. We’re Black too. Back me up, Mandy.
Well ... I was just saying —
In Funnyhouse, hair plays a similarly complex role as a marker of color and identity. “In appearance I am good-looking in a boring way; no glaring Negroid features, medium nose, medium mouth and pale yellow skin,” a speaker identified as “Negro” says. “My one defect is that I have a head of frizzy hair, unmistakably Negro kinky hair; and it is indistinguishable.”
I am surprised at how Ms. Kennedy and I have pulled identical things out of the creative ether at different times. I feel honored to be in the African continuum with her, of the same lineage as her: writing with a poetic bent, trying to answer the enduring questions of Black identity in America through theater, including the Public Theater and, of course, Wagner.
Pia Wilson’s produced plays include The Flower Thief, Generation T, Turning the Glass Around, Back to the Real, and Down Neck.
Editor’s Note: In this piece, we are following Pia Wilson’s preference for the capitalization of “Black” to describe people who have features indicating African ancestry.