Adrienne Kennedy, an American playwright, has changed the theatre with her complicated, and sometimes surreal, plays about Black women.
When Funny house of a Negro was put on off-Broadway in 1964, it brought Adrienne Kennedy to the public’s attention. Most of Kennedy’s plays don’t have simple plots. Instead, they use symbols and dreamlike settings to send messages about racism, sexism, colonialism, and other harmful things. They have also used parts of her own life and made Black women the main characters. In November 2021, it was declared that Kennedy’s 1990 play Ohio State Murders would be performed on Broadway. This would be her first time on Broadway.
Adrienne Kennedy was born Adrienne Lita Hawkins on September 13, 1931, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to social worker Cornell Wallace and teacher Etta. Kennedy grew up in the Ohio city of Cleveland. During the summer, she and her brother would go to Montezuma, Georgia, to see where their parents grew up. When you went to Georgia, you had to take separate trains and live in the Jim Crow South. She met her white maternal grandfather a few times. He owned the peach orchard where her maternal grandmother had worked when she was 15 years old.
Kennedy went to Ohio State University to study elementary education. She was surrounded by white students and faced discrimination at the school, but she kept going and got her bachelor’s degree in 1953.
In 1953, Kennedy married Joseph C. Kennedy. Before they split up in 1966, they had two sons, Joseph and Adam. Kennedy got married after college. Her husband went to school at Columbia University, so she and her husband moved to New York City. Kennedy went to several schools, including Columbia University, to study creative writing.
The Plays by Kennedy:
Kennedy’s plays are based on both her own and other people’s pasts. They also talk about struggles with race and sex. Instead of telling stories in a realistic way, Kennedy often uses metaphors and story fragments that can leave people confused. As a playwright, she always puts Black women at the center. Kennedy has mostly written one-act plays, but she has also written longer pieces.
Kennedy First Play:
In 1960, Kennedy’s husband got a grant that made it possible for him and Kennedy to go to Ghana. Kennedy stopped in England, Spain, and Morocco on his way to Africa. Later, while her husband was still in Africa, Kennedy moved to Italy, where she finished the strange one-act play Funny house of a Negro. This was the first play that Kennedy ever wrote.
Congolese Freedom Fighter:
Sarah, a woman with schizophrenia, is the main character in Funny house of a Negro. Sarah struggles with her mixed-race background and her own problems from the past as she meets characters like Queen Victoria and Congolese freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba.
First Performance of Funny House:
Kennedy used Funny house of a Negro as a piece of writing to get into an Edward Albee workshop. Albee helped put on the first performance of Funny house of a Negro off-Broadway in 1964. The show ended after fewer than fifty performances. But many of the people there were impressed by Kennedy’s work. She got an Obie, which is a prize for theatre that isn’t on Broadway or off-off-Broadway.
The Lennon Play:
In His Own Write, which came out in 1967, was Kennedy’s first full-length play. It was based on John Lennon’s writing. A Movie Star has to Star in absolute, which was put on by New York’s Public Theater Workshop in 1976, was another full-length play by Kennedy that was well-liked. In this play, a Black woman named Clara is joined by old Hollywood stars like Bette Davis and Shelley Winters.
Chaplin Early Life:
A Lancashire Lad, a 1980 play by Kennedy for children, was based on Charlie Chaplin’s early life. Black Children’s Day, a 1980 children’s play, also has some Rhode Island history in it. She also wrote “Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder,” which is a one-act play (1968).
Sleep Deprivation Chamber:
In the 1990 book Ohio State Murders, there is a character named Suzanne Alexander who seems to be a different version of Kennedy. This character’s alter ego showed up again in Sleep Deprivation Chamber (1996). Sleep Deprivation Chamber was written by Kennedy and her son Adam. It was based on Adam’s experience of being beaten by police.
Signature Theatre Company:
Sleep Deprivation Chamber was first shown when Kennedy was a playwright in residence at the Signature Theatre Company in New York City for the 1995-1996 season. The Obie Award for Best New Play went to it. He put forward her Heart Back in a Box, a newly Kennedy play, opened in 2018. It was about a sad love story between a black woman and a white man in Georgia in the 1940s.
Other Writing and Books:
“Because of the King of France,” Kennedy’s first short story, came out in 1963. She has also written a memoir called People Who Led to My Plays (1987) and a novella called Deadly Triplets: A Theatre Mystery and Journal (1990).
Adrienne Kennedy in One Act (1988), The Alexander Plays (1992), The Adrienne Kennedy Reader (2001), and He put forward her Heart Back in a Box and Other Plays (1998) are all collections of Kennedy’s plays (2020).
Grants and Education:
In 1967, Kennedy was given a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Rockefeller Foundation gave him money to write. She also got money from the Creative Artists Public Service and the National Endowment for the Arts.
University of California at Berkeley:
In a 1996 interview, Kennedy said, “I teach, that’s how I make a living. Other than grants, my writing doesn’t make me money.” During her career, she has taught and given talks at universities like Yale, Princeton, Brown, and New York University.
Kennedy won an American Book Award in 1990, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994, and a Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Award in 1994. In 2003, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards gave Kennedy an award for a lifetime of work. In 2008, she secure the Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement, and in 2018, she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. In 2021, the Dramatists Guild of America gave Kennedy another Lifetime Achievement Award for all of his work.