As a continuation of our series honoring the history of Black artists and theater-makers, this post is dedicated to the work of Adrienne Kennedy.
Adrienne Kennedy is among the greatest living American playwrights.
Born Adrienne Lita Hawkins in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1931, Kennedy was the daughter of a teacher and a social worker. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and attended integrated public schools in the area. Her passion for writing began as a teenager. Kennedy got her undergraduate degree in education at Ohio State University (class of 1953) and then continued her studies at Columbia University (1954-1956).
Kennedy’s first produced play was Funnyhouse of a Negro, which premiered off-Broadway in 1964 and won an Obie Award. Though she won a lifetime Obie as well, and, in 2018, she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame, to classify Kennedy as only a playwright would be narrow and unjust; she is a hugely accomplished writer with an extensive body of work that spans 6 decades and includes essays, short stories, and poems.
Stylistically, Kennedy is noted for her bold use of surrealism, radical structure, and symbolism to explore Black experience. Common themes in her work are alienation, violence caused by racism, and what it is like to be a woman of color in American society. Kennedy’s work often feels like a poetic collage: she uses disparate images and influences to create a work that captures her character’s fragmented psyche. As described by this 2019 article from The New Yorker by Hilton Als, “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. For the course of the performance, at least, those women overcome their passivity and their willfulness—a jarring combination—in order to tell us what life can feel like on that cliff of color and gender.”
As part of the the Waterwell Drama Program’s unit on the playwrights who were shaped by the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, the high school juniors recently read Kennedy’s 1976 one-act, A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White.
A Movie Star… is autobiographical in some respects: it draws on Kennedy’s interest in black and white movies from Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” as well as events from Kennedy’s own past. The main character, Clara, is a writer, and the pieces of her writing that we encounter in the play are fragments from some of Kennedy’s earlier works. The supporting actors are made to look like famous Hollywood stars, including Marlon Brando and Bette Davis. Throughout the play, there is a striking racial juxtaposition: Clara, the lead of the production, is a Black woman who uses three white characters from the classic movies she loves to help tell her story: Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, Jean Peters in Viva Zapata!, and Shelley Winters in A Place in the Sun. This commentary on the lack of Black film actors to identify with, as well as the emphasis on traditional gender roles versus Clara’s professional aspirations, are two of the play’s main themes.
At the end of the unit on A Movie Star…, we asked the Juniors to select passages and quotes that stuck with them, and have included them below. We invite you to look over these student submissions as an example of how widely impactful Kennedy’s work is. With her exquisite use of poetic structure, symbol, and love of the written word, everyone can find meaning in different ways through her work.
Selected by the Drama Program Juniors: Favorite Quotes from A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White
It haunts my Tower calling, its feathers are blowing against the cell wall, speckled in the garden on the fig tree, it comes, feathered, great hollow-eyed with yellow skin and yellow eyes, the flying bastard.
He came to me in the outhouse, in the fig tree. He told me, ‘You are an owl, I am your beginning. I call God and the Owl answers.’ It haunts my tower, calling.
Each day I wonder with what or with whom can I co-exist in a true union?
I’m not unhappy. I’m very happy. I just want to be a writer. Please don’t think I’m unhappy.
When I came among them it seems to me I did not bring them peace … but made them more disconsolate. The crosses they bore always made me sad.
Eddie says I’ve become shy and secretive and I can’t accept the passage of time, and that my diaries consume me and that my diaries make me a spectator watching my life like watching a black and white movie. He thinks sometimes… to me my life is one of my black and white movies that I love so… with me playing a bit part.
When I have the baby, I wonder will I turn into a river of blood and die?
“Adrienne Kennedy’s Startling Body of Work”– Hilton Als, The New Yorker