Adrienne Kennedy by Suzan-Lori Parks

BOMB 54 Winter 1996
Issue 54 054  Winter 1996

The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum 
congratulates BOMB Gala honorees
James Keith Brown
and Eric G. Diefenbach

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Adrienne Kennedy. Photo courtesy Signature Theater.

Adrienne Kennedy is one of the greats of contemporary playwriting. A few years ago at the L.A. Theater Festival I had the good fortune to meet her. We hung out, walled along the ocean and talked about everything. Her plays are a passionate odyssey into the psyche of post-African America. “Spider webs strung on little stars,” says Wally Shawn. No fooling. Besides her two Rockefeller grants, she is the recipient of the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, a Guggenheim Award and, in 1994, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Published works: her autobiography, People Who Led to My Plays and her collected plays,Adrienne Kennedy in One Act and Intersecting Boundaries ; and her first play written in 1964,Funnyhouse of a Negro received an OBIE. In other words, her work has been totally cool for years, cool enough to make her one of the only five playwrights that are included in theNorton Anthology of Literature . Her plays are currently being produced by Signature Theater Company at The Public Theater in “A Season of Adrienne Kennedy.” This past October we sat down to chat for BOMB.

Suzan-Lori Parks Signature Theater is doing all of your plays this year. How did you all meet up?

Adrienne Kennedy Edward Albee, who was the first producer of Funnyhouse of a Negro, gave it to James Houghton who called me up last spring and told me that he’d been reading my plays for the first time. Jim asked where I lived, would I be interested in doing something … They don’t like to do people who live out of town, they want you to be involved in it. So he said, “We’re thinking about this.” But I got awfully, awfully excited. And he called me two or three weeks later with a formal proposal—by that time I had become glad thinking it wasn’t going to happen, because I’m really frightened of productions.

SLP Why?

AK I’ve had a lot of experiences that weren’t up to my expectations. Very often I’m not in New York for the production period. I wasn’t here when Joe Papp did my plays, I came for the last week. I was living in London. And when Ellen Stewart did my plays I never went to rehearsals. Seth Allen didn’t even want me to come—I worked a lot with Joe Chaiken when we first did A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, but most often I go to colleges to see my plays … I’m really not a part of it. I love being a writer—but I can’t say I love being a playwright.

SLP Why?

AK I feel that God gave me a gift to create what I call “little scenes,” I really mean that, I’m not trying to denigrate them. I can create little scenes on paper. But I’ve always found getting involved in a production very difficult and often a tremendous let down.

SLP Being in rehearsals isn’t my favorite thing either. I’m not a “theater person.” Some people love it, but …

AK That’s exactly how I feel. I took a lot of writing courses when I was in my twenties: novels, stories, poems. I worked very hard at all of them—but it just so happened that it was my plays that got the most praise. In any case, Signature is an excellent, dedicated team of young people. Several years ago James Houghton had this very powerful idea of doing a season of one person’s plays and apparently it’s won them a multitude of awards and prizes. But even though I consider it a blessing to have four plays done back to back, I find it very fearsome, and frankly I’ll be happy when it’s over. I have a feeling of foreboding because I don’t know what’s going to happen between now and the time that it is over.

SLP Bad review-wise, or production-wise?

AK Some reversal. I’ve become secure with these academics, who for 20 years or more have been xeroxing my old plays and teaching them to their students in universities. For better or worse—that suits me better, temperamentally, than facing the New York critics. Maybe I’ll go to one production at Stanford or something, and I have made peace with that. I really owe whatever career I have to these loyal academics who have always been producing my work in the universities.

SLP Like Johnny Appleseed, they’ve taken your work out into the world and introduced a lot of young people and theater companies to it.

AK Yes. And also it doesn’t have the same element of the unknown to it, all the variables one encounters in having the plays done in New York.

SLP It was an academic who introduced me to your work—Mary McHenry at Mount Holyoke College. I was walking down the hall and she came out of her office and held out her arm as if I were a train and she held a mail bag and I just walked by and took from her hand a copy ofFunnyhouse of a Negro and just kept walking and I thought, Funnyhouse of a Negro, what the hell is this anyway?

(From Funnyhouse of a Negro.)

When they first married they lived in New York. Then they went to Africa where my mother fell out of love with my father. She didn’t want him to save the black race and spent her days combing her hair. She would not let him touch her in their wedding bed and called him black. He is black of skin with dark eyes and a great dark square brow. Then in Africa he started to drink and came home drunk one night and raped my mother. I clung to my mother. Long after she went to the asylum I wove long dreams of her beauty, her straight hair and fair skin and grey eyes, so identical to mine. How it anguished him. I turned from him, nailing him on the cross, he said, dragging him through grass and nailing him on a cross until he bled. He pleaded with me to help him find Genesis, search for Genesis in the midst of golden savannas, nim and white frankopenny trees and white stallions roaming under a blue sky, help him search for the white doves, he wanted the black man to make a pure statement, he wanted the black man to rise from colonialism. But I sat in the room with my mother, sat by her bedside and helped her comb her straight black hair and wove long dreams of her beauty. She had long since begun to curse the place and spoke of herself trapped in blackness. She preferred the company of night owls. Only at night did she rise, walking in the garden among the trees with the owls. When I spoke to her she saw I was a black man’s child and she preferred speaking to owls. Nights my father came home from his school in the village struggling to embrace me. But I fled and hid under my mother’s bed while she screamed of remorse. Her hair was falling badly and after a while we had to return to this country.
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Ellen Bethea as “Negro Sarah” and Cleve Lamison as “Jesus” in a scene from The Signature Theater Company production of Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro. Photo by Susan Johann.

SLP A person who’s new to theater can read your work and think: I can do anything I want. That’s what your plays did for me. I can do with theater what I think needs to be done—it’s liberating. It’s a profound experience. Why did you start writing plays?

AK I always wrote plays of sorts, little scenes about what was happening. I basically picked on my family, what was happening in school. I saw our house as a stage. When we’d have dinner, I’d go upstairs and write what we said. And then I saw The Glass Menagerie when I was about 15. It was at the beginning of the summer, and I came home from The Glass Menagerie and started to write a play about our family. I have no idea what it was about, I threw it away. But in the meantime, coincidentally, my high school homeroom was the drama room—it had all the Samuel French editions, and a stage. So I decided to take a drama course. The drama teacher, Eugene C. Davis, used to go to New York every summer for two weeks, and he would come back to tell us all about the plays. He would say things like, “One day I saw Tallulah Bankhead walking down Fifth Avenue,” and we were just, Ahh! You know, this is Cleveland—this is Ohio.

SLP Right.

AK And I was quite taken with it. Even when I was in high school I wrote stories and sent them off to Seventeen magazine. When I came to New York with my husband, he was a student at Columbia and busy all the time, we were always meeting people who were doing interesting things … I decided I would take a course in playwrighting. And my drama teacher at The New School told the class I’d written the best play. There were about 100 people in the class, and she said that I’d written the best play. That played a huge role.

SLP What keeps you going? You talk about the professors, the academics around the country who introduce students to your work …

AK Oh, I am just compelled to write scenes about what I think is going on in life. That’s all. I’m just compelled to do it. I teach, that’s how I earn my living, so my writing—other than grants—doesn’t make me money. Apparently, I just love to do this.

SLP You said the first plays you wrote were about your family. You took advantage of them …

AK You shouldn’t say I took advantage of them. You can say I was engrossed by my family.

SLP You were engrossed by them and engrossed them into your plays.

AK My mother was very pretty and she and my father were very dramatic. They always said that I was dramatic. They always said that. So the forces all came together. They were so intriguing—I was captivated by their friends and their stories, by the towns they came from in Georgia, and by the fact that they all went to school in Atlanta. I was mesmerized by them. And I still admire—I have a feeling I like people from that generation better than my generation. I love to hear my father tell stories about Morehouse, my mother’s stories about Atlanta University. I visited their home town every summer of my life, Montezuma—

SLP That’s a beautiful name.

AK That town has a mythic quality to it. It has that red sand and the cornfields, all those white buildings.

SLP I had the chance to see the two plays, Funnyhouse of a Negro and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, by Signature, and I was impressed and struck by your use of biography. I’m interested in how history spews out biography. You use the idea of life story. But I’m also aware that life story, or biography, means different things to different people, it’s not a clear cut, easily defined thing. And I wondered how …

AK How I use biography?

SLP Well, telling a story of someone’s life, or telling the story of your own life, your autobiography.

AK Suzan-Lori, I have to totally credit that to my mother. There were two children. I was the only girl. And she just always talked to me. She would tell me things that happened to her … her dreams, her past … it’s like the monologues in my plays, it really is. Because her stories were loaded with imagery and tragedy, darkness and sarcasm and humor. She could describe a day when she was sitting on her porch in Georgia and what happened … and my father always gave speeches about the cause, the Negro cause. So, there is no doubt in my mind that I try to merge those two things. I’m genuinely fascinated and I will always be—by that pool of stories I heard when I was growing up.

SLP But supposedly black people don’t tell things. I’m fascinated by the tension: the pool of stories, and yet all those things that aren’t told. All those things that aren’t talked about …

AK The secrets.

SLP Because we could set the race back 10 years or something or we don’t want to admit that that kind of thing went on in our family too, there are people who just aren’t spoken about completely. I’m fascinated by that tension.

(From A Movie Star has to Star in Black and White.)

JEAN PETERS. When my brother was in the army in Germany, he was involved in a prank and was court-martialled. He won’t talk about it. I went to visit him in the stockade.
It was in a Quonset hut in New Jersey.
His head was shaven and he didn’t have on any shoes. He has a vein that runs down his forehead and large brown eyes. When he was in high school he was in All City track in the 22 dash. We all thought he was going to be a great athlete. His dream was the Olympics. After high school he went to several colleges and left them; Morehouse (where my father went), Ohio State (where I went), and Western Reserve. I’m a failure he said. I can’t make it in those schools. I’m tired. He suddenly joined the army.
After Wally left the army he worked nights as an orderly in hospitals; he liked the mental wards. For a few years every fall he started to school but dropped out after a few months. He and his wife married right before he was sent to Germany. He met her at Western Reserve and she graduated cum laude while he was a prisoner in the stockade.

AK Obviously, there’s a lot of fiction, because there has to be. There’s a lot of fiction in everything I write in order to make it compelling. Very often I buoy up the secrets, like most writers. I loved nothing better than to hear my mother on the telephone, voice dropped to a whisper …

SLP Right, right.

AK And sometimes she would tell me what the whisper was about. And I became truly fascinated by what our community was always whispering about. These were all civic leaders, or teachers, a rather stable group of people who my parents knew since about 1935—so I definitely became fascinated by all their secrets. And very often my mother would tell them to me.

SLP You have your immediate family, and then you have what I call your extended family, in Hollywood—the Hollywood stars. Their ghosts are still out there. A lot of them are on hiatus but …

AK They haven’t been in a movie in a while …

SLP I remember, I loved when we met in California.

AK I was so happy.

SLP We went to Universal Studios. That was so much fun for me, to watch you interact with these …

AK These ghosts.

SLP Yes. These ghosts of Hollywood.

AK I have no idea why I fell so in love with the movies. I guess it was so common. All of my childhood friends were in love with them, we’d see the double feature on Saturdays. I could spend days being a character. And then my mother was crazy about them. She took drama lessons when she was at Atlanta University and she always talked about that so fondly. She was so enamored with all those people: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers. If I’d had my druthers, I would have loved to have been a movie star, a ’40s movie star!

SLP They had the best clothes.

AK Their outfits! Thulani Davis and I were talking and she said, “They got to wear cocktail dresses in the daytime.”

SLP And those shoes, their hair! But at the same time, there weren’t any black movie stars … I mean, to fall in love with being a ‘40s movie star is to fall in love with something that didn’t include who you are.

AK As a child, I was blinded to that.

SLP I think it’s puberty or adolescence when you realize, my hair!

AK I was blinded to that, too. But I’m still totally crazy about that particular period.

(From A Movie Star has to Star in Black and White.)

SCENE I
Movie music. On the deck of the ocean liner from Now Voyager are BETTE DAVIS and PAUL HENREID. They sit at a table slightly off stage center. BETTE DAVIS has on a large white summer hat and PAUL HENREID a dark summer suit. The light is romantic and glamorous. Beyond backstage left are deck chairs. It is bright sunlight on the deck.
BETTE DAVIS. (To Paul). June 1955.
When I have the baby I wonder will I turn into a river of blood and die? My mother almost died when I was born. I’ve always felt sad that I couldn’t have been an angel of mercy to my father and mother and saved them from their torment.
I used to hope when I was a little girl that one day I would rise above them, an angel with glowing wings and cover them with peace. But I failed. 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.
The one reality I wanted never came true … to be their angel of mercy to unite them. I keep remembering the time my mother threatened to kill my father with the shotgun. I keep remembering my father’s going away to marry a girl who talked to willow trees.

SLP You were saying that you don’t have friends in the theater because …

AK Well no, I never had a lot of friends in the theater even though I’ve lived basically in New York since 1955. I was always home taking care of the kids, staying up late at night writing, trying to balance all these things: going to the supermarket, cooking dinner, and writing … So I never had a chance to go to all the events. I would submit my things to people, and then I started to teach. It was so hard for me to learn to teach. My plays seem to be more like poems, they have a following—but there’s never been any real income in them so I had to learn how to teach. And I was such a quiet person, to learn how to do that was very, very difficult. I feel like I’ve always been under a lot of pressure. But I don’t know what an alternative would have been. I didn’t even start to teach until I was 42, 43. And at that time, a lot of the students were my older son Joe’s age. So, very often I enjoyed the fact that I was in his world. I was learning about his world quite a bit.

SLP Did you write a play recently about him?

AK That’s Adam.

SLP So you have Joe and Adam. The play’s Sleep Deprivation Chamber. That’s a beautiful title. What’s it about?

AK This is the day of the O.J. Simpson verdict, so this seems strange—but Adam was beat up by a policeman about four years ago. He had a tail light out on his car. So we got mixed up with the criminal justice system, I don’t even want to talk about it. But that’s what the play is about. We based it on his case. And of course fictionalized it. He was in his own front yard and the policeman beat him up and then charged him with assault and battery. Which is very common. They do that all the time.

SLP They charge you with something because they have to charge you with something.

AK Yes. So the play is … that’s what it’s about.

SLP (pause) I could ask about O.J. now.

AK Well … I feel that O.J. was madly in love with Nicole and she was getting away from him and he killed her. I do believe that. I would love it if a person like that would say, “Yes, I was madly in love, and I killed her,” and go to an institution for five or six years on the grounds of insanity … He still has to face his children. He has to, somehow, face his children. He had so many dark, so many other personalities. Very smart man, very successful man.

SLP A very smart man.

AK But I felt sorry for his mother. I always feel sorry for the mothers.

SLP You’re two completely different people. You’ve got an L.A. persona and a New York City persona. How come?

AK (laughter) Oh those two different people …

SLP Yes—what other people are there?

AK I thought you meant I was the quiet person who doesn’t say much, and then the person who writes these plays.

SLP Well that’s true …

AK People told me when I was teaching at Berkeley, that I was so much more relaxed. I wore light-colored clothes, I always went out to lunch and dinner with people. And people said, “You should live here.” I taught at Berkeley off and on for a long time. I always think I might go back to Berkeley, maybe in several years. But I couldn’t write there. I was totally relaxed there and I’m seldom relaxed in New York. Are you relaxed in New York?

SLP I’m able to write in New York. I’m not relaxed when I’m away from home. I’m never relaxed. But I can flip into this mode of calm … I can get by.

AK See, I felt relaxed in California. I used to daydream about living in Santa Monica. This is a long time before it was chic, or expensive. When I was in California my asthma went away, I didn’t have high blood pressure. But yet, I can’t write in California.

SLP One needs a certain amount of excitement or dramatic tension. Jell-O doesn’t hold together for no reason. It’s like surface tension on a lake. Electricity and all those things are happening.

AK Well, no matter how many places I’ve gone to live, I return to the Upper West Side. I particularly love the winter light. I’m able to really write there. And I love the architecture of New York in general. The architecture. I feel I’m immersed in … really profound history. It inspires me. There’s this tremendous body of artists who have lived here.

SLP And what are you working on now?

AK I’m just working on some stories, some stories.

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BOMB 54, Winter 1996

Featuring interviews with Patti Smith, Peter Carey, Mike Figgis, Lawrence Weiner, Sharon Olds, Kiki Smith, Ridge Theater, Oliver Herring, Adrienne Kennedy, and Shu Lea Cheang.

Read the issue
Issue 54 054  Winter 1996