by Angela White
In the late 1960s the Black Arts Movement sprung out of the Black Power Movement. The ideals of the Black Power Movement distinguished African Americans as a different breed of Americans than whites. Blacks created their own subnation within the United States because of their African roots. Further, black artists were urged to include these roots in their aesthetic and reject the ideals of white society in their art (Neal 29). The pressure to incorporate this type of aesthetic became somewhat of a barrier for Adrienne Kennedy’s 1964 Obie award-winning play, Funnyhouse of a Negro.
In the play, the African American identity of the main character, Sarah, is ambiguous. In her mind she views the standards of white society as good, and black standards as evil. Sarah’s view did not conform to the Black Power Movement’s message at all, and illustrates the root of the play’s struggles within the context of the Black Arts Movement. Some of Kennedy’s personal experiences provide a basis for the distorted images of race and power that are present in Sarah’s psyche and create the illusion of a “funnyhouse.”
In the play, Kennedy inserts many symbols of white society to paint a portrait of the identity struggle that Sarah endures. Her bedroom, where most of the play takes place, is also used to depict the inside of Sarah’s mind. Kennedy notes that she has a statue of Queen Victoria next to her bed (Kennedy 562). Queen Victoria is one of Sarah’s inner selves who interacts in her room at various points throughout the play. Kennedy was enraptured by a statue of Queen Victoria that she had seen in London because she was “a woman who had dominated an age” (Wilkerson 126). The Queen’s statue in Sarah’s room represents not only whiteness, but power, and not only power, but female power.
As a young African-American woman, Sarah feels conflicted because she lives in a world where she has been taught everything that is good is white. She says, “Victoria always wants me to tell her of whiteness…of a royal world where everything and everyone is white” (Kennedy 563). Because of the shame of her blackness, Sarah harbors hatred toward herself and her heritage. “[S]he sees herself irredeemably tainted” (Barnett 155), and Kennedy expresses that tainted image through the symbolism on stage. She chooses to frame the scenes with silk curtains that are pale and look as if they had been gnawed on by rats (Kennedy 562). On the bed in Sarah’s room her female selves, the Duchess and Queen Victoria, are wearing gowns that resemble the same dingy white shade as the curtains. Kennedy also notes the lighting on stage is “unreal and ugly” (Kennedy 562). These stage elements express the distorted image of whiteness Sarah sees within herself.
All of the distorted images associated with her selves stem from Sarah feeling plagued by her black roots. She describes her father as a “wild black beast” that has haunted her since her conception (Kennedy 562). “I am tied to the black Negro” she says, “He came when I was a child…haunted my conception, diseased my birth” (Kennedy 562). She claims that her father, “the blackest one of them all,” raped her mother, who “looked like a white woman,” making his blackness her curse (Kennedy 562). One of her male selves, an African named Patrice Lumumba, describes her as “a nigger of two generations” and claims that her dream to live in rooms with European antiques is her “nigger dream” (Kennedy 565). The polarization of Lumumba’s comments further illustrates the fragments within Sarah’s character.
The disturbing elements in Sarah’s psyche established connections between black and white histories that went against the aesthetic of the Black Arts Movement. In his book Understanding Adrienne Kennedy, Philip C. Kolin quoted a notable critic named Clive Barnes who said, “Of all our black writers, Kennedy is most concerned with white, with white relationships, with white blood. She thinks black, but she remembers white. It gives her work an eddying ambiguity” (Kolin 3). Reactions like this reflect Kennedy’s role as a writer. She often steered away from groups like the Black Arts Movement, which she would have been expected to join. When she was questioned on the subject in an interview, Kennedy claimed that “People wanted me to be part of the movement but, frankly, I was always at home with my children. So apart from my temperament, the hours didn’t exist” (Betsko 571). This statement is reflective of an emerging female attitude within the Black Arts Movement. The female perspective within the movement sparked an interest in art that encompassed this point of view.
The Black Arts Movement affected black men and black women differently, which came to light during the rise of black literature. Black women’s literature grew from within the Black Arts Movement but was sometimes critical of the male dominated ideals that it reflected (Salaam 57). Black women’s literature taught that real power was not in political power, but in human relationships, whether they exist on a family level, or extended into the community (Salaam 57).
In Funnyhouse, Sarah’s family and community are the source of her inner torture. Her selves are black and white figures who all have “wild kinky hair” (Kennedy 562). Throughout the course of the play, all of her selves begin to rapidly lose their hair because of their tainted image (Kennedy 566). In the second to last scene, two of Sarah’s selves, a hunchbacked Jesus and the Duchess, begin to lose more of their hair. “Our father isn’t going to let us alone, our father is the darkest of us all,” they say (Kennedy 566). Sarah’s father’s presence is represented on the stage by a consistent knocking that Kennedy emphasizes in the stage directions by stating that “the KNOCKING does not cease” (Kennedy 566). There is an element of expressionism present in her father’s persistent knocking because it evokes an element of Sarah’s psyche that is not physically on stage, yet very present through the action surrounding it in Sarah’s mind. The hair loss symbolically links Sarah’s African roots to her destiny.
In addition to inner conflicts with black and white images, Sarah also has an outer conflict with her white boyfriend Raymond, who lives upstairs from the “Negro’s room” in the funny house (Kennedy 564). Raymond basically watches Sarah suffer. He does not understand her and he feels that the stories she tells of her father are not true. He calls her a “funny little liar” (Kennedy 567). In an article printed for the Theatre Journal in 1996, Claudia Barnett claims that, “To him she is an oddity to be observed from a distance, a distance which he maintains in place of grief” (Barnett 145-46). But Raymond’s distance only serves as another element of opposition within Sarah’s psyche, and ultimately leads her to hang herself in her room (Kennedy 567).
The absurdly grim images that Kennedy uses to distort race and power in Funnyhouse can be attributed to her own upbringing. Much of the dark influence in the play comes from her mother, a schoolteacher who stayed home with her until age eleven (Kolin 12). She was a major influence in her style of writing. Kennedy says, “My mother always talked to me. She would tell things that happened to her…her dreams, her past…it’s like the monologues in my plays, it really is (Kolin 13). Her mother’s stories were filled with tragedy, darkness, sarcasm, and humor, so the ominous characters in Funnyhouse speak to the audience from within a twisted memory where Sarah’s black roots, sex, and education are all factors that make her an outcast. The idea of being an outcast is something that Kennedy also experienced as a young writer, and as a result, she created a work in which blackness, femaleness, and education are all factors that reflect her own truth.
Growing up, Kennedy’s father was a social worker and political activist who worked with the NAACP (Kolin 10). In Kolin’s book, Kennedy is quoted as saying, “I grew up in a house where people wrote and were members of the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund. I knew my alliances” (Kolin 10). During a trip to Africa with her husband, Kennedy became aware of a whole new aesthetic to her writing that connected these roots of activism to her African history (Betsko 571).
One connection that could be made between Kennedy’s male influences and Sarah’s character is one of her male selves, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was a political activist and the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa. He pushed for unity along ethnic and regional lines but was assassinated shortly after being forced out of office (Patrice). Kennedy claims that “There was no doubt that Lumumba, this murdered hero, was merged in my mind with my father” (Kolin 12). The connection between Lumumba’s pan-African activism and the community outreach that Kennedy’s father illustrated, explains part of the root of the black male figures in Funnyhouse and their need to represent action on behalf of the race.
There is an underlying text within the play that displays the black man’s need to represent the race, while never being able to truly take action. The Barnett article claims that “[t]hese truths coexist as funnyhouse mirrors, falsely contextualizing one another within their destabilized universe-a universe which ironically mirrors our own” (Barnett 155). This is why Sarah tells two different versions of her father’s death, and why her father keeps returning to see her when he is supposed to be away in the jungle finishing Lumumba’s work. Through the funhouse mirrors, it becomes impossible to determine what is true and what is not. Since Sarah’s psyche is unable to establish the existence of a singular truth, the contradictions of the opposite ideals are what lead to her ultimate demise.
In Funnyhouse of a Negro, Kennedy used expressionism as a means to take the mind into social, psychological and political realms. She also went against the typical aesthetic of a black artist during the Black Arts Movement. By using the ideals of white society to illustrate the absurdity of an ideal identity, Kennedy was able to convey her own message, which made her a vital part of black women’s literature and the movement as a whole.
Barnett, Claudia. “‘This Fundamental Challenge To Identity’: Reproduction and Representation in the Drama of Adrienne Kennedy.” Theatre Journal 48.2 (May, 1996): 141-155. JSTOR. Web. 26 Oct. 2012.
Betsko, Kathleen, and Rachel Koenig. Interview with Adrienne Kennedy. Modern Drama. Fort Worth: Harcourt & Brace, 1995. 568-74. Print.
Brown, Lorraine A. “‘For the Characters are Myself’: Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro.” Negro American Literature Forum 9.3 (Autumn, 1975): 86-88. JSTOR. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.
Kennedy, Adrienne. “Funnyhouse of a Negro.” Modern Drama: Plays, Criticism, Theory. By W. B. Worthen. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA: Heinle & Heinle Pub., 2002. 568-74. Print.
Kolin, Philip C. Understanding Adrienne Kennedy. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2005. 1-21. Print.
Neal, Larry. “The Black Arts Movement.” The Drama Review 12.4. (Summer, 1968): 28-39. JSTOR. Web. 8 Nov. 2012.
“Patrice Lumumba.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2012. Web. 1 Dec. 2012.
Salaam, Kalamu Ya. “A Primer of the Black Arts Movement: Excerpts from the Magic of Juju: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement.” Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, (2002): 40-58. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 Nov. 2012.
Wilkerson, Margaret B. “Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory; People Who Led to My Plays by Adrienne Kennedy; Totem Voices: Plays from the BlackWorld Repertory by Paul Carter Harrison.” Theatre Journal 43.1 (Mar., 1991): 125-128. JSTOR. Web. 5 November 2012.