Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Playwright Adrienne Kennedy, born in Pittsburgh, is best known for Funnyhouse of a Negro.
Adrienne Kennedy was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1931. She spent her childhood and adolescence in a diverse neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. Educated at the Ohio State University, Kennedy spent much of her adult life traveling Europe and Africa and writing plays. Her most renowned work, Funnyhouse of a Negro was produced in 1962 by Edward Albee. Her inventive and unique style has made her a well-known African-American playwright, known for exploring cultural and personal conflicts with poetic imagery and vivid language.
Adrienne Kennedy was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as Adrienne Lita Hawkins to Cornell Wallace Hawkins and Etta Haugabook Hawkins. At age four, her family moved to Cleveland, Ohio where she was raised in a diverse, middle-class neighborhood. Her father, a graduate from Morehouse College in Atlanta, was executive secretary of the YMCA and an important community leader. Her mother graduated from Spelman College, also in Atlanta, and worked as a teacher. They raised their two children in a supportive and encouraging atmosphere, urging them to be competitive and ambitious. This helped Kennedy develop into a woman full of confidence and high expectations for herself. Growing up in a highly integrated neighborhood also led to her firm belief that people of different races could live together harmoniously. Kennedy was also highly gifted, even as a child, learning to read at only age three.
The integrated neighborhood in Cleveland left her largely unprepared for the environment she encountered when she matriculated at the Ohio State University. The atmosphere of the university was one of segregation and racial intolerance. This caused Kennedy to have a strong hatred for prejudice and racism, a disposition that is evident in many of her works. While at Ohio State University, Kennedy received her degree in elementary education and also met her future husband. Two weeks after graduation, on May 15, 1953, Kennedy married Joseph C. Kennedy.
Six months into their marriage, Kennedy’s husband, Joseph was sent by the U.S. Army to Korea. A pregnant Kennedy then moved back in with her parents while her husband was away. This is when Kennedy first began her pursuit of playwriting. Her first two plays were based on the work of other playwrights, one based on Elmer Rice’s Street Scene, another titled Pale Blue Flowers; was based on Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. However, this work received little attention from the literary community. When Joseph returned from Korea, the couple moved to New York where Joseph continued his studies at Columbia Teacher’s University while Adrienne studied creative writing at Columbia University, the American Theatre Wing and Circle-in-the-Square School.
After moving their family to Africa, Kennedy began work on her most well-known play, Funnyhouse of a Negro. The play was eventually finished while Kennedy was living in Italy during her pregnancy with her second son, Adam. The protagonist of the play is a young black woman, Sara, who becomes tormented by personifications of her inner “selves.” Sara is in constant fear of a father/husband figure, Patrice Lumumba (a rebel leader in what is now the Democratic People’s Republic of the Congo), who is haunted by an inability to deal with his blackness and so surrounds himself with white friends and associates. Confused by the ambiguity of her own blackness, Sara hangs herself at the end of the play. Hoping to have her play professionally produced, Kennedy submitted the manuscript to Edward Albee’s Playwrights Workshop. Albee chose to present the play in the workshop using some of the best actors of the time. This was an important step for Kennedy since this was her first play to be professionally produced and Albee was considered to be one of the most gifted playwrights of the time.
This play established Kennedy as a talented playwright capable of employing vivid imagery and fantasy in her work. Kennedy’s works demonstrate her unique vision of theatre production. Kennedy often used novel techniques in her plays, such as nontraditional music, characters transforming into other characters and characters being played by multiple actors. Although Albee and others praised the play for its rhythmic language and eloquent monologues, the play also received some negative criticisms by some who felt the play emphasized negative aspects of blackness. Even so, the play achieved great success, and in 1964, Albee produced the play at the East End Theatre in New York as part of the season’s off-Broadway productions where it was received with great excitement. Funnyhouse of a Negro created significant recognition for Kennedy, including being given the Obie Award (honoring the best play Off-Broadway in New York).
After having Funnyhouse of a Negro produced, Kennedy officially joined Albee’s Workshop to continue her career as a playwright. Kennedy continues to write and have her plays produced professionally to this day. She has received such recognition as Guggenheim Fellowships, NEA and Rockefeller Foundation grants. Also, in 1992 the mayor of Cleveland declared March 7 of that year as Adrienne Kennedy Day. That same year, the Great Lakes Theatre Company devoted a month to the celebration of her work. Kennedy has also been a visiting faculty member to teach creative writing at Yale University, Princeton University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of California at Davis. Her most recent (though currently unpublished) production has been Oedipus Rex 2001 which was produced by Hartford Stage. She is currently working on a collection of tales entitled, “Recollections of Writers and Theatre People.” This collection contains accounts of Kennedy’s experiences with famous figures, and is yet unpublished. As of 2011, Kennedy is working on her biography in collaboration with Margaret Wilkerson at the University of California at Berkeley, while also lecturing at various universities including Yale, Princeton and Berkley.
Kennedy’s plays are considered to be a strong reflection of her internal self. Her writing is in many ways an expression of her psychological frustrations. These frustrations often deal with cultural conflicts stemming from her experiences as a black woman and her international travels to Europe and Africa. She is also known for extensive use of symbols and metaphors to convey a deeper message to her audience. She draws on her own experiences as well as those of her friends and families to create rich characters and vivid story lines.
The Lennon Play: In His Own Write. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968.
Funnyhouse of a Negro. New York: Samuel French, 1969.
Cities in Bezique. New York: Samuel French, 1969.
A Rat’s Mass. Indianapolis: Bobbs, 1972.
A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984.
People Who Led to My Plays. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1986.
Deadly Triplets: A Theatre Mystery and Journal. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1990.
The Alexander Plays (She Talks to Beethoven, The Ohio State Murders, The Film Club, The Dramatic Circle). Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.
The Adrienne Kennedy Reader. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001.
Kennedy, Adrienne. The Alexander Plays. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.
Wilkerson, Margaret B. “Adrienne Kennedy.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers. Ed. Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris. Detroit: The Gale Group, 1985.