American playwright Adrienne Kennedy has influenced the theater with complex, at times surrealist, work that centers Black women.
Who Is Adrienne Kennedy?
Playwright Adrienne Kennedy first gained attention with Funnyhouse of a Negro, which was produced off-Broadway in 1964. Kennedy’s plays usually do not rely on straightforward narratives, but rather utilize symbolism and dreamlike conditions to convey messages about racism, sexism, colonialism and other destructive forces. They have also incorporated her ownpersonal history andfeatured Black women as protagonists. In November 2021, it was announced that Kennedy’s 1990 play Ohio State Murders would appear on Broadway, which would be her Broadway debut.
Early Years and Education
Adrienne Kennedy was born as Adrienne Lita Hawkins in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 13, 1931, to Cornell Wallace, a social worker, and Etta, a teacher. Kennedy grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. During the summers, she and her brother would visit their parents’ hometown of Montezuma, Georgia. Going to Georgia meant traveling in segregated trains and living in the Jim Crow South. On a few occasions she met her white maternal grandfather, who owned the peach orchard where her then-15-year-old maternal grandmother had worked.
Kennedy studied elementary education at Ohio State University. Attending the school meant being surrounded by white students and experiencing discrimination, but she persevered and received her bachelor’s degree in 1953.
After college, Kennedy got married. She and her husband moved to New York City so he could attend Columbia University. Kennedy studied creative writing at several institutions, including Columbia University.
Kennedy’s plays draw on the past, both her own and outside events, while also addressing struggles involving race and sex. Instead of realistic storytelling, Kennedy often turns to metaphor and narrative fragments that can leave audiences reeling. As a playwright, she consistently centers Black women. Much of Kennedy’s oeuvre consists of one-act plays, but she has written longer works.
In 1960, Kennedy’s husband was awarded a grant that enabled the couple to go to Ghana. On the way there, Kennedy visited England, Spain and Morocco. Later, while her husband remained in Africa, Kennedy moved to Italy, where she completed the surreal one-act play Funnyhouse of a Negro. This work launched Kennedy’s career as a playwright.
The main character in Funnyhouse of a Negro is a schizophrenic woman, Sarah. Sarah grapples with her mixed-race heritage and past personal conflicts while encountering characters that include Congolese freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba and Queen Victoria.
Kennedy used Funnyhouse of a Negro as a writing sample to enroll in a workshop with Edward Albee. In 1964, Albee co-produced the debut off-Broadway staging of Funnyhouse of a Negro. Some audience members struggled to follow the fractured narrative, and the production closed after fewer than fifty performances. However, many attendees were impressed with Kennedy’s evocative work. She received an Obie, an award established to recognize off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway theater.
Kennedy’s first full-length play was The Lennon Play: In His Own Write (1967), adapted from John Lennon‘s writing. Another lauded full-length play by Kennedy was A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, produced by New York’s Public Theatre Workshop in 1976. Stars from Hollywood’s past, such as Bette Davis and Shelley Winters, join a Black woman named Clara in this play.
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A Kennedy play for children, A Lancashire Lad (1980), took inspiration from comedic actor Charlie Chaplin‘s youth. Another children’s play, Black Children’s Day (1980), incorporates some Rhode Island history. She also wrote a monologue called “Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder” (1968).
Ohio State Murders (1990) features a playwright character, Suzanne Alexander, who seems to be an alter ego for Kennedy. This alter-ego character reappeared in Sleep Deprivation Chamber (1996). Kennedy wrote Sleep Deprivation Chamber with her son Adam; it was based on his being beaten by police.
Sleep Deprivation Chamber premiered while Kennedy was a playwright in residence for the 1995-1996 season of the Signature Theatre Company in New York City. It received an Obie Award for Best New Play.
In 2018, a new Kennedy play, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, was produced. It focused on a tragic love affair between a Black woman and a white man in 1940s Georgia.
Other Writing and Publications
Kennedy’s first short story, “Because of the King of France,” was published in 1963. She has also written a memoir, People Who Led to My Plays (1987), and a novella, Deadly Triplets: A Theatre Mystery and Journal (1990).
Kennedy’s plays have been published in Adrienne Kennedy In One Act (1988), The Alexander Plays (1992), The Adrienne Kennedy Reader (2001) and He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box and Other Plays (2020).
Grants and Teaching
Kennedy was awarded a Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1967, and was a recipient of writing grants from the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1960s and ’70s. She also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Artists Public Service.
Kennedy said in a 1996 interview, “I teach, that’s how I earn my living, so my writing—other than grants—doesn’t make me money.” Over the course of her career, she has taught and lectured at universities including Yale Princeton and Brown, the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard and New York University.
Kennedy received 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. The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards gave Kennedy a lifetime achievement award in 2003. She received an Obie Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, and in 2018 was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. In 2021, Kennedy received another Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dramatists Guild of America.
Marriage and Children
Kennedy wed Joseph C. Kennedy in 1953. They had two sons, Joseph and Adam, before divorcing in 1966.