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  • Direction, Dreams, and Darkness
  • Brian Rhinehart (bio)

Adrienne Kennedy's first play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, was presented in a small black box theater called The East End Theatre in 1964, in New York City. Since then she has been continually lauded as one of the most important figures of American modernist theater. She's included in the ranks of playwrights like Baraka, Albee, and Shange, artists who radically altered the landscape of theater in the 1960s and 70s.

Kennedy has always rejected traditional play structure, with its expository form and linear and chronological build to a climax and denouement. The logic of her plays is always more associative than cause/effect because her plays employ the logic of dreams: ephemeral and unpredictable. Her plots are nebulous, without the aggressive push of progressive action; her characters are often dis-unified and multi-determined. Her plays are hallucinatory, packed with memories and fragments of lives—hers and others. The plays that made her an American theater icon introduced theatergoers to a unique, highly subjective world, the surreal landscape of Kennedy's internal life.

Rather than conventional realistic narratives, Kennedy uses resonant images to create powerful, deeply affecting dramas. Her plays are dark, spectral, and packed with memories and fragments of her life and those close to her. She constantly explores, confronts, and processes her own history, memories, dreams, recollections of thoughts, cultural inspirations, stories, and folk wisdom passed down for generations as well as deeply personal autobiographical details.

In her newest play, He Brought Her Heart Home in a Box, which premiered at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, Kennedy once again explores her complicated relationship with the South (past and present), her family, and her own history. The play is set in rural Georgia in the 1940s, in the fictional town of Montefiore, Georgia, and a full layout of Montefiore in miniature greets each audience member upon entering the theater.

The two protagonists, Kay, played by Juliana Canfield, and Chris, played by Tom Pecinka, meet backstage at a play, Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris(1953). They fall in love in this brief scene and are then separated by Chris leaving for New York City to become an actor. Both characters have white fathers who enjoy the pleasures of young black women. Kay is of mixed race. Chris's father is an architect and a Jim Crow segregationist, who designed the town to keep the races apart. A monumental hypocrite, he also built a cemetery and provided ornate headstones for the mothers of his illegitimate children. Kennedy puts a dummy representing Chris's father onstage throughout the play, thus keeping the presence of a racist Southern past (and present) onstage at all times. The mannequin stands up in the climax of the production, to execute the play's tragic conclusion.

There is a notable change in both form and content regarding Kennedy's dramatic approach in her latest play. Not only is there a shift toward a more conventional dramaturgy (in the narrative's inexorable progression to its tragic climax), but there is also a slight shift away from the strict interiority of her earlier plays, like Funnyhouse of a Negro(1964) and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White (1976), to a wider, more directly historical and political critique of race relations in America. In her New York Times interview in January 2018, she talks about her move to Virginia (six years ago) after living for so many years on the upper west side of Manhattan. She went there and felt, saw, and heard the same anti-black aggression that she had felt in the 1940s. In Virginia today, racial tension still runs high, as she openly states in her interview: "They seem to glorify slavery…. They have all these pageants. They really do seem to glorify that time."

One of the ways that Kennedy directly expresses her critique of the South then and now is in the hopelessness of the central couple's romantic situation. They can never be together because of the restrictions on mixed-race couples in the 1940s. The mélange of cultural allusions that Kennedy employs to reiterate and reinforce this...


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