Adrienne Kennedy

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Adrienne Kennedy
Born (1931-09-13) September 13, 1931 (age 84)
Pittsburgh, United States
Occupation Playwright, Professor
Nationality American
Literary movement Black Arts Movement

Adrienne Kennedy is an African-American playwright.[1] She is best known for her first major play Funnyhouse of a Negro.[2]

Kennedy has been a force in American theater since the early 1960s, influencing generations of playwrights with her hauntingly fragmentary lyrical dramas. Exploring the violence racism visits upon people’s lives, Kennedy’s plays express poetic alienation, transcending the particulars of character and plot through ritualistic repetition and radical structural experimentation. The Adrienne Kennedy Reader is the first comprehensive collection of works by one of our greatest living playwrights. Many of Kennedy's plays explore issues of race, kinship, and violence in American society, and many of her works are "autobiographically inspired."[3] In 1995, critic Michael Feingold of the Village Voice declared that "with Beckett gone, Adrienne Kennedy is probably the boldest artist now writing for the theater."[4]

Kennedy is noted for the use of surrealism in her plays. Her plays are often plotless and symbolic, drawing on mythical, historical and imaginary figures to depict and explore the American experience.[5] New York Times critic Clive Barnes noted that "While almost every black playwright in the country is fundamentally concerned with realism—LeRoi Jones and Ed Bullins at times have something different going but even their symbolism is straightforward stuff—Miss Kennedy is weaving some kind of dramatic fabric of poetry."[6]


Adrienne Kennedy was born Adrienne Lita Hawkins on September 13. 1931 in Pittsburgh, PA. Her mother Etta Hawkins was a teacher and her father Cornell Wallace Hawkins was a social worker. She spent most of her childhood in Cleveland, Ohio. She grew up in an integrated neighborhood and didn’t face many prejudices until her college years at Ohio State University. As a child she spent most of her time reading books like Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden. She often enjoyed spending time reading instead of engaging in games many other children enjoyed. She admired and crushed on actors like Orson Welles. Not until her teen years did she begin to enjoy and focus more on plays. One of the first plays she saw was The Glass Menagerie. It was plays such as this that inspired Adrienne to explore her passions for playwriting.

When she went to Ohio State University her interest in playwriting continued. Eventually she met and married Joseph Kennedy,[7] with whom she had two children, Joseph Jr. and Adam. When her husband went off to fight in the Vietnam War while she was pregnant, she was able to write her first play. Her first produced play was Funnyhouse of a Negro. Most of Adrienne’s work was based on her experience. Lovalerie King said Kennedy’s plays “featured nonlinear narratives, dramatic and surrealistic imagery, split characters who existed in dreamlike states, fragmented formats, and unconventional plots."[citation needed] Her routine use of poetic and buoyant language, pregnant with multiple levels of meaning, makes Kennedy a deliberate master of the verbal metaphor. She combines elements of expressionism with a verbal fluidity to evoke a series of profound and provocative effects. Critics of Kennedy's work must be attuned to a variety of critical approaches and traditions to accurately assess her value to the theatrical community”.[citation needed]

She was later a founding member of the Women’s Theatre Council in 1971. She won several awards for her plays including two Village Voice Obie Awards. She wrote thirteen published plays, five unpublished, several autobiographies, a novella and a short story. She also wrote under aliases like Adrienne Cornell. She got her bachelor's degree at Ohio State University for education but also got a degree at Columbia University. She and her husband moved to England and eventually divorced. She currently lectures at Yale University, Princeton University, University of California, Berkeley and University of California, Davis.

Awards and honors[edit]

Ms. Kennedy has won two Obie Awards: "Distinguished Play" in 1964 for Funnyhouse of a Negro, and "Best new American Play" in 1996 for June and Jean in Concert and Sleep Deprivation Chamber. In 1994 she won both the Lila Wallace—Reader's Digest Writers' Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Literature Award. She was also granted a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing (1967), two Rockefeller Foundation Grants (1967 & 1970), a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1972), the Creative Artists Public Service grant in 1974, the 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, and the Pierre Lecomte du Novy Award[1][8][9] In 2006, Kennedy received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award as a Master American Dramatist.

Kennedy was playwright-in-residence at the Signature Theatre in New York City during their 1996-1997 season.[10] Seven of her plays were performed during her residency.

In 2003, Ms. Kennedy was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Literature by her undergraduate alma mater, the Ohio State University.[9]

Ms. Kennedy was honored at the 2008 Obie Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Alexander Plays[edit]

Suzanne Alexander is a recurring character in several of Kennedy's plays. She Talks to Beethoven, The Ohio State Murders, The Film Club, and The Dramatic Circle are collectively known as the Alexander Plays,[11] and were published together under that title in 1992. Also published in 1992 was a letter written from Suzanne Alexander's perspective, "Letter to My Students on My Sixty-First Birthday by Suzanne Alexander". The Alexander plays are characterized by less overt surrealism than many of Kennedy's earlier works, but still avoid linear narrative. In the foreword to the printed collection of plays, Alisa Solomon writes "the action of these plays is made up not of the events of Suzanne's life but of the process of turning memory into meaning."[12]



  • Funnyhouse of a Negro, 1964
  • The Owl Answers, 1965
  • A Rat's Mass, 1967 (revised as an improvisational jazz opera A Rat's Mass/Procession in Shout in 1976)
  • The Lennon play: In His Own Write (Adapted from John Lennon's In his own write and A Spaniard in the Works; with Victor Spinetti), 1967
  • A Beast's Story, 1969 (produced with The Owl Answers under the title Cities in Bezique)
  • Boats, 1969
  • Sun (monologue), 1969
  • A Lesson in Dead Language, 1968
  • Electra and Orestes (adapted from the plays by Euripedes), 1972
  • An Evening with Dead Essex (one-act documentary drama), 1972
  • A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, 1976
  • A Lancashire Lad (children's musical), 1980
  • Black Children's Day (children's play), 1980
  • Diary of Lights ("A Musical Without Songs"), 1987
  • She Talks to Beethoven (one-act play, later collected as part of The Alexander Plays), 1989
  • The Ohio State Murders (one-act play, later collected as part of The Alexander Plays), 1992
  • The Film Club (A Monologue by Suzanne Alexander), published 1992
  • The Dramatic Circle (radio play based on the events in the monologue The Film Club; published in 1994 in Moon Marked and Touched By Sun: plays by African-American women, edited by Sydné Mahone), 1992
  • Motherhood 2000 (single scene short play), 1994
  • June and Jean in Concert (play version of Kennedy's book People Who Led to My Plays), 1995
  • Sleep Deprivation Chamber (with her son, Adam Kennedy), 1996
  • Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles? (with Adam Kennedy), 2008

Other Works[edit]

  • "Because of the King of France", 1960
  • People Who Led to My Plays (memoir), 1987
  • Deadly Triplets (novella), 1990
  • "Letter to My Students on My Sixty-First Birthday by Suzanne Alexander" (essay), 1992
  • "Secret Paragraphs about My Brother" (essay), 1996
  • "A Letter to Flowers" (essay), 1998
  • "Sisters Etta and Ella (excerpt from a narrative)", 1999
  • "Grendel and Grendel's Mother" (essay), 1999


  1. ^ a b Peterson, Jane T. and Suzanne Bennett. "Adrienne Kennedy." Women Playwrights of Diversity. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. 201-205.
  2. ^ Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. "Biographical Sketch". Adrienne Kennedy: An Inventory of Her Papers at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. University of Texas at Austin.
  3. ^ Sollors, Werner. "Introduction." The Adrienne Kennedy Reader. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. vii. (An adaptation of the introduction is available online.)
  4. ^ Feingold, Michael. "Blaxpressionism." Village Voice. October 3, 1995. 93.
  5. ^ Wilkerson, Margaret B. "Adrienne Kennedy." Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers. Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography vol 38. Detroit: Gale, 1985. 163.
  6. ^ Barnes, Clive. "'A Rat's Mass' Weaves Drama of Poetic Fabric" New York Times. Nov 1, 1969. 39.
  7. ^ Hilton Als (January 2014). "Girl Talk: La Mama celebrates the pioneering work of Adrienne Kennedy". Conde Nast. Retrieved 23 January 2014. . . . marriage, in 1953, to Joseph Kennedy, a professor . . . 
  8. ^ Wilkerson, Margaret B. "Adrienne Kennedy." Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers. Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, eds. Dictionary of Literary Biography vol 38. Detroit: Gale, 1985. 168.
  9. ^ a b "Ohio State honors six at spring 2003 commencement". Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University, June 5, 2003.
  10. ^ Kennedy, Adrienne; Parks, Suzan-Lori (Winter 1996), "Adrienne Kennedy [interview]", BOMB Magazine (54)  External link in |work= (help)
  11. ^ Lovalerie King (2002). "African American Literature Adrienne Kennedy". The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 23 November 2013. 
  12. ^ Solomon, Alisa. "Foreword", The Alexander Plays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992. xvi.

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