Adrienne Kennedy

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Adrienne Kennedy
Born (1931-09-13) September 13, 1931 (age 85)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
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 (1964).[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. 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]

Life and career[edit]

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, attending Cleveland Public schools.[7] 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 Kennedy to explore her passions for playwriting. When she went to Ohio State University in 1949, her interest in playwriting continued. She graduated from Ohio State with a B.A. in Education in 1953 and went on to study at Columbia University in 1954–56.[7] She married Joseph Kennedy on May 15, 1953.[7] They had two children, Joseph Jr. and Adam. The couple divorced in 1966.[8]

Kennedy's first produced play was Funnyhouse of a Negro, a one-act play written in 1960 that draws on Kennedy's African and European heritage as she explores a "black woman's psyche, riven by personal and inherited psychosis, at the root of which is the ambiguously double failure of both rapacious white society and its burdened yet also distorted victims."[9]

She has written 13 published plays, five unpublished plays, several autobiographies, a novella and a short story. Kennedy used the alias, Adrienne Cornell when she wrote the short story, "Because of the King of France." Most of Kennedy's work is based on her real-life experiences.[7]

Kennedy was a founding member of the Women's Theatre Council in 1971,a member of the board of directors of PEN (1976–77), and International Theatre Institute representative in Budapest in 1978.[7]

She won several awards for her plays including two Village Voice Obie Awards. In July 1995, she was named playwright in residence for the September 1995 through May 1996 season with the Signature Theater Company in New York.[10] Kennedy has taught or lectured at Yale University (1972–74), Princeton University (1977), Brown University (1979–1980), University of California, Berkeley (1986), Harvard University (1991), Stanford University, New York University, and University of California, Davis.[11][citation needed]

Awards and honors[edit]

Ms. Kennedy has won two Obie Awards: "Distinguished Play" in 1964 for Funnyhouse of a Negro,[12] and "Best New American Play" in 1996 for June and Jean in Concert and Sleep Deprivation Chamber.[13] She was also honored at the 2008 Obie Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award.[14] In 1994, she won both the Lila Wallace—Reader's Digest Writers' Award[15] and an American Academy of Arts and Letters in Literature Award.[16]

She was 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][17][18] In 2006, Kennedy received the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award as a Master American Dramatist.

In 2003, Kennedy was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Literature by her undergraduate alma mater, the Ohio State University.[18]

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,[19] 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, professor in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, 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."[20]


The papers of Adrienne Kennedy are held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection includes manuscript drafts of published and unpublished works, correspondence, production materials, and works about Kennedy that were sent to her by the authors.[21]



  • 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: A Play for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder (monologue), 1968
  • A Lesson in Dead Language, 1968
  • Electra and Orestes (adapted from the plays by Euripides), 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–Austin.
  3. ^ Sollors, Werner. "Introduction", The Adrienne Kennedy Reader, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001, p. vii.(An adaptation of the introduction is available online here)
  4. ^ Feingold, Michael. "Blaxpressionism." Village Voice, October 3, 1995, p. 93.
  5. ^ Wilkerson, Margaret B. "Adrienne Kennedy", in Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris (eds), Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers. Dictionary of Literary Biography vol 38. Detroit: Gale, 1985, p. 163.
  6. ^ Barnes, Clive. "'A Rat's Mass' Weaves Drama of Poetic Fabric", New York Times, November 1, 1969, p. 39.
  7. ^ a b c d e Andrews, William L., et al. "Adrienne Kennedy", in William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster and Trudier Harris (eds), The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, New York: Oxford, 1997. 418–19. Print.
  8. ^ Sternlicht, Sanford (2002). A Reader's Guide to Modern American Drama (1st ed.). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press. p. 171. ISBN 0815629397. 
  9. ^ Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., et al. "Adrienne Kennedy", in Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith (eds), Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 3rd edn. Vol. 2, New York: Norton, 2014, pp. 617–19.
  10. ^ "Signature Theatre – Adrienne Kennedy (Legacy Program)". Retrieved 18 February 2017. 
  11. ^ Turner, Beth (2008). "Adrienne Kennedy (13 September 1931–)". Dictionary of Literary Biography. Twentieth-Century American Dramatists: Fifth Series. 341. Gale. p. 88. 
  12. ^ "1964 Award Winners". Village Voice, LLC. Retrieved 23 April 2014. 
  13. ^ "96 | Obie Awards". Obie Awards. 
  14. ^ "08 | Obie Awards". Obie Awards. Retrieved 18 February 2017. 
  15. ^ "Our Grantees". The Wallace Foundation. Retrieved 18 February 2017. 
  16. ^ "Awards – American Academy of Arts and Letters". Retrieved 18 February 2017. 
  17. ^ Wilkerson, Margaret B. "Adrienne Kennedy", in Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris (eds), Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers. Dictionary of Literary Biography vol 38. Detroit: Gale, 1985, p. 168.
  18. ^ a b "Ohio State honors six at spring 2003 commencement Archived April 24, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.". Columbus, OH: Ohio State University, June 5, 2003.
  19. ^ Lovalerie King (2002). "African American Literature Adrienne Kennedy". The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 23 November 2013. 
  20. ^ Solomon, Alisa. "Foreword", The Alexander Plays. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992, pg. xvi. ISBN 978-0816620777
  21. ^ "Adrienne Kennedy: An Inventory of Her Papers at the Harry Ransom Center". Retrieved 2016-02-22. 

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