Without Adrienne Kennedy, I’m unsure if I would have written plays. While Gideon Lester opened my mind to dramatic structure, Adrienne freed my imagination.
This African-American lady slight of stature but with an eloquence and gravitas that belied her physical size.
We read. We practised writing.
With the passage of time, I forget the specifics but the impressions remain powerfully.
She could speak of Edward Albee, the revered and the famous of 1960s Britain (Beatles, Tynan, James Earl Jones), and suggest that we should write what we want to write.
Reading her work - noting its power - I was challenged to consider: can plays be almost plotless? Why can’t a character be a negro-Sarah one scene, and a white Queen Victoria the next scene? How far can you bend and break structure? Symbols, poetry, history - an imagination almost hard to grasp.
Seeing race through the lens of a black american lady writing through absurdism (not wearing reality on its sleeve), sitting there telling me - write!
Suzann Lori-Parks in this wonderful conversation with Adrienne Kennedy says:
“A person who’s new to theater can read your work and think: I can do anything I want. That’s what your plays did for me. I can do with theater what I think needs to be done—it’s liberating. It’s a profound experience.”
I felt that. It certainly impacted my writing (along with the word-love Forrest Gander was nurturing in me at the time; the structure from Gideon). I’ve never particularly written that well made realist play or tv script (my radio plays perhaps being closest to that mould) and for better or for worse, Adrienne was a spark that started that path.
Adrienne has not had particular wide-spread popular audience success. She is taught in academic circles in the US. There has been a more recent rival of her work, but when I studied with her, she was not (and remains not) famous.
That also taught me something about the nature of artistic success and what it should or could mean (Chris Killip teaching me photography across the Yard echoed some of those thoughts) and that fame was not going to be the measure of my success.
Here is a short Youtube from Zakiyyah Alexander that gives a 2 min snap shot on Adrienne.
“She broke all the rules in a time period where women were writing very specifically well-made naturalistic plays; Adrienne Kennedy did something else… She was too black and female for the white male avant-garde theatre and yet she was too avant-garde for black theatre so she had no place to fit in”
Below a Youtube (2015) interview with her (listen to her speak about John Lennon trying to keep her involved in his play in the 1960s) and Canaan Kennedy.
Here is Youtube of Funny House of a Negro, perhaps still her most famous play from 1964 (some people still tell me it is my best, though that’s disappointinng given how long ago I wrote it)
(From Funnyhouse of a Negro.)
When they first married they lived in New York. Then they went to Africa where my mother fell out of love with my father. She didn’t want him to save the black race and spent her days combing her hair. She would not let him touch her in their wedding bed and called him black. He is black of skin with dark eyes and a great dark square brow. Then in Africa he started to drink and came home drunk one night and raped my mother. I clung to my mother. Long after she went to the asylum I wove long dreams of her beauty, her straight hair and fair skin and grey eyes, so identical to mine. How it anguished him. I turned from him, nailing him on the cross, he said, dragging him through grass and nailing him on a cross until he bled. He pleaded with me to help him find Genesis, search for Genesis in the midst of golden savannas, nim and white frankopenny trees and white stallions roaming under a blue sky, help him search for the white doves, he wanted the black man to make a pure statement, he wanted the black man to rise from colonialism. But I sat in the room with my mother, sat by her bedside and helped her comb her straight black hair and wove long dreams of her beauty. She had long since begun to curse the place and spoke of herself trapped in blackness. She preferred the company of night owls. Only at night did she rise, walking in the garden among the trees with the owls. When I spoke to her she saw I was a black man’s child and she preferred speaking to owls. Nights my father came home from his school in the village struggling to embrace me. But I fled and hid under my mother’s bed while she screamed of remorse.
Read my thanks to Gideon Lester and his influence on me.
If you'd like to feel inspired by commencement addresses and life lessons try: Ursula K Le Guin on literature as an operating manual for life; Neil Gaiman on making wonderful, fabulous, brilliant mistakes; or Nassim Taleb's commencement address; or JK Rowling on the benefits of failure. Or Charlie Munger on always inverting.