Like the shy, obsessive heroines of her earliest plays, Adrienne Kennedy led something of a sheltered childhood. She grew up in the 1930s and ’40s in the integrated and culturally diverse middle-class neighborhoods of Mt. Pleasant and Glenville on the east side of Cleveland. “It was an exciting neighborhood, an exciting mixture of people, immigrant and black,” she recalls. “All day, you’re listening to people speaking different languages, speaking Italian, speaking Yiddish, and I found that thrilling.” Her parents, both college-educated professionals and active members of Cleveland’s black community, instilled in her a love of learning that made her first a voracious reader and later a vivid writer. The uniforms worn by her Italian classmates on their way to catechism, the ominous air-raid tower and siren in the school playground across the street, her mother’s chilled jello with bananas and vanilla wafers – sharply focused images of childhood like these weave their way through her work.
Not until she matriculated at Ohio State University in 1949 did Kennedy encounter prejudice and racism firsthand. Sororities were segregated and blacks were actively discouraged from pursuing an English major. Kennedy’s new play, Ohio State Murders, springs from her undergraduate experience and its lifelong scarring effects. The play reflects her abiding feeling that “nothing has changed for American blacks,” that “American blacks would have been better off leaving this country.” She says this without bitterness or self-pity but with a clear sense of indignity during a conversation in which she is, by turns, bashful, ebullient, elegant, silly and thoughtful.
Kennedy’s plays have always been disarmingly autobiographical. “I’ve seemingly only been successful in creating these heroines who are very close variations of me and I’m not necessarily able to understand it,” Kennedy admits. From Sarah in Funnyhouse of a Negro, the English major and “nigger of torment” who hangs herself in her room, to Suzanne Alexander in Ohio State Murders, the successful African-American writer who returns to her alma mater to give a lecture on the violent imagery in her work, Kennedy has crafted dramatic personae whose struggle for identity parallels her own. Each play pulsates with the question that Clara asks outright in A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White: “Each day I wonder with what or with whom can I co-exist in a true union.”
Some have dismissed Kennedy’s work as self-involved or impenetrable, but this view is impatient, at best. Her achievement over the past 30 years has been to take the events and the images of her own life and convert them into a mythology of one, a mythology of the self, a hermetic landscape of the mind rendered in such crystalline detail that it emanates a strange, universal truth.
Kennedy’s early plays take the form of interior monologues for the stage. Dense and violent in their imagery, often dazzling and bizarre in their theatricality, they are psychic collages governed by a troubled and erratic stream of consciousness. Each of these plays operates like a prism, which refracts its heroine into fragments, giving her multiple identities which resist reintegration. The Owl Answers centers on the character of “SHE who is CLARA PASSMORE who is the VIRGIN MARY who is the BASTARD who is the OWL.” In Funnyhouse of a Negro, each of four historical characters – Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg, Jesus Christ and Patrice Lumumba – appear as “one of herselves,” referring to Sarah, the Negro of the title. In these plays, the focus shifts from the central character to one of her alter egos at the blink of an eye, to dizzying effect.
In contrast, Ohio State Murders is relatively conventional, more of an “exterior monologue,” and its protagonist is remarkably intact. The action takes place late at night, deep in the stacks of the Ohio State University library as the writer Suzanne Alexander rehearses out loud what she plans to say in her guest lecture the next day. She speaks of her burgeoning love of literature, and of the birth and death of her twin daughters, conceived out of wedlock and murdered as infants. Periodically, lyrically, her spoken memories of her college years give way to actual flashbacks, some only a few lines long, as actors emerge from the wings to play her dormitory roommate, an old boyfriend, herself as a co-ed, and a young English professor who embodies both the bounty and the violence of the majority white culture which attracts and repels her.
Ohio State Murders unfolds like a murder mystery, a genre which fascinates Kennedy, but it is a mystery muted by memory about a crime that it is too late to solve. Instead of the explosive sense of danger which charged her earlier plays, this one is governed by a beguiling serenity which has come to characterize the playwright herself. “I wouldn’t be alive if I had remained as fragmented as that person who wrote Funnyhouse and The Owl Answers,” she claims. “I would have committed suicide or gone insane or something. I’m 60 now. Over the years, these people came together inside me. I’m very at ease by now with all these influences that were swirling around inside me.”
Kennedy credits her survival to writing and teaching and the composure required to raise two sons. If she has mellowed, her serenity is a quiet without peace. “I sense menace in a lot of things,” she confesses. “Again, I don’t want to analyze it, but I can be going down to NYU on the subway, or I can be walking around the sunny Stanford campus, and I see these rows of columns and I feel menaced. That’s the quality I’m looking for in the stuff that I write. I feel a hidden darkness underneath things that is in opposition to me in some way.”
That hidden darkness has seen the light of day in myriad forms over the past five years, an unusually prolific period for Kennedy. First came her widely heralded scrapbook of memories, People Who Led to My Plays, and then Deadly Triplets: A Theater Mystery and Journal. Ohio State Murders is one of four recent theatre pieces about the writer Suzanne Alexander, the others being She Talks to Beethoven, The Dramatic Circle (a radio play commissioned and produced by WNYC’s Radio Stage) and a monologue called The Film Club. The Alexander Plays will be published later this year by University of Minnesota Press, as will an anthology of essays on Kennedy’s work, edited by Paul K. Bryant-Jackson and Lois More Overbeck and titled Intersecting Boundaries.
Ohio State Murders, commissioned three years ago by Great Lakes Theatre Festival artistic director Gerald Freedman and developed by him in a production a year ago at Yale Repertory Theatre’s Winterfest, received its official premiere in March as the centerpiece of a month-long celebration of Kennedy’s life and work. Orchestrated by GLTF dramaturg Margaret Lynch, the Adrienne Kennedy Festival also included a day-long symposium at Cleveland State University; a stage adaptation of People Who Led to My Plays, which toured local schools, libraries, churches and senior centers; and a community-history project conducted at three public schools she attended as a child.
This massive effort to broaden public awareness of Kennedy’s work amounted to nothing less than the loving repatriation of one of Cleveland’s long-neglected native daughters. The GLTF production of Ohio State Murders marked Kennedy’s first professional production in her hometown; accordingly, opening night, March 7, 1992, was by order of the mayor Adrienne Kennedy Day in Cleveland. It was a fitting and poignant tribute to a woman the festival proclamation described as “a poet of the theatre, a poet of gentility and pain, a poet of generosity and rage.”