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Intersecting Boundaries: The Theater of Adrienne Kennedy.

Shocking, convulsive, and enigmatic, Adrienne Kennedy's intense, one-act, surrealist psychodramas of the 1960s continue to hold a cult-like fascination among connoisseurs of American experimental theater. Kennedy's works have been performed both in the U.S. and abroad at theaters such as the Petit Odeon in Paris, London's Royal Court Theatre, and the San Saba Theatre in Rome, and have been translated into Spanish, French, Danish, and Portuguese. Acclaimed by directors, producers, and theater impresarios such as Joseph Chaikin, Edward Albee, Jean-Louis Barrault, and the late Joseph Papp, her works have also been the source of praise and admiration by veteran actors and actresses such as Moses Gunn, Gloria Foster, Colleen Dewhurst, and James Earl Jones. Yet outside of a small circle of artists and critics of avant-garde theater, Kennedy's work remains virtually unknown to the public at large.

The first book-length study of its kind, Paul Bryant-Jackson and Lois Overbeck's Intersecting Boundaries seeks to modify the tremendous void in awareness surrounding Kennedy's contributions to both American and African American theater. A compilation of critical essays and interviews, the book not only theorizes, analyzes, and contextualizes her work within a plethora of critical canons and traditions, but it also suggests strategies for those aspiring to produce her work. Comprised of both scholarly essays about her plays and interviews with leading actresses, directors, and producers of her work, Intersecting Boundaries is divided into four major sections: "The Life in the Work," "Intersecting Dramatic Traditions," "Changing Boundaries: Interpretive Approaches," and "Performance as Collaborative Art." A monumental undertaking the book succeeds in providing a watershed of information not only about Kennedy's surrealist one-act plays written during the early part of her career (1961-1966), but also about her recent post-modern works such as People Who Led to My Plays (1987), Deadly Triplets (1990), and The Alexander Plays (1992).

Underscoring the frustrating enterprise awaiting critics seeking to pigeonhole Kennedy's idiosyncratic texts is Bryant-Jackson and Overbeck's interview with the playwright at the beginning of the book. Kennedy's multicultural sensibility allows her to draw, for the synthesis of her work, upon everything from Old Maid cards to Negro spirituals; Hitler, Shakespeare, Chaucer, William the Conqueror, and Anne Boleyn; Mary, Joseph, and Jesus; Bette Davis and Lena Home; Malcolm X, Beethoven, and Leonardo da Vinci--as well as early childhood memories of family, friends, and relatives. Borrowing freely from disciplines as diverse as music, dance, film, photography, literature, theater, and popular culture, Kennedy's dramaturgical aesthetic also defies any attempts at blanket categorization. For this reason, many parenthetically bracket her eclectic work under the interdisciplinary rubric of multimedia/ performance art.

Harvard scholar Werner Sollers draws on Kennedy's experimental memoir People Who Led to My Plays in order to highlight some of the historio-social influences shaping her work. Sollers chronicles the playwright's coming-of-age as a sensitive female artist in both the South and the midwest, where she was raised by an extended family of uncles, aunts, and cousins (both of Kennedy's parents were college graduates--her father an alumnus of Morehouse College and her mother an alumna of Spelman). He ends by adumbrating three essential concepts central for the apprehension of her hermetic texts: (1) their quasi-autobiographical and fictitious superstructure, (2) their frequent usage of the personal familial trope of the middle-class black family as a means of addressing larger social and political issues, and (3) their undeniable origins deep in the subconscious of a black female psyche seeking to reconcile itself with the many identities Kennedy refers to collectively as "her-selves." These three notions converge most powerfully in Kennedy's incisive feature film/play A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White (1976).

Meticulously researched, Lois Overbeck's bio-theatrical "sketch" of the international production history of Kennedy's collected works is the most comprehensive study of its kind in print. Informed by unpublished interviews with past directors of Kennedy's plays, translations of reviews in rare French and Italian journals, as well as graduate theses and dissertations, Overbeck identifies commissioned and non-commissioned dramatic scrip written by the playwright during the course of her prodigious career. Overbeck also cites Kennedy's collaboration with the late John Lennon on a project entitled The Lennon Play: In His Own Write (1968) as well as the French adaptation of her Obie Award-winning play Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), directed by Jean-Marie Serreau at the Petit Odeon in Paris, where the work premiered as Drole de Baraque. One production Overbeck neglects is Whitney J. LeBlanc's Funnyhouse of a Negro at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater in San Francisco.

In an interesting but problematic attempt to situate Kennedy's work in a 19th-century tradition of American transcendentalism, a 20th-century tradition of the theater of the absurd, and a feminist tradition of black women's autobiographical writings which includes work by Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall, co-editor Paul Bryant-Jackson examines a sampling of female "protagonists" extracted from early works such as The Owl Answers and A Rat's Mass, as well as the recent work She Talks to Beethoven (1987). Since Kennedy's "protagonists" are not, in fact, protagonists at all, but rather multiple, dialectical "syndromes" comprised of matriarchal and patriarchal tendencies signifying primordial personal/ familial relationships, they augur against identification and interpretation as such. Calling into question the very notion of the Freudian/Lacanian "ego" as defined by post-modern Western behavioral science, Kennedy's "protagonists" are actually aggregate, historio-mythological "composites" based upon those both living and dead, residing in the realm of the collective unconscious of the playwright. In this manner, the "protagonist" "She who is Clara Passmore--who is the Virgin Mary--who is the Bastard--who is the Owl," in The Owl Answers, signifies a maternal "syndrome," whereas Clara Passmore's "Goddam Father who is the Richest White Man in the Town--who is the Dead White Father--who is the Reverend Passmore" signifies a paternal "syndrome."

UC-Berkeley scholar Margaret Wilkerson adeptly demonstrates how both Kennedy and Lorraine Hansberry "reveal the personal self as [they] engage the social and political world." Both, Wilkerson maintains, were precursors of the feminist movement of the '70s, but whereas Kennedy employs a surrealistic aesthetic to dramatize emotional schisms in the black family, Hansberry employs a more naturalistic aesthetic to highlight racial injustice and bigotry. Drawing upon an unpublished interview in which Kennedy recalls the impact of her experiences abroad as a black woman during the peak of the anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist movements in Ghana and Liberia in the 1960s, Wilkerson surmises that Kennedy's early works are "symptomatic of the ambiguous state of people who were created out of the clash of African and European cultures."

Critic Elinor Fuchs attempts to situate Kennedy's early works in a finde-siecle tradition of neo-symbolist poet/playwrights such as Maurice Maeterlinck (Belgium) and August Strindberg (Sweden). Fuchs also notes a significant turning point in Kennedy's dramaturgy when, in the 1970s, it took on a more decidedly "activist" position with regard to social and political issues. While works such as Kennedy's multimedia/performance art documentary An Evening with Dead Essex (1974) certainly bear witness to this transition, the shift can actually be detected as early as 1968, with the publication of her memorial poem/ play Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder, which bridges the gap between her early surrealistic psychodramas and her search for a new non-verbal form of imagistic theater-in-process.

Scholar William Elwood places Kennedy in an avant-garde tradition of early-20th-century German expressionist poet/playwrights such as Kokoschka, Hasenclever, and Toller. Elwood concludes that Kennedy's atavistic poem/eulogy Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired by His Murder, dedicated to the memory of both her father Cornell Wallace Hawkins and the slain black nationist leader, is one of the most stunning and original tributes to the vision of Malcolm X in print. The play, writes Elwood, is "a hymnic work ... [in which] humanity is [shown to be] an integral part of the transitional nature of the cosmos [made of] physical and psychic forms in violent transition."

Harvard lecturer Robert Scanlan, in a spellbinding, scene-by-scene exegesis of Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro, argues that, though the work may appear plotless to some, it actually offers a "plot structure ... rising out of the matrix of story and theme." Scanlan also notes a distinct "shift" in Kennedy's career from her early surrealist period to a new "post-modern" phase.

In a section of the book which would have been more appropriately entitled "Theorizing Adrienne Kennedy" than "Changing Boundaries: Interpretive Approaches," literary theorist Kimberly Benston grapples with the self-reflexive tendency in Kennedy's texts, especially People Who Led to My Plays and Deadly Triplets. Though adventurous, ambitious, and convoluted at times, Benston's essay ends by highlighting an uncanny aspect of Kennedy's alchemic aesthetic, citing the following passage from the preface to Adrienne Kennedy: In One Act (1988): "I am at the typewriter almost every waking moment and suddenly there is a play. It would be impossible to say that I wrote them. Somehow under this spell they become written." In effect, as the playwright suggests, her texts write themselves, with Kennedy-as-author a sort of accomplice or witness to the process of creation.

Performance theorist Elin Diamond orchestrates an intertexual "auto-critique," using Kennedy's "new wave" work A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White as a point of departure. Drawing on concepts derived from Gertrude Stein, Herbert Lindenberger, Gayatri Spivak, Plato, Homi Bhabha, Richard Dyer, feminist critical theory, Freud, and Brecht, Diamond argues that Movie Star is a bizarre variant of "racial semiotics" for "white spectator-readers." Kennedy undermines the colonizing images of white Hollywood icons such as Bette Davis, Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, Montgomery Clift, and Shelley Winters, who portray "her-selves" in "starring roles" in order to dramatize the personal/familial domestic saga of the leading "protagonist," "Clara--The Playwright," with Clara's mother, father, and husband in "supporting roles." For Diamond, Kennedy's task in her play is a subversive one in which Clara's deleterious icons of Hollywood glamour are transformed into a "contingent bearing the materiality of her consciousness, if not her color."

Literary scholar Deborah Geis also employs Kennedy's A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White as the fulcrum of her analysis. Jetting full-throttle into the highly theoretical, interdisciplinary arena of contemporary visual studies, Geis offers a spectoral critique of Kennedy's text, informed by the work of such film scholars as Teresa de Lauretis, Laura Mulvey, Bill Nichols, Annette Kuhn, and Jean-Louis Baudry, as well as African American authors such as Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes. Also like Diamond, Geis perceives Kennedy's endeavor in the play as primarily a counter-hegemonic one, in which "Clara--The Playwright" undermines oppressive Hollywood ideological structures from within as she "faces the challenge of writing her way out of Hollywood's insidiously appearing dream factory."

Lesbian/feminist critic Rosemary Curb contends that selected black female "protagonists" from Kennedy's early surrealistic one-act plays are decentered subjects who "fear physical invasion by (hetero)sexual intercourse." In an intertexual critique in which the critic displays her knowledge of contemporary feminist theory and scholarship, black and white, Curb attempts to explicate what she identifies as the "suicidal death wish" of Kennedy's dramatis personae. Drawing upon deceased French intellectual George Bataille, Curb, unfortunately, ends by committing the Freudian psychologism "fallacy" in her overly excessive use of the vocabulary of psychoanalysis to describe the pathological behavior of Kennedy's fictitious "composites."

Though positioning itself in diametric opposition to Curb's exegesis, feminist theater critic Jeanie Forte's "trial-and-error" intertextual reading of the means by which Kennedy's "protagonists" resist both racialized interpretations of their Afrocentricity and sexist interpretations of their gender ends up being akin to Curb's essay. Forte seeks to legitimate her findings by drawing upon essentially the same group of feminist scholars that Curb does--exceptions being Caribbean feminists Barbara Christian and Michelle Cliff and white feminists Susan Bordo and Susan Willis. Ironically, what some would, perhaps, interpret as "graphic violence" in Kennedy's texts, Forte hypothesizes is a "textual strategy of resistance" that marks the site of a war being waged between conflicting ideologies.

Rather than responding to Kennedy's texts in the critical/analytical format used by other scholars in the book, black feminist critic bell hooks offers an "auto-interview" with her alias "Other" self, reminiscent of similar experiments by post-modern novelist Ishmael Reed. Hooks reveals that what initially attracted her to Kennedy's experimental work is the fact that it "problematizes the question of identity, black subjectivity in ways that do not allow for a simplistic understanding of blackness, of race, of what it means to be a black woman in the U.S. and abroad." Unlike those who detect pessimism and mild schizophrenia in Kennedy's work, hooks perceives a "sheer sense of daring ... of fun ... and ritualized play ... challenging the audience to expand its vision of what is dramatically possible."

Interviews with three white male directors (Michael Kahn, Gerald Freedman, and David Willinger), one white female director (Gaby Rodgers), and two black female thespians (Robbie McCauley and Billie Allen) follow. This section of the book, entitled "Performance as Collaborative Art," contains valuable information for actors, directors, and technical personnel seeking to mount productions of Kennedy's performance texts.

In an interview with theater scholar Howard Stein, Michael Kahn, the director of the premiere production of Funnyhouse of a Negro, as well as Kennedy's adaptations of the Greek tragedies Electra and Orestes, demonstrates an organic understanding of Kennedy's texts. Kahn identifies Kennedy as, first and foremost, a poet/ playwright whose "raw power" resides in the "primitive myths" at the root of her works. In Kahn's opinion, the accessibility of Kennedy's elliptical brand of theater depends to a great extent on a given director's ability to tap into these myths, which give her dramas their characteristic kinship to Greek tragedy as well as their universal appeal which transcends racial boundaries.

Gaby Rodgers, who directed workshop productions of Kennedy's A Lesson in Dead Language and An Evening with Dead Essex, discusses the collaborative facet of Kennedy's multimedia installations, which demand that one allow "the text to direct you." Rodgers' reminiscence of the complexities of directing Essex as a white female director during a peak of the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s leads her to the conclusion that Kennedy, like Strindberg and Artaud, "created her own kind of theater."

In an interesting exchange with Bryant-Jackson, Gerald Freedman, the director of the Joseph Papp productions of Kennedy's Cities in Bezique and The Ohio State Murders, likens Kennedy's work to the aesthetic of collage' in the visual arts, in which "unexpected juxtapositions" occur when the works are performed before a live audience. Freedman also reveals that the Cities in Bezique title he culled for the production of Kennedy's plays The Owl Answers and A Beast's Story were derived from another text by the playwright which was never produced. In his remembrance of Kennedy's orphic work A Beast's Story, Freedman emphatically concludes that, even in the late '60s, she was "years ahead of us."

Highlighting his collaboration with Open Theater innovator Joseph Chaikin on a one-artist performance art piece entitled "Solo Voyages," which featured actress Robbie McCauley, assistant director David Willinger recalls Chaikin's attempt to distill selected "interior monologues" from Kennedy's early surrealist works in order to create a "verbal collage ... [in] a concert of Adrienne's voices." Though the Chaikin-Willinger collaboration was greeted with mixed reviews by critics, Robbie McCauley, in a postscript interview appended to Willinger's response, recalls "Solo Voyages" as being a being a "peak" experience in her career.

Finally, in a penetrating interview with Bryant-Jackson and Overbeck, veteran actress Billie Allen, who portrayed the leading "protagonist," "Sara--The Negro," in the Kahn production of Funnyhouse of a Negro, intimates the intense physical emotional, and psychological demands Kennedy's texts make on performing artists. Interestingly enough, Kennedy's Funnyhouse dramatizes, for Allen, the psychologically deleterious effects of the "Anglo aesthetic and standard of beauty" on the African American psyche--a lethal by-product of institutionalized racism. Allen also notes that Kennedy's plays, unlike the dramas of her African American male counterparts James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka, have always had a distinct "feminine aesthetic" that was radical for a black woman in the early 1960s.

From Funnyhouse of a Negro to her recently published post-modern narrative "Letter to My Students on My 61st Birthday by Suzanne Alexander," Kennedy's collected performance texts reflect a consciousness unafraid to speak the unspeakable, as they bear witness to the conflicts of our futuristic age. Encompassing a career that spans decades of American and African American theater, Byrant-Jackson and Overbeck's book is a living testimony to an artist actively engaged in transforming the very structure of a language which serves to inhibit both male and female, black and white, from coming to fuller knowledge of the multiplicity of the human experience. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theater of Adrienne Kennedy deserves to be read by all.

Paul Bryant-Jackson and Lois Overbeck, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theater of Adrienne Kennedy. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 254 pp. $39.95 hardcover $16.95 paperback.
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Author:Williams, John (American clergyman)
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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