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Passed Over: The Tragic Mulatta and (Dis)Integration of Identity in Adrienne Kennedy's Plays.

Much recent interest in the drama of Adrienne Kennedy has been spawned by the publication of her innovative autobiography People Who Led to My Plays (1987), the 1992 Great Lakes festival devoted to her work, and the recent productions of her plays by the Signature Theatre Company, which devoted an entire season to her work. Yet Kennedy has yet to receive the widespread critical attention she deserves as one of the most unique and innovative twentieth-century American playwrights. [1] Compared to August Wilson, who has garnered many accolades and is fast replacing Lorraine Hansberry as the African American playwright whose work is anthologized, taught, and critiqued, Kennedy's work is still relatively unknown by the average theatergoer, and even by some academics. And while critics praise August Wilson's use of African beliefs in the supernatural and the presence of the ancestors, these very elements are present in Kennedy's earliest plays from the 1960s. Wilson's characteristic themes-the inexorable legacy of history, the tenuous line between dream and reality, memory as a (re)constructive process, and the conflicting forces in identity formation-were addressed by Kennedy over a decade earlier. It bears asking, then, why Kennedy's work has been largely ignored until recently, and her message, a message grounded in the politics of oppression, often overlooked.

Kennedy ascribes her limited critical success to the fact that her plays are "abstract poems" (Diamond, "Interview" 157) and thus do not easily fit into an American theatrical tradition dominated by realistic plays such as those of Alice Childress and Hansberry. I contend, however, that Kennedy's lack of widespread popularity can be more accurately attributed to her uncanny ability to make audiences feel ill at ease through her dramatization of the politics of identity and, in particular, of miscegenation. As she admits at the end of her interview with Elin Diamond, "My plays make people uncomfortable so I've never had a play done in Cleveland [her hometown], never" (157). The volatile content of Kennedy's plays-her (not so) standard theme of a history of racial and sexual abuse leading to fragmentation and even death-does not make her plays either light viewing or reading. In effect, Kennedy's painful exploration of miscegenation through a fragmented, postmodern form challenges and even assaults her audienc e, revealing both her riveting power as a writer as well as the grounds upon which her work has been passed over by her contemporaries, critics, and scholars alike.

By tackling the taboo topic of miscegenation and representing it in both the form and content of her plays, Kennedy represents the African American struggle against both external and internal oppression. In her plays, which she has described as "states of mind" (qtd. in Cohn 108), Kennedy shows the self in dialogue not only with society but also with the fragmentary vestiges of otherness within the self, those internalized markers of oppression. Kennedy thus creates psychic landscapes in which the ongoing battle between conflicting discourses and mythologies is made manifest through symbols, composite characters, and a plurality of voices, all of which reveal the violent struggle between whiteness and blackness within as well as outside the self.

The political nature of this violent struggle between whiteness and blackness represented in Kennedy's early work has been misunderstood, at best, by many critics, who argued during the sixties and seventies that her plays were not didactic, as proponents of the Black Arts Movement expected and desired. Writing at a time when, as Amiri Baraka explains, most African American writers sought to portray "black heroes, not black victims" (233), Kennedy created protagonists who attempt to pass as white, although she certainly does not condone this passing. On the contrary, she reveals that her protagonists ultimately reject their blackness, a core part of their identities, in favor of a deadening and deathly whiteness. Her plays thus represent the battle between blackness and whiteness, an arena of violent racial warfare that occurs within the psyches of her characters and represents the struggles of African Americans against oppression.

Indeed, Kennedy effectively politicizes the private world of her protagonists to reveal the fragmented consciousness that results from living as a "minority" in a society dominated by whiteness and white cultural standards of beauty and value. Her writing thus reveals the deleterious effects of her protagonists' efforts to pass for white and becomes profoundly political in its revision of the tragic mulatta. Kennedy's tragic mulatta does not suffer from the mighty drop of Black blood as do the light-skinned literary heroines of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but rather from her attempt to escape the African American part of her heritage in favor of a whiteness that, in Kennedy's ceuvre, does nothing less than kill.

In effect, Kennedy's writing disrupts the accepted binary, black-white construction of race and testifies to the usually ignored history of racial mixing that has characterized North American life. She writes of her childhood in People Who Led to My Plays that her "mother often said that most of the white people of Montezuma's families came from England. I realized dimly that this meant some of our ancestors too had come from England, since, like most 'Negro' families in the town, we had white relations as well as 'Negro.' I became very interested in England" (22). To the young Adrienne, England represented neither a colonial force nor the specter of white oppression of blacks, but rather a legitimate part of her heritage about which she was curious.

In her autobiography, Kennedy describes her intuitive sense of a divided heritage that found expression in her first play, Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), as well as her other plays:

I'd often stare at the statue of Beethoven I kept on the left-hand side of my desk. I felt it contained a "secret." I'd do the same with the photograph of Queen Hatshepsut that was on the wall. I did not then understand that I felt torn between these forces of my ancestry... European and African a fact that would one day explode in my work. (People 96)

In Funnyhouse, Kennedy presents her protagonist as a product of miscegenation, of the presumed rape of her white mother by her black father. Like Julia in Alice Childress's Wedding Band, Sarah occupies a liminal space between blackness and whiteness, and thus can find neither a place to belong in either race nor a unified conception of self; her multiple selves and voices in the play dramatically manifest her divided consciousness and heritage. She has internalized white values and discourse to such an extent that she attempts to reject the Africanist presence of the ancestors and the ancestral tongue. Kennedy shows that Sarah is trying to pass for white, to claim that half of her heritage, while rejecting the black side of her ancestry.

Kennedy's characters represent the socio-cultural process of (de)construction of the self and subjectivity, a process intimately linked with the history of race and racial oppression. Because her plays focus on the mulatta caught between and among nexi of identity--whiteness-blackness, maleness-femaleness, sanity-madness, and so on--Kennedy's "hermetic" writing (Sollors 507) also serves a communal cathartic purpose: "These dramas are to some degree exorcising personal and collective racial traumas and have anger, the urge to communicate and (attempted) liberation as motivating forces" (Binder 99). The very fact that Kennedy refuses the triumphant or at least more uplifting ending we have come to expect of some of her sister playwrights--Childress, Hansberry, and shange--is neither a marker of her "apolitical naivete", as Herbert Blau contends (538) nor an indication of her allegiance to white culture. Rather Kennedy shows that consciousness is not double, as W. E. B. Du Bois would have it, but is instead mul ti-faceted and fragmented when one is a product of numerous socio-historical forces and even heritages.

To reveal the fragmentary nature of consciousness and identity as a social construct(ion), Kennedy employs an innovative and original style that fulfills the criteria of a subversive text set up by Jeanie Forte in "Realism, Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright-A Problem of Reception":

If a writer (or let's say a text) aims to reveal and/or subvert the dominant ideology as a feminist writer/text might, strategies must be found within the realm of discourse, particularly vis a vis narrative, which can operate to deconstruct the imbedded ideology.

. . . In writing practice, then, a refusal to perpetuate the conventions of realism/narrative would presumably not only thwart the illusion of "real" life, but also would function to threaten the patriarchal ideology imbedded in "story." A subversive text would not provide the detached viewpoint, the illusion of seamlessness, the narrative closure, but instead would open up the negotiation of meaning to contradictions, circularity, multiple viewpoints. (116-17)

Forte contends that Adrienne Kennedy's plays show both the advantages as well as the disadvantages of a non-realistic form, citing the dramas' difficulty and inaccessibility as the primary disadvantage; yet the challenge Kennedy's plays pose to readers and viewers alike is all the more reason to study them. Her non-linear form and content successfully induce in the reader/viewer the emotional state of divided consciousness. In this way, Kennedy manages to make the private world of her characters a public experience for her audience and to assault her audience just as her characters have been attacked by racism in various forms: institutionalized prejudice, public ridicule, and self-hatred.

By formulating her characters to express multiple viewpoints, Kennedy resists any monolithic definition of blackness propounded by the hegemonic culture while foregrounding the (de)construction of subjectivity. [2] As Linda Kintz argues in her excellent study The Subject's Tragedy: Political Poetics, Feminist Theroy, and Drama, "The plays of Adrienne Kennedy... are radical experiments with subjectivity and theatrical form; they show how the very notion of the unity of character or of autonomous subjectivity is simply artificial, even phobic, in a culture in which subject positions are always multiple" (7). Kennedy has her characters confront aspects of otherness from within and without, thus demonstrating that any unified construction of selfhood is impossible and forcing her audience to confront a nightmare world in which such a self is both elusive and illusive. Indeed, by blurring and even dissolving any facile distinctions between white and black, male and female, real and unreal, natural and supernatura l, Kennedy's work may be considered a theatrical version of magical realism or, rather, of black magical realism.

Here Herbert Blau's somewhat problematic article comparing Kennedy and Sam Shepard becomes useful, for he speaks of Kennedy's stagecraft as "black magic" (535), a trope which can be extended to her work in general, since her writing engages the reader/viewer in a nightmarish world. [3] Sarah's funnyhouse is also her prisonhouse, for she cannot escape the deadly psychic and physical space of its "rooms." In effect, Kennedy's conflation of psychic space and physical place is yet another way she distinguishes herself as a playwright. Sarah thus associates the discrete rooms of her funnyhouse with her own divided consciousness and fragmented identity:

The rooms are my rooms; a Hapsburg chamber, a chamber in a Victorian castle, the hotel where I killed my father, the jungle. These are the places myselves exist in. I know no places. To believe in places is to know hope and to know the emotion of hope is to know beauty. It links us across a horizon and connects us to the world. I find there are no places only my funnyhouse. (7)

Sarah is dislocated, displaced, occupying a liminal space in and among the eerie rooms of her funnyhouse, a liminal space that symbolizes her experiences as a mulatta. Like the women in shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide who find themselves marginalized--"I'm outside chicago / i'm outside detroit / i'm outside houston / i'm outside baltimore ..." (5)--Sarah reveals, "I try to create a space for myselves in cities, New York, the midwest, a southern town, but it becomes a lie" (7). While Sarah's room is "in a brownstone" (22) and is represented center stage. Kennedy gives the various other rooms of the funnyhouse physical space on stage, thus suggesting that no distinction exists here between dream/fantasy and "reality." Kennedy shows that Sarah, in her conflicted state with at least four other versions of her self--Duchess of Hapsburg, Queen Victoria Regina, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba [4] --cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. She cannot escape the madness of the funnyhouse and c an find no stable identity for herself or selves in its distorted rooms.

And yet Sarah is not alone with her selves in the funnyhouse; in effect, she is joined by the audience, who must experience the (un)reality of the play. One scholar explains that "inside a funnyhouse one loses the referent of reality; accordingly, no clear distinction between [sic] illusion, fantasy, and reality is made in the play" (Augsburg 24). Along with ordinary stage directions, the physical representation of surreal ones such as "his head appears to be split in two with blood and tissue in eyes" (7) or "a BALD HEAD is dropped on a wire" (13) turn the funnyhouse into a house of horror for the audience. Kennedy effectively structures the play so that the audience, like Sarah, must inhabit this madcap, threatening space and try to imbue it with meaning. And yet to do this, the audience must identify with Sarah and "herselves" (Funnyhouse 1) and experience Sarah's self-hatred and psychic dislocation. Kimberly Benston thus characterizes the text's effect on the reader/viewer and his or her production of mea ning in this manner:

The feeling of dislocation that the audience experiences as the plays move back and forth between the realistic psychological mode and the symbolic one involves it in a constant, conscious process of readjustment to the fictional world. It also accounts, in considerable part, for the sense of menace that pervades Kennedy's work. (240)

If the reading or viewing audience cannot locate Sarah, then who can? Kennedy brings home the impossibility of fixing Sarah's identity and forces the viewer to confront his or her own displacement within the phantasmagoric world of the play.

As the tragic mulatta, caught between races, caught between "room" that do not offer a home or a place to belong, Sarah represents (t)races of an unattainable, stable, and unified subjectivity and identity. In actuality, Sarah and herselves are at once black and white, male and female, English and African (American), contemporary and historical. These traces of identity pass by the spectator in ephemeral moments, reflected, refracted, and distorted, as in a funnyhouse mirror. Kennedy seems to be suggesting that not only is the lack of a unified self a human condition, but it is also a subaltern condition, aggravated by racial animosity. By conveying Sarah's internal struggle through traces of multiple selves, Kennedy thus underscores the racial hatred that has long characterized American society and effectively revises the family drama to reveal the tragic effects of racial hatred on an individual as well as collective level.

Kennedy embodies the racial polarization that has long characterized American society in Sarah's fragmented consciousness by emphasizing colors--white, black, and yellow, the "color" of the mulatto. The colors themselves take on a life of their own as Sarah talks about how her statue of Queen Victoria is "a thing of astonishing whiteness" and "black is evil and has been from the beginning" (5). Sarah's struggle to integrate her warring heritages is embodied throughout by a relentless repetition of "white" and "black" on every page of the play's dialogue. Even the stage directions emphasize the colors of costumes, lights, and props--for example, "a white nightgown" (2,4), "white light" (2), "an ebony mask" (7), "a black shirt and black trousers" (9). "a black and white marble floor" (16), "a dark brightness" (20)--all of which point to Sarah's internal struggle. Yet the images of whiteness in the stage directions far outnumber those of blackness, demonstrating Sarah's obsession with white culture and her desir e to pass for white.

In actuality, Sarah desires to repudiate her black heritage, symbolized by her black father, whose persistent knocking is heard throughout the play, thus suggesting that Sarah's black heritage cannot be ignored. Kennedy makes Sarah's desire to pass most evident in the following monologue, in which Sarah speaks of her desire for much more than integration into white society:

As for myself I long to become even a more pallid Negro than I am now; pallid like Negroes on the covers of American Negro magazines; soulless, educated and irreligious. I want to possess no moral value, particularly value as to my being. I want not to be. I ask nothing except anonymity.... It is my dream to live in rooms with European antiques and my Queen victoria, photographs of Roman ruins, walls of books, a piano, oriental carpets and to eat my meals on a white glass table. I will visit my friends' apartments which will contain books, photographs of Roman ruins, pianos and oriental carpets. My friends will be white.

I need them as an embankment to keep me from reflecting too much upon the fact that I am a Negro. For like all educated Negroes... I find it necessary to maintain a stark fortress against recognition of myself. (6)

Educated in a Eurocentric tradition and "soulless," stripped of pride in her blackness or "soul," Sarah desires complete assimilation, as shown in her reverence for the symbols and trappings of Eurocentric civilization--European antiques, books, oriental carpets, photographs of Roman ruins, and so forth.

Kennedy shows that Sarah has absorbed white racist ideology so fully that she and herselves repeatedly refer to her father as "a wild black beast" (5). Sarah also believes he raped her mother, thus adhering to the mythical idea of the black rapist. [5] As Rosemary Curb argues, "Sarah experiences the racial warfare within herself by consciously identifying with the White oppressor self against the Black oppressed sell" ("Fragmented" 181). In fact, Sarah and herselves identify so completely with the white oppressor that her final disintegration of selfhood, her tragic hanging at the end of the play by either murder or suicide, is best read as the death of her Negro self (yes).

Whether Sarah is murdered or commits suicide is, I contend, deliberately obscured by Kennedy, so that a plethora of different and equally valid readings emerge. One scholar, for example, offers an intriguing analysis of the hanging as an allusion to lynching (Augsburg 29). However, I would revise previous discussions by emphasizing the father's role as a grim reaper figure who knocks repeatedly at Sarah's door and represents the black ancestry that haunts Sarah. Whether alive or dead-and here we once again have black magical realism-Sarah's father is the "outraged" ancestor [6] who finally gains admission to the stage.

Some clues to the father's role can be found in the stage directions directly preceding Sarah's hanging: "The Negro SARAH is standing perfectly still, we hear the KNOCKING, the LIGHTS come on quickly, her FATHER'S black figure with bludgeoned hands rushes upon her, the LIGHT GOES BLACK and we see her hanging in the room" (22). While most critics have interpreted Sarah's death as suicide, no one has suggested another possibility, namely that her father acts as an outraged ancestor who returns to kill Sarah for betraying the race. [7] Or if we consider Sarah's father as representative of the black side of her heritage or even as another one of herselves, Sarah's suicide is intended to kill her black self. This latter reading helps illuminate the reason that Sarah's obsession with whiteness is also an obsession with death: "My white friends, like myself, will be shrewd, intellectual, anxious for death" (Funnyhouse 6). Kennedy's message is unmistakably that ratiocinative white culture kills-not only the black se lf/soul but also, simultaneously, the other constructed selves.

Although Herbert Blau has read Kennedy's plays as apolitical, [8] Funnyhouse of a Negro clearly serves as a warning against over-assimilation into the dominant culture, a message encoded in the deathly imagery of Kennedy's stage directions: "It is a white satin Curtain of a cheap material and a ghastly white, a material that brings to mind the interior of a cheap casket" (2); "the quality of the white light is unreal and ugly" (2); "the [whitish yellow] face must be highly powdered and possess a hard expressionless quality and a stillness as in the face of death" (3); "he [Sarah's white boyfriend, Raymond] is tall, white and ghostly thin" (9); "the figure of Victoria is a sitting figure, one of astonishing repulsive whiteness" (22). While the lines given to Sarah and herselves reveal an adulation of whiteness in the play, Kennedy here shows that this whiteness is deathly and "repulsive" and leads to Sarah's demise. Indeed, Sarah is like the quintessential tragic hero of classical Greek drama whose tragic fla w is hubris. [9] Yet Kennedy shows that Sarah's excessive pride is in white culture, the part of her heritage that she can never claim since she will always be classified as black in a racist society ordered and organized by supposed visual signifiers of race.

Kennedy symbolically inscribes this inescapable blackness throughout the play, with an emphasis on hair. For example, Sarah remarks, "In appearance I am good-looking in a boring way; no glaring Negroid features.... My one defect is that I have a head of frizzy hair, unmistakably Negro kinky hair" (6). While Rosemary Curb interprets Sarah's mother's baldness as "an external manifestation of her sexual corruption" ("Fragmented" 183) and Ruby Cohn sees hair as "a traditional fertility symbol" (119), I contend that hair serves as a racial marker in the play, a sign of Sarah's and herselves' (dis)integration of selfhood. Although the Duchess of Hapsburg and Queen Victoria are both dressed in white gowns and white headpieces with "whitish yellow" faces, "from beneath both their headpieces springs a handful of wild kinky hair" (2-3). Kennedy insists than no matter how much Sarah tries to hide or mask her "Negro kinky hair," she cannot. Kennedy inverts the sixties iconography of the afro as a symbol of black pride t o emphasize Sarah's tragic flaw, her inability and unwillingness to integrate a biracial heritage.

In actuality, when the Duchess's hair falls out, it visually signals Sarah's disintegration. Kennedy has the Duchess explain to Jesus, whose baldness is identical to her own, "When I awakened I found it fallen out, not all of it but a mass that lay on my white pillow. I could see, although my hair hung down at the sides, clearly on my white scalp it was missing" (16). The recurrent emphasis on "white pillow" and "white scalp" linguistically reveals that whiteness is trying to take over or has taken over in Sarah's consciousness(es). Loss of hair in the play thus signifies loss of heritage, a critical point Kennedy suggests in Sarah's discussion of her white friends and how they have influenced her: "I will mistrust them, as I do myself, waver in their opinion of me, as I waver in the opinion of myself. But if I had not wavered in my opinion of myself, then my hair would never have fallen out. And if my hair hadn't fallen out, I wouldn't have bludgeoned my father's head with an ebony mask" (6). Because Sarah has wavered in her opinion of herself, because she has assumed the white oppressor's view of her black self, Kennedy makes her lose the racial marker of her African American heritage. Interestingly, no "white-looking" hair grows to replace the loss of "black" hair, again suggesting that Sarah is refused entry into white cub ture and society. Kennedy inscribes Sarah's (dis)integration of selfhood in her loss of hair, that visual signifier of the black part of her heritage.

Later on in the play, Kennedy has Patrice Lumumba, another of Sarah's "herselves," deliver a similar monologue with only a few changes:

My white friends, like myself, will be shrewd intellectuals and anxious for death. Anyone's death. I will despise them as I do myself. For if I did not despise myself then my hair would not have fallen and if my hair had not fallen then I would not have bludgeoned my father's face with the ebony mask. (13)

Here Kennedy substitutes an emotionally charged verb, "despise," for what Sarah has blandly called "wavering in my opinion of myself." Thus, Kennedy suggests a progression, or at least an increase, in Sarah's hatred of the black side of her heritage. Kennedy's omission of the preposition out is another interesting choice. Instead of "falling out," Lumumba's hair has simply "fallen," a description that suggests a fall from grace--i.e., from Sarah's idealized conception of whiteness.

Narratively, Kennedy represents Sarah's psychic decay through the multiple voices of herselves, who incessantly interrogate and repeat one another throughout the play, each trying to dominate. In the words of Billie Allen, the actress who played the role of Sarah in the original 1964 production of Funnyhouse, "The point is, these are Sarah's selves that she cannot reconcile. They're biting into each other. [The] Duchess wants her place, and Victoria wants her place, and Jesus wants his recognition and Lumuba says you are all wrong" (Bryant-Jackson and Overbeck 221). Kennedy shows that, as representatives of the clashing social dialects at war within

Sarah, herselves are each vying for narrative power.

Aside from the loss of hair, the knocking, and the final image of Sarah hanging, the play actually contains very little dramatic action. Instead Kennedy includes the telling of various versions of several interconnected stories--how Sarah's black father raped her white mother, how Sarah killed him or he killed himself (a point that is never clarified), and how he is now returning to haunt Sarah. Yet attempting a plot summary for Funnyhouse of a Negro is like summarizing a Dali painting; the only logic that presides in the funnyhouse is the logic of surprise, of reversal, of the surreal and the inexplicable. Reason and its causal relationships are lost in a funnyhouse, where distortion reigns and Sarah as well as the observer/participant are the objects of ridicule.

Indeed, each time the reader or viewer of Funnyhouse thinks s/he finally comprehends a story recounted by Sarah or one of herselves, the story is immediately undercut either by juxtaposition with a parallel story or by the repetition of the same story with additions as well as slight changes of syntax and diction. [10] The stories literally move from mouth to mouth, circulating among Sarah and herselves, and the tellers both confirm and negate each other's stories as they vie to recount the definitive Story. This narrative slippage results in an increasing sense of discomfort on the part of the audience, and subjects the audience to a kind of mental miscegenation. According to Herbert Blau,

The disjunct mental state and the changes of costume, role, sexual identity are like adulterate racial mixtures in the obsessive stream of thought, a form of mental miscegenation. The desperate selves of the associative play are sometimes projected in narrative and sometimes objectively there, but no sooner does one feel located than there are displacements of space and time. (536)

Kennedy conveys Sarah's abortive quest to locate a unified self formally so that Sarah's experience as a tragic mulatta is simulated for the audience itself. The audience effectively passes out of its own comfortable notions of selfhood and identity and into the antagonistic, clashing, multiple identities of Sarah.

The final narrative dislocation of the audience occurs in Funnyhouse when the white landlady and Raymond, Sarah's Jewish boyfriend, give their versions of the story, both agreeing smugly that "the poor bitch has hung herself" (22). When the landlady informs Raymond, "Her father hung himself in a Harlem hotel when Patrice Lumumba died," Raymond supplants the landlady's story with his own, a story that echoes one of Sarah's earlier monologues (15). Raymond testifies that" her father never hung himself in a Harlem hotel when Patrice Lumumba was murdered. I know the man. He is a doctor, married to a white whore. He lives in the city in rooms with European antiques, photographs of Roman ruins, walls of books and Oriental carpets. Her father is a nigger who eats his meals on a white glass table" (23). Here, Raymond's appropriation of the language Sarah and her-selves have used earlier in the play, particularly to describe rooms, suggests that he, too, is one of Sarah's projected selves, like the Duchess, Queen Vict oria, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba. The triumph of the white parts of Sarah's consciousness is thus implied in this epilogue to the play that gives the "white" (and final, hence definitive) version of Sarah's story, as told/created by Raymond.

In the preceding, expressionistic jungle scene, the selves of Sarah-- Patrice Lumumba, the Duchess, Queen Victoria--are "wandering about speaking [the same monologue] at once," but they form a sort of anti-chorus since Kennedy specifies that" their speeches are mixed and repeated by one another" (20). This technique of overlapping monologues thus begins to function as dialogue as Sarah's selves contend to be heard and their different lines "comment" on each other. In addition, Kennedy reveals that the selves are not integrated by Sarah's conspicuous absence from the scene as well as the cacophonous anti-chorus that ends in silence. This anti-chorus is followed by complete chaos as the three selves "continue for some minutes running about and laughing" (22), thereby foreshadowing Sarah's ultimate disintegration of selfhood. In the next scene, Sarah is seen hanging in her room, and Kennedy has Sarah's landlady and boyfriend, the "Funnyhouse Lady" and "Funnyhouse Man" (1), take control of the narrative. Kennedy reveals that these white projections of Sarah's divided consciousness dismiss her as "a funny little liar" (23). Sarah, Kennedy's version of the tragic mulatta, is unable to integrate her biracial heritage, and hence destroys "her-selves."

In The Owl Answers (1965), written shortly after Funnyhouse of a Negro, Kennedy offers yet another version of the tragic mulatta who struggles to integrate a biracial heritage. Unlike in Funnyhouse, Kennedy here does not use separate actors and actresses to embody the multiple voices of the tragic protagonist, but instead employs costume changes to suggest metamorphosis and the reality of the subject-in-process. In effect, each character is a composite of multiple identities. For example, the protagonist is "SHE who is CLARA PASSMORE who is the VIRGIN MARY who is the BASTARD who is the OWL." Kennedy explains, "The characters change slowly back and forth into and out of themselves, leaving some garment from their previous selves upon them always to remind us of the nature of She who is Clara Passmore who is the Virgin Mary who is the Bastard who is the Owl's world" (Owl 25). The composite characters thus put on and take off identities, their changes of clothing visually suggesting these subtle shifts.

That such changes of identity are natural and ordinary is implied in Kennedy's stage directions: "Objects on the stage (beards, wigs, faces) should be used in the manner that people use everyday objects such as spoons or newspapers" (26-27). Kennedy's specification of beards, wigs, and faces again demonstrates her fascination with hair and masks. However, Kennedy's focus on objects traditionally used by actors and actresses to play various roles in the theater also points to identity as a theatrical process, a staging of selfhood--perhaps even a masquerade--dependent on one's position with regard to an audience.

Like Sarah in Funnyhouse, Clara is engaged in a fundamental masquerade, since she wants to pass for white, hence her last name, "Passmore." Yet Clara is prevented from passing, from claiming the lineage of her "GODDAM FATHER who is the RICHEST WHITE MAN IN THE TOWN who is the DEAD WHITE FATHER who is REVEREND PASSMORE" (Owl 25), by various figures of European history--Shakespeare, Chaucer, William the Conqueror, and Anne Boleyn--who have imprisoned her. They crowd about Clara and jeer, "If you are his ancestor why are you a Negro? Yes, why is it you are a Negro if you are his ancestor?" (28). "She who is ..." is labeled "bastard" (27), since her black blood from her mother's side labels her as "Negro." Clara's father tells her, "You are not my ancestor. You are my bastard." As during slavery, he identifies her as the "daughter of somebody that cooked for me" (32) rather than his own child. By attempting to establish her white patrilineage, Clara thus tries to upset the social order in which the child follows in the condition of the slave mother as chattel rather than heir or descendent, but is instead enslaved by a racial (and racist) ideology in which "the mighty drop" determines her identity as black.

Yet She's history is hardly so simple, for Kennedy shows that her father and mother are also products of racial mixing. Although her father is the richest white man in town, he is also presented as the dead father, who Kennedy then changes into Reverend Passmore: "The DEAD FATHER removes his hair, takes off his white face, from the chair he takes a white church robe and puts it on. Beneath his white hair is dark Negro hair. He is now REVEREND PASSMORE" (28-29). Like Clara, her father is both white and black. So, too, is Clara's mother-- "BASTARD'S BLACK MOTHER who is the REVEREND'S WIFE who is ANNE BOLEYN" (25). As in a repertory company, Kennedy has each character play a variety of parts to show that the history of race is, in most respects, a history of miscegenation; therefore, passing for white--or black, for that matter--is a far more common occurrence than a nation divided by color lines would like to concede.

She's place in such a racially polarized nation is uncertain, and this uncertainty finds its way into her conception of herself, resulting in a divided consciousness. She asks, "I am almost white, am I not?" as she pleads to be set free to visit her father and claim the white part of her heritage and self (29). Yet, just as She cannot locate a coherent, unified conception of self, so she is imprisoned in a scene which "is a New York subway is the Tower of London is a Harlem hotel room is St. Peter's" (26). Kennedy presents an objective correlative of She's quest for her ancestry in this scene. As the physical space shifts and changes, it mirrors She's continuously metamorphosing identity(ies), and audience members must adjust to the transformations, to the traces of identity that pass before them. In short, the character's desperate quest for unified selfhood becomes the audience's, as Jeanie Forte explains: "In this play of shifting subjectivities, a 'terrain in flux,' there is no possibility of a fixed, sta ble identity, either for She or the reader; all the same, we follow the heroine (non-heroine, non-character) as she moves from place to place, person to person, in an effort to locate her identity" (120).

But while Forte argues that "Clara's attempt to construct her subjectivity is made doubly difficult by the fact she is both female and black" (120), it is crucial to emphasize that Clara is not solely black [11]; she is a mulatta, and as such her identity is, at best, a palimpsest of contradictions. As one scholar explains, "In the play She is the composite overlay of her father's cultural heritage and her mother's racial background. Her identity is fragmented because half of her physical roots are black but almost all of her intellectual heritage is white" (Tener 3). By referring to her protagonist by the generic female subject pronoun, "She," in the character list as well as throughout the play, Kennedy again suggests that She's identity cannot be located. She is the tragic mulatta torn between her physical and psychical roots, any unified and stable conception of her self under siege in a deadly arena of racial warfare.

She's confusion is compounded by the fact that the historical figures she tries to claim as her ancestors--Shakespeare, William the Conqueror, Anne Boleyn--are her oppressors in the play. These cultural icons represent the Eurocentric intellectual heritage she has been taught to revere but from which she is excluded. Although She tries to stake her claim to this heritage by personally addressing her captors--"We were wandering about the gardens, my father leaning on my arm, speaking of you, William the Conqueror. My father loved you, William."--she is interrupted by those who taunt, "If you are his ancestor why are you a Negro?" (27-28). Not only does the group deny She an individual identity by calling her "a Negro," but they also refuse She's claim to a white heritage and keep her locked in the Tower of London, barricaded within the walls of a Eurocentric tradition that encloses but does not embrace her.

Through She's experience of imprisonment within this tradition, Kennedy thus implicitly criticizes it, forcing the audience to examine these "great white fathers" (or "mothers," in the case of Boleyn) from the vantage point of an outsider to the tradition. Elin Diamond argues, "Entering the network of Clara's identifications brings us into disturbing proximity with her white fathers, her ego-ideals of the canon who are also, to a great extent, our own. In other words, this text asks us to historicize the canon from the vulnerable position of our identifications with it" ("Rethinking" 93). Thus the audience is, at some level, implicated in She's imprisonment, while its members also identify with her as a prisoner of and an outsider to this tradition. Kennedy challenges the audience to change its positionality with regard to a Eurocentric (literary) history as well as those excluded or marginalized by it. Her text reinscribes the Eurocentric canon while also challenging its supremacy.

In a final coup of dramatic shape-shifting, Kennedy has She turn into the owl, a trope that disrupts, through its multiple meanings, the binaries of white and black. [12] A mythical symbol whose many meanings arise from disparate cultural perspectives, the owl is "the controlling metaphor anchoring the heroine's problem of identity with the worlds of her white and black parents and her many self images" (Tener 1). [13] However, for Kennedy, the owl is tied to a specific time when she was pregnant in Ghana. In a passage from her autobiography called "The owls and myself," Kennedy recalls that

the owls in the trees outside the Achimota Guest House were close, and at night, because we slept under gigantic mosquito nets, I felt enclosed in their sound. In the mornings I would try to find the owls in the trees but could never see them. Yet, at night in the shuttered room, under the huge white canopied nets, the owls sounded as if they were in the very center of the room.

Like She in The Owl Answers who cannot locate a stable identity, Kennedy could not locate the owls in the trees. Although Kennedy reports feeling "enclosed in their sound" (People 121-22), she could never see them. Similar to the many traces of She's multiple identities, the owls are both present and absent, heard yet unseen, and thus for Kennedy they became a perfect metaphor for She's confused notions of selfhood and identity.

In effect, by having She turn into the owl near the end of the play, Kennedy symbolically suggests the elusiveness of She's shifting identities and establishes "owldom" (43-44) in the play as a kind of liminal space resulting from She's biracial heritage. Kennedy lets the "bastard's black mother" explain: "Clara, you were conceived by your Goddam Father who was The Richest White Man in the Town and somebody [black] that cooked for him. That's why you're an owl" (30). Later in the play, the mother counsels, "Why be confused? The Owl was your beginning, Mary" (35). Although She calls on a Christian God--another great white father--to help in her quest for ancestry, she realizes that

I call God and the Owl answers. It haunts my Tower calling, its feathers are blowing against the cell wall, speckled in the garden on the fig tree, it comes, feathered, great hollow-eyed with yellow skin and yellow eyes, the flying bastard. From my Tower I keep calling and the only answer is the Owl, God. (43)

Kennedy's repetition of yellow points to the owl as an inscription of mixed race, a manifestation of She since the owl, like Clara, has "yellow skin," not feathers. Though She keeps "yearning for our kingdom, God" (43), yearning to pass in a white world dominated by a white religion, she is left only with the lonely, frightening, incomprehensible hoot of the owl, a "voice" outside of the symbolic order, asking, "Who? Who?" [14]

She's transformation into the owl and into "owldom," a discursive space outside of the symbolic order, is made complete in the end after a skirmish with a "Negro" man who serves as a visual reminder of her black heritage, much as Sarah's father does in Funnyhouse. Indeed, it seems as if here Kennedy is providing us with the confrontation with the black part of Sarah's heritage, the confrontation with her "father" that is implied by the stage directions but not fully enacted in Funnyhouse. It appears that She wounds herself and dies, a reading suggested by her last line and the final stage directions, in which her father blows out candles: "(SHE WHO IS Clara who is the Bastard who is the Virgin Mary suddenly looks like an owl, and lifts her bowed head, stares into space and speaks:) Ow... oww. (FATHER rises and slowly blows out candles on bed.)" (45). Instead of being killed, literally or figuratively, by the black side of her heritage, Clara is transformed into the owl, and her death represents a kind of tran scendence of racial polarites. Here Kennedy specifies that She "speaks," an intriguing choice of verbs since She's "ow... oww" is not speech but rather registers as the semiotic, a kind of prelinguistic wail similar to Nel's orgiastic howl in Morrison's Sula. Though She's primal howl signifies a linguistic disruption, a momentary severing of the symbolic order, it also signifies She's tragic dis)integration of selfhood, her resignation to owldom, that liminal space between black and white, an inarticulate(d) realm in which she is both present and absent, with any coherent conception of identity placed in limbo.

The play's form itself exemplifies the futility of She's quest for a coherent identity, as Jeanie Forte concludes:

The play's ambiguity and near incomprehensibility articulate the impossibility of identification with a narrative position, least of all one which might provide closure of the fiction of a coherent self. Clara--who is not one character, or person, or subjectivity--instead traverses narrative, zig-zagging across various systems of signification, seeking herself in the gaps, the spaces of unnarrated silence wherein her persistently elusive subjectivity might be found. (121)

Ultimately, the only answer to Clara's quest to pass is her anguished cry as she, the tragic mulatta, the yellow-skinned owl, answers her own query, "I am almost white, am I not?" (29). She answers herself as the owl, and her cry disrupts the Master script or discourse, the symbolic order, yet registers only as a gap in that order, a hollow echo which signifies the failure of her quest for unified selfhood, for passing into a wholly "white" identity.

Adrienne Kennedy's Clara and Sarah, whose rhyming names suggest their similarities as tragic mulattas, are indeed powerful metaphors for the social (de)construction of racial and ethnic identities that informs current debates both on identity politics and on the question of who can and should be teaching African American literature. [15] Kennedy's refusal to observe the demarcations of the color line that have been so carefully delineated in American history and her insistence on the multi-raciality of her protagonists in Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers make her early plays both historically accurate as well as startlingly relevant to issues we are grappling with now. We may look black, we may look white, but the history of our country is overwhelmingly a history of racial mixing. Kennedy's tragic mulattas teach us that perhaps America's greatest tragedy is our collective denial of this fact, and our dogged refusal to erase--or at least blur-the color line, to acknowledge and appreciate the diversit y of our common ancestries.

E. Barnsley Brown has taught writing, literature, and women's studies at Wake Forest University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and currently teaches film criticism and analysis for the Talent Identification Program at Duke University. Her poetry has appeared in Puerto del Sal, Kansas Quarterly, Oyster Boy Review, and elsewhere. Recent essays of hers have appeared in Hollywood on Stage: Playwrights Evaluate the Culture Industry (1997), Black Women Playwrights in Twentieth Century America (1999), and the journal Obsidian III.


(1.) For an extensive discussion of the neglect of Kennedy's work and her omission from various anthologies and collections, see Robinson 118-21.

(2.) Rosemary Curb addresses Kennedy's use of composite characters in "Re/cognition, Re/presentation, Re/creation in Woman-Conscious Drama: The Seer, the Seen, the Scene, the Obscene": "The symbolic theatrical device of multiple-personality characters permits spectators to see that confinement within roles prevents growth" (308). Indeed, Kennedy's work fits nicely into what Curb terms "woman-conscious" drama, "all drama by and about women that is characterized by multiple interior reflections of women's lives and perceptions" (302).

(3.) Rosemary Curb, for instance, views the black magical elements of Kennedy's work as resistance to white patriarchal power in "Fragmented Selves in Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers": "Kennedy's central images (skulls, owls, vials of blood) convey not the lustrous vitality of the blooming flower or ripening fruit but the perversion of vital female powers. The terrifying hollow depths suggested in her imagery are the sinister magic powers of Black witchcraft (forbidden and punished in a White patriarchy)" (189).

(4.) The Duchess of Hapsburg was married to the Austrian archduke, Maximilian, whom Napoleon made Emperor of Mexico and then abandoned after fooling Maximilian into believing the Mexicans wanted an emperor. The Duchess went insane after appealing to both Napoleon and the Pope for assistance. Patrice Lumumba was the Prime Minister of the newly freed Congo (subsequently Zaire) who was assassinated during Kennedy's stay in Africa. She later named the son with whom she was pregnant in Africa after Lumumba.

(5.) Rosemary Curb includes an excellent analysis of the mythical black rapist in "(Hetero)Sexual Terrors in Adrienne Kennedy's Early Plays" (144-45). Also see Nowatzki; Oha.

(6.) I allude here to Joanne M. Braxton's illuminating essay "Ancestral Presence: The Outraged Mother Figure in Contemporary Afra-American Writing." However, while the outraged mother figure Braxton identifies in her essay is protective of the person She "visits" and is outraged at how her descendants are being (mal)treated, Kennedy's outraged father rages against Sarah's desire to pass for white, against her assimilationist tendencies.

(7.) See, for example, Meigs (176), who reads Sarah's death as suicide.

(8.) In "The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy," Blau observes that Kennedy is "conscious of the political turmoil, as well as the torment among blacks over the questions of religion, miscegenation, integration, black nationalism, the Muslims, the Panthers, Pan-Africanism, and the dubious nature of African roots later celebrated on television." Yet because Blau contends that these political issues appear in her plays only as "symbols, by indirection, in a highly idiosyncratic and expressionist style" (531), he diminishes and overlooks the political import of Kennedy's drama.

(9.) Kennedy has been greatly influenced by classical drama, and has adapted Euripedes' Electra and Orestes, translations of which can be found in In One Act (105-71).

(10.) See, for example, Sarah's long monologue on pages 5-6 of Funnyhouse, which Patrice Lumumba repeats with slight differences on pages 12-13. Here Kennedy deconstructs any notion of a single Truth in favor of multiple versions or truths, while also showing the natural process by which an orally transmitted story is passed on, the story itself acquiring a life of its own as it circulates from teller to teller.

(11.) In "Theatre of Identity: Adrienne Kennedy's Portrait of the Black Woman," Robert L. Tenor also incorrectly identifies Sarah as black: "Her sense of personal identity is equally fragmented as it is confused by her fractured living as a black person in a white world filled with white images and concepts, none of which is directly related to herself as a black woman" (2). Although Tenor does refer to Sarah as a mulatta in other parts of his article, his discussion of her as a "black woman" reveals the cultural predisposition to see race as solely a matter of black and white--or, rather, black or white. Just as Affirmative Action forms for jobs often do not contain a category beyond "Other" for mixed-race individuals, so American society denies the historical reality that this country is built on a mixture and mixing of races.

(12.) In an interesting study of transcendental ideals in Kennedy's work, Paul K. Bryant-Jackson notes that The Owl Answers is based on a type of West African drama in which shape-shifting occurs. Bryant-Jackson writes: "The Owl Answers is similar to the Anansegoro, which utilizes the transformation of character from person to animal to achieve its purpose.... Kennedy's personal experience with the owls [during her trip to Ghana] and the later dramatizing of the experience represents a quintessential African theatrical event: a communal sacred ritual, in which the central narrator, as well as other characters, can assume or change identities for religious purposes" (49). This type of theatrical ritual does, in fact, suggest the transformative potential of the subject-in-process, whose elusive subjectivity cannot be restricted and who passes in and out of various identities.

(13.) Tener enumerates the many meanings of the owl as "a symbol for non-believers in God who dwell in darkness; a messenger of witches or the bird transformation of a witch; another name for a harlot who works the night," and so forth (2-3). For a useful discussion of the owl's totemic meaning and association with women in the plays, also see Kintz 162, 169-70. The religious resonances of the owl are addressed in Carla McDonough's "God and Owls: The Sacred and the Profane in Adrienne Kennedy's The Owl Answers."

(14.) In a discussion of the meanings of Kennedy's owl in Drumbeats, Masks, and Metaphor: Contemporary Afro-American Theatre, Genevieve Fabre points out that, among other things, the owls' "cries are also the distress call of blacks who seek their identity in vain-'Who am l?'"(121). The owl's hoot thus onomatopoetically represents the pressing question behind Kennedy's characters' quests for identity and selfhood.

(15.) I refer here to the academic segregation in which blackness is equated with having the authority to teach African American literature. Hence many academic departments are not interested in hiring African Americanists of other races or ethnicities who do not appear black. Of course, such academic segregation works against African Americanists of all races, since it essentializes blackness and ensures that the African American medievalist will be asked to teach African American literature while the "white" African Americanist will rarely be hired. This academic segregation is particularly ridiculous when applied more widely: Should Brazilians only teach Brazilian literature, the French only teach French literature, white males only teach literature by white males? The question of who teaches African American literature is a volatile issue since our country is divided by color lines, lines that Kennedy shows are blurry if not altogether contrived.

Works Cited

Augsburg, Tanya. "Genet and Kennedy's Horror Shows of Race and Gender." Theatre Insight 4.1-2 (1993):24-30.

Baraka, Amiri. "Black Theater in the Sixties." Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literary Criticism. Studies in Black American Literature 2. Ed. Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot. Greenwood: Penkevill, 1986.225-37.

Benston, Kimberly. "Cities in Bezique: Adrienne Kennedy's Expressionistic Vision." CLA Journal 20.3 (1976):235-44.

Binder, Wolfgang. "A MELUS Interview: Adrienne Kennedy." MELUS 12.3 (1985):99-108. Blau, Herbert. "The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy." Modem Drama 27.4 (1984):520-39.

Booth, Wayne. "Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism." Critical Inquiry 9 (1982):45-76.

Braxton, Joanne M. "Ancestral Presence: The Outraged Mother Figure in Contemporary Afra-American Writing." Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance. Ed. Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990.299-315.

Bryant-Jackson, Paul K. "Kennedy's Travelers in the American and African Continuum." Bryant-Jackson and Overbeck 45-57.

Bryant-Jackson, Paul K., and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.

Childress, Alice. Wedding Band. 9 Plays by Black Women. Ed. Margaret B. Wilkerson. New York: NAL, 1986. 69-133.

Cohn, Ruby. "Black on Black: Childress, Baraka, Bullins, Kennedy." New American Dramatists, 1960-1990. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martin's P, 1991. 103-23.

Curb, Rosemary. "Fragmented Selves in Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of an American Negro and The Owl Answers." Theatre Journal 32.2 (1980):180-95.

--. "(Hetero)Sexual Terrors in Adrienne Kennedy's Early Plays." Bryant-Jackson and Overbeck 142-56.

--. "Re/cognition, Re/presentation, Re/creation in Woman-Conscious Drama: The Seer, the Seen, the Scene, the Obscene." Theatre Journal 37.3 (1985):302-16.

Diamond, Elin. "An Interview with Adrienne Kennedy." Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 4 (1989):143-57.

--. "Rethinking Identification: Kennedy, Freud, Brecht." Kenyon Review 15.2 (1993): 86-99. Fabre, Genevieve. Drumbeats, Masks and Metaphor Contemporary Afro-American Theatre. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.

Forte, Jeanie. "Realism, Narrative, and the Feminist Playwright--A Problem of Reception." Modem Drama 32.1 (1989):115-27.

Kennedy, Adrienne. Funnyhouse of a Negro. 1964. In One Act 1-23.

--. In One Act. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.1988.

--. The Owl Answers. 1965. In One Act 35-45.

--. People Who Led to My Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1987.

Kintz, Linda. The Subject's Tragedy: Political Poetics, Feminist Theory, and Drama. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992.

Meigs, Susan E. "No Place but the Funnyhouse: The Struggle for Identity in Three Adrienne Kennedy Plays." Modem American Drama: The Female Canon. Ed. June Schlueter. London: Associates UP, 1990. 172-83.

McDonough, Carla J. "God and the Owls: The Sacred and the Profane in Adrienne Kennedy's The Owl Answers." Modem Drama 40 (1997): 385-402.

Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: NAL, 1973.

Nowatzki, Robert. "Race, Rape, Lynching, and Manhood Suffrage: Constructions of White and Black Masculinity in Turn-of-the-Century White Supremacist Literature." Joumal of Men's Studies 3.2 (1994): 161-70.

Oha, Obododimma. "Her Dissonant Selves: The Semiotics of Plurality and Bisexuality in Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro." American Drama 6.2(1997): 67-80.

Robinson, Marc. The Other American Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

shange, ntozake. for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. New York: Collier Books, 1989.

Sollors, Werner. "Owls and Rats in the American Funnyhouse: Adrienne Kennedy's Drama." American Literature 63.3 (1991): 507-32.

Tener, Robert L. "Theatre of Identity: Adrienne Kennedy's Portrait of the Black Woman." Studies in Black Literature 6.2 (1975): 1-5.
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Author:Brown, E. Barnsley
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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