Summary from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funnyhouse_of_a_Negro
The play opens with a dreamlike sequence of a woman in a white nightgown with long, dark hair crossing the stage. The woman, who the audience later learns is Sarah's mother, carries a bald head in her hands. A white curtain opens, revealing Sarah's bedroom. The play takes place in Sarah's mind, with her room as a symbol for her obsession with whiteness. The white statue of Queen Victoria on the stage is a symbol of whiteness.
The first scene is between Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg, with Sarah's room representing the Queen's chambers. This gives the audience an understanding of the permeability of the set, as it constantly takes on new forms for its various inhabitants. The two women discuss whiteness, with the Queen stating, "My mother was the light. She was the lightest one. She looked like a white woman." Their conversation is not their own words, but the words of Sarah. The Queen and Duchess embody Anglo-American culture and are a manifestation of Sarah's white self.
The conversation between the Queen and Duchess is interrupted by the woman from the opening sequence's knocking and yelling about how she should have never let a black man touch her. This is how we first learn of Sarah's hatred towards her black father. The scene shifts into one of Sarah's monologues, and ends with a comment from the landlady, who is one of the few characters who exists outside of Sarah's mind and therefore one of the few manifestations of reality in the play. The landlady helps the audience to understand Sarah's situation, explaining how her father killed himself when Patrice Lumumba was killed. The landlady says that Sarah hasn't left her room since her father's death, and that Sarah claims her father did not actually hang himself, but rather, she "bludgeoned his head with an ebony skull that he carries about with him. Wherever he goes, he carries black masks and heads." The scene ends with the landlady's comments about how Sarah's hair has fallen out and how she always knew that Sarah wanted to be someone else. This scene introduces us to the motif of hair, which recurs throughout the play. There is also a persistent knocking sound in the background for the rest of the play, representing the father's attempts to return to Sarah's life.
The next scene is between the Duchess and Raymond, the funnyman of the funnyhouse. The two characters discuss the Duchess' father, who is actually Sarah's father, as the Duchess is an extension of Sarah. They call the father a "wild beast" who raped Sarah's mother, and compare his blackness to the mother's whiteness. Finally, the Duchess reveals that the mother is currently in an asylum and is completely bald; this explains the significance of the opening sequence of the play. The audience also learns that the Duchess' hair is falling out; this implies that Sarah's hair is falling out, because her white self cannot coexist with her black self.
The next scene contains a speech by Lumumba, a manifestation of Sarah's black self. His character is unknown to the audience, and he holds a mask in his hands. The speech discusses how Sarah is haunted by her bald mother in her sleep, blaming Sarah's father for her plight into insanity, saying, "Black man, black man, my mother says, I never should have let a black man put his hands on me."
The next scene begins with a movement sequence between the Duchess and Queen, in which they discover that the Queen's hair has fallen out on her pillow, and the Duchess tries to place hair back onto her head. As they continue to pantomime, Lumumba's character returns for another monologue, in which he gives more information about Sarah's life. The audience learns that Sarah is a student at a city college in New York, and that she dreams of being surrounded by European antiques and having white friends. He also explains that Sarah's black father was given mixed messages about his identity by his parents. His mother wanted him to go to Africa and save the race, while his father told him that "the race was no damn good." Lumumba's speech ends with the claim that Sarah's father tried to hang himself in a Harlem hotel, but leaves ambiguity as to whether the suicide was successful.
The next scene is between the Duchess and Jesus in the Duchess' palace. They are both bald, and express their fear surrounding the loss of hair. The scene begins with a movement sequence between the Duchess and Jesus, similar to that between the Duchess and the Queen, in which the two characters sit on a bench, attempting to brush the shreds of hair left on their heads. When they speak, they discuss how the father won't leave them alone. The landlady enters and tells a story about how Sarah's father asked her for forgiveness for being black, and she would not give him forgiveness. The scene ends with Jesus telling the Duchess that he plans to go to Africa to kill Patrice Lumumba.
The next scene takes place in a jungle, which covers the entire stage, while Sarah's bedroom remains in the background. Jesus appears, surrounded by the rest of the characters, all with nimbuses on their heads "in a manner to suggest that they are saviors". The group speaks in unison about how they believed their father to be God, but he is black. They speak of how his darkness killed the lightness, or Sarah's mother, and haunted Sarah's conception. Finally, they say that they are bound to the father unless he dies. They all rush to the grass in unison and repeat their chants, as the mother enters. They enact a conversation between Sarah and her father, in which he seeks forgiveness for being black, and Sarah asks him why he raped her mother then states how she wants to "bludgeon him with an ebony head." All of the characters run around the stage laughing and screaming until the blackout.
As the final scene begins, a new wall drops onto stage. A white statue of Queen Victoria acts as the representation of Sarah's room. Sarah appears in the light, "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." The landlady and Raymond enter, noticing Sarah's hanging body. The landlady remarks on the sadness of Sarah's situation, when Raymond says, "She was a funny little liar." He then says that her father never actually hanged himself, but rather, he is a doctor and married to a white woman, living the life that Sarah dreamed of having.
Adrienne Kennedy is an African-American playwright. She was born in 1931 and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Kennedy graduated with a degree in Education from the Ohio State University in 1953. She continued to study at The New School for Social Research and Columbia University American Theater Wing. Kennedy is most known for her role in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960's and early 1970's. This political and social movement advocated for racial pride, independence and equality for all black people. She was a founding member of the Women’s Theatre Council in 1971.
After the birth of her son, she traveled to Africa and Italy. When she returned home she wrote her first play, Funnyhouse of a Negro. The play premiered in 1964 and won an Obie Award for Distinguished Play. In 1995, Signature Theatre dedicated their season to her work with performances of Funnyhouse of a Negro, A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, June and Jean in Concert, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, and The Alexander Plays...Suzanne In Stages. She also won two Obie Awards in 1996 for June and Jean in Concert and Sleep Deprivation Chamber for Best New American Play.
In 2003, Kennedy was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Literature by Ohio State University. She has taught and lectured at Yale University, Princeton University, Brown University, University of California, Berkeley, Harvard University, Stanford University, New York University, and University of California.
Adrienne Kennedy was born Adrienne Lita Hawkins on September 13, 1931, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 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. She grew up in an integrated neighborhood and didn't experience much racism until attending college at Ohio State University. As a child, she spent most of her time reading books like Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden instead of playing games with other children.
She admired actors like Orson Welles and began to focus on theater during her teenage years. The Glass Menagerie was among the first plays she saw produced, inspiring her to explore her passion for playwriting. Her interest in playwriting continued when she started at Ohio State in 1949. She graduated from Ohio State in 1953 with a bachelor's degree in education and continued her studies at Columbia University in 1954–56. She married Joseph Kennedy on May 15, 1953, a month after graduating from Ohio State, and the couple had two children, Joseph Jr. and Adam. They divorced in 1966.
Her first play to be produced was Funnyhouse of a Negro, a one-act play she wrote in 1960, the year she visited Ghana for a few months with her husband on his grant from the African Research Foundation. The play 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."
A Rat's Mass was produced at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in Manhattan's East Village twice in 1969 and once in 1971. In 1976, La MaMa's Annex performed the show with music by Cecil Taylor. Sun: A Poem for Malcolm X Inspired By His Death and A Beast Story were both produced at La MaMa in 1974.
As of 2018, Kennedy has written thirteen published and five unpublished plays, several autobiographies, a novella, and a short story. Kennedy used the alias Adrienne Cornell for the short story "Because of the King of France", published in Black Orpheus: A Journal of African and Afro-American Literature in 1963. Much of Kennedy's work is based on her lived experience.
Kennedy was a founding member of the Women's Theatre Council in 1971, a member of the board of directors of PEN in 1976–77, and an International Theatre Institute representative in Budapest in 1978.
Related Articles, Online Materials, and Books:
Tiffany Gilly (she/her) is doing what she can to be an advocate and ally to Black People and People of Color through her art. She is an actor who seeks to support theatre and stories by Black Playwrights and Playwrights of Color, so she started this play-reading group to increase the knowledge of plays by non-White Playwrights as a starting point or a stepping stone for further exploration as artists.