THE PLAYWRIGHT ADRIENNE Kennedy will make her Broadway debut this month at the age of 91, with “Ohio State Murders” (1992), a play she tried for years to commit to paper. “I couldn’t do it,” she recalls. It was 1989, and she’d been commissioned by the Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland, her hometown, to write about her experience as an undergraduate, decades ago, at Ohio State University. She was about to return her advance. And then, she says, “I just happened to be in the earthquake.”
Small and unassuming — she’s 5 foot 1 — with a voice that evokes the singsong politesse of Hollywood’s golden age, Kennedy has a winking sense of humor that might seem incongruous with her body of work, which is often described as dark, difficult and abstract. (In 2018, the New Yorker critic Hilton Als called her oeuvre “a long and startling fugue, composed of language that is impactful and impacted but ever-moving, ever-shifting.”) Kennedy herself is a shape-shifter: In her 10th decade, she’s still full of giddy, nervous energy, her moods and memories changing as fast as the tonal jump-cuts in her plays. On this October morning, she delivers “I just happened to be in the earthquake” with the rhythm of “I just happened to be in the neighborhood.” A moment from now, she’ll recall the way Ginger Rogers wore her hair in “Kitty Foyle,” the 1940 melodrama that was one of her mother’s favorite films; earlier, she was mooning over Frank Sinatra in “Higher and Higher” (1944): “I still want to marry Frank Sinatra,” she says, sitting amid various curios — a bust of Caesar, a West African djembe drum — in her 61-year-old writer son Adam’s home in Williamsburg, Va., where she’s lived for the past decade, along with his wife, Renee, and their four children. “It doesn’t go away. Why? Why is that?”
Since her theatrical debut with “Funnyhouse of a Negro” Off Broadway in 1964, at 32, Kennedy has addressed the heart- and head sickness of racism, the confusion of sex and gender and the illusion of the self with incantatory paradoxes, visceral symbols, sidelong pop-culture references and violent contradictions. “Funnyhouse,” the first of more than 20 plays she’s written over six decades, is set inside the collapsing consciousness of a young Black woman, Negro Sarah, struggling with self-division and battling self-destruction. She agonizes over her racially mixed parentage and finds herself split into dueling avatars: Sarah is also England’s Queen Victoria is also the assassinated Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba is also Jesus (“a hunchback, yellow-skinned dwarf dressed in white rags,” as the script says) is also the Duchess of Hapsburg (perhaps with notes of Bette Davis playing the Empress Carlota of Mexico in 1939’s “Juarez”). All of them are losing their hair in clumps. Skin color and hair texture, perpetually racialized, are here deployed to evoke the horrors of the body, often to comedic effect: “I have something I must show you,” the jumpy duchess says to Jesus, closing the shutters before lifting her headpiece to reveal that, as the stage directions explain, “her baldness is identical to Jesus’s.’” Moments before, a severed head, also bald, plummeted from the rafters.
A still from New York theater La MaMa’s 1976 production of “A Rat’s Mass,” featuring (from left) the actors Nancy Heikin and Lucille Johnson.Credit…Amnon Ben Nomis, courtesy of the La MaMa Archive/Ellen Stewart Private Collection
This, in the midst of America’s civil rights movement, was Kennedy’s answer to the corrosion of racism: grotesquerie, absurdity, horror and heart, layered with rapid transitions and discursions. The play “was so controversial,” she says now. “Certain people thought it was just perfect: That’s what kept it alive. Other people thought that I took drugs, that I hated Black people, [that] I hated white people.” That slippery dramatic style made the playwright sui generis for over a half-century; her earthquake reference feels like the kind of dry joke you’d find in one of her plays. Except it’s not rhetorical: Kennedy really was in the deadly Loma Prieta earthquake, which destroyed part of San Francisco’s Bay Bridge in 1989. Then 58, she was teaching playwriting at Stanford, where she hid in a closet and thought she was going to die. Over the days that followed, navigating the Palo Alto campus amid aftershocks, Kennedy passed sorority row and the university’s Lake Lagunita. They both reminded her of Ohio State. Suddenly, it was as if her alma mater had returned to her, with all the hidden traps and secret deadfalls it held for its few students of color. (When she matriculated in 1949, she says, fewer than 250 of the school’s 20,000 or so students were Black, which is consistent with other estimates from the time, although the school didn’t measure racial demographics back then.)
She flew home from California to New York, to her West 89th Street apartment — dense with books, memorabilia, the chunky ’40s Philco radio she’d listened to with her family back in Ohio — and wrote a script that blended elements of film noir, meta-true crime, audience direct address and Surrealist misdirection: “The geography made me anxious,” says the narrator of “Ohio State Murders” as she wanders the campus. “The zigzagged streets beyond the Oval were regions of Law, Medicine, Mirror Lake, the Greek theater, the lawn behind the dorm where the white girls sunned. The ravine that would be the scene of the murder and Mrs. Tyler’s boardinghouse in the Negro district.”
The story is about a bookish Black girl, in love with English literature (and the emotionally indecipherable white professor teaching it) at a predominantly white university in 1949, losing her childhood illusions — and then, in a gothic twist, losing much more. Like most of Kennedy’s work, the play is a kind of scrapbook, just like the one her mother, Etta Hawkins, kept, which she’d often show her daughter. Many nights, while washing the dishes, Kennedy’s mother would tell her daughter about her nightmares. Kennedy learned never to throw a violent dream away, to save everything, to draw primarily from herself. (She had a younger brother, Cornell Wallace — named after their father, Cornell Wallace “C.W.” Hawkins — who was seriously injured in a car accident in his 20s and died in 1972.) Remembering the process of writing the Ohio script, she says, “It just came out. In about two days. And I was very upset.
“It wasn’t pleasant,” she adds. “And then I called up [Great Lakes] and said, ‘I have a play.’”
THAT PLAY OPENS at the James Earl Jones Theater on Dec. 8, directed by one Tony winner, Kenny Leon, and starring another, Audra McDonald, as Kennedy’s avatar Suzanne Alexander. (The “Alexander Plays,” a four-work cycle within her larger corpus, track the life and letters of a middle-class Black writer-professor navigating racism, sexism and her own hallucinatory nostalgia.) Reviewing a 2007 Off Broadway production of it for The New York Times, the critic Charles Isherwood wrote that Kennedy “is surely one of the finest living American playwrights, and perhaps the most underappreciated.” It’s taken more than three decades to arrive on Broadway. But it’s taken its creator, who broke out amid (if not always within) the ’60s-era theater of revolution, much longer. She has a theory as to why: “It’s because I’m a Black woman.”
Kennedy’s journey began in wartime Cleveland, where she was raised by an exacting schoolteacher (Etta’s daily exhortation, Kennedy says, was “don’t you let those little white kids do better than you”) and C.W., a Morehouse man who headed the local branch of the Y.M.C.A. and became a fulcrum of the Black community. The Hawkins’ neighborhood, Glenville — full of ambitious European immigrants fleeing Hitler and middle-class Southern Blacks fleeing Jim Crow — produced the creators of the first “Superman” comic (1938), the “Inherit the Wind” (1955) co-writer Jerome Lawrence and the celebrated midcentury printmaker John Morning, among many others. At school, Kennedy won prizes, became class president — and at one point, she says, saved a white student’s life after he used a racial slur against a Black classmate. But she didn’t feel truly othered until she attended college in nearby Columbus, where the white girls in her dorm made their contempt for their Black classmates clear and the professors “didn’t see us as people,” she says. Once, after she’d turned in an essay on George Bernard Shaw, a professor kept her after class to accuse her of plagiarism: “It was inconceivable to him that this tiny [Black] girl in a pink sweater could write.”
Ohio State was discouraging for the high-achieving student but perversely nourishing to the young artist. It’s also where she met her husband — Joseph Kennedy, five years her senior, who would later help establish the Africa development nonprofit Africare — with whom she moved to Manhattan a few years after graduation. There, she balanced writing and motherhood: She and Joseph had two sons, Adam and Joseph Jr., now a 68-year-old musician, and after they divorced in 1966, they remained close until her husband’s death two years ago. It was while accompanying him on a work trip to Ghana in 1960 that the fever dream of “Funnyhouse” came to her. When she returned to America, she used a draft of it to apply to Edward Albee’s playwriting workshop at New York’s Circle in the Square Theater and was accepted. Two years later, Albee produced the first staging of “Funnyhouse” himself at a small theater downtown.
With Albee’s imprimatur, she became an immediate sensation. Kennedy was invited to join the Actors Studio, then run by Lee Strasberg, and she and John Lennon discussed collaborating on a stage adaptation of his 1964 nonsense book, “In His Own Write.” (The dissolution of their would-be partnership is chronicled in her 2008 bio-play, “Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?,” co-written with Adam, who remembers meeting the rock star as a child.) She won her first Obie Award in 1964, for “Funnyhouse,” sharing the spotlight with Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), author of the landmark play “Dutchman,” which also won an Obie that year, and the founding father of the Black Arts Movement, the famous organization comprising a polymathic group of politically motivated African American artists. The B.A.M. members, who were overwhelmingly male, were known for making confrontational work; they and their acolytes viewed hers — insistently introspective, often self-lacerating — with suspicion. To some, her output was “apparently less overtly connected to ‘the struggle,’ ” says Werner Sollors, an African American studies professor at Harvard. But Kennedy, who says, “It does not interest me to summarize the state of any of the arts,” has always drawn on influences less political and more personal, notably her own childhood memories and the treacherous persistence of the past. Her references and obsessions have been the same since the beginning: Old Hollywood, the Greek tragedies and the turn-of-the-20th-century Spanish writer Federico García Lorca, whose “Blood Wedding,” a formative work for her, lasted less than a month on Broadway in 1935.
It bothered some in the movement, Kennedy still suspects, that “this girl” — here, a quick cut to anger, as she channels the belittling voice of her detractors — was getting attention for writing ugly things that weren’t about pride or uplift or the politics of the moment. “A big tension that merits mention is her relationship to Blackness,” says the playwright and actor Eisa Davis, who studied under Kennedy in the early ’90s. “She’s very unsparing about revealing her own inner workings, and the illness of what racism does to a psyche.” This comes across intensely in “Funnyhouse,” particularly in a scene where the character Lumumba says: “It is also my [N-word] dream for my friends to eat their meals on white glass tables and to live in rooms with European antiques, photographs of Roman ruins. … My friends will be white. … My white friends, like myself, will be shrewd intellectuals and anxious for death.” He then adds: “Anyone’s death.” That last line, delivered by a Pan-African leader murdered by Western colonizers, is a dark joke rendered in an unexpected place: witty graffiti scrawled on a great ruin. “She’ll find a beautiful, humorous moment, and then a devastatingly evil, horrible moment. But they’re right next to each other,” says Leon, her Broadway director. “She’s like a drum major. We’re always chasing her.”
For years, it seemed, no one could quite keep up. In 1969, after she had an Off Off Broadway hit at La MaMa called “A Rat’s Mass” — about two half-rodent siblings who long for a white baby — she began to feel misunderstood by the culture and its gatekeepers: “Adrienne Kennedy, she’s crazy,” was how she read the response to “Cities in Bezique,” a wild Surrealist diptych about sexual assault that was her second major production. Some “people walked out,” Kennedy says. “So I really didn’t like the theater, not at all.” It was even worse after the American playwright Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf” made it to Broadway in 1976, when Kennedy’s own work was hardly being produced. “I felt left behind,” she wrote in an email. “I knew my time had passed.” She’s had just one major New York production in the past decade: “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” a well-reviewed play about an interracial relationship in the South that she completed at 86, which premiered in 2018 at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
But, as audiences drifted, the era’s progressive academics increasingly responded to her fractal approach. After being studied, interpreted and decrypted, “I came to see myself differently,” she says, which fueled both her writing and academic career for subsequent decades. “Adrienne was embraced by scholars,” says Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard historian and literary critic, “almost exactly [at the time] when feminist and post-structural writers and critics were turning to [Zora Neale] Hurston’s rich experiments in Black Modernism to explore the contours of Black postmodernism.” Universities began offering her jobs; after some four decades teaching playwriting at Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Berkeley, she’s remained close with dozens of her former students (myself included). “She’s just such a writer, in any form,” says the actor Natalie Portman. Even Kennedy’s emails are disobedient. A restless correspondent, she’s known to send early morning messages with punctuation that conjure a voice and style unambiguously her own:
SUCCESSIVE GENERATIONS OF playwrights — particularly Black ones — have picked up on that unique, uncompromising voice. The actor and stage docudramatist Anna Deavere Smith, 72, says she was forever changed by Kennedy’s 1976 anti-pastiche “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White” — in which white Hollywood icons channel a Black woman’s family trauma — directed by Joseph Chaikin at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1976. “In those personae of white movie stars, she’s injecting a Black narrative,” she says. “What’s important there is how she handled identity: It’s not all meshed together. That was, for me, a groundbreaking thing to witness.” She credits the playwright with freeing her from the constraints of naturalism and linearity: “The world is a fragmented place … it’s not beginning, middle, end. I was so happy to have that verified for me.”
While Smith was able to see a live production, many others encountered Kennedy’s work mostly on the page. That’s how she became a “waymaker,” says Suzan-Lori Parks, 59, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog” (2001) is also being revived by Leon on Broadway this season. “This world wants certain kinds of folk spoken about in certain ways,” she says. “The marketplace doesn’t want us getting too deep.” And yet Kennedy remains a lodestar for a rising generation of Black absurdists — among them 33-year-old Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play,” 2018), 37-year-old Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins (“An Octoroon,” 2014) and Jackie Sibblies Drury (whose 2018 “Fairview” won a Pulitzer) — all of whose work seems more influenced by her anarchic collages and genre mash-ups than by, say, Lorraine Hansberry’s realism or August Wilson’s expressionism. Harris first read “Funnyhouse” in his Virginia high school’s rehearsal room. He remembers thinking: “ ‘A play can look like this? A play can sound like this?’ I’d seen Buñuel, I’d read Beckett, but I’d never seen those influences applied to a Black person [in a play].” A few years later, he mounted a production of “Movie Star” in his college dorm room. “Her great champions were always there,” he says, “but not in the seats of power.”
KENNEDY’S ARRIVAL ON Broadway began with a reading. In June 2021, the producer Jeffrey Richards developed a streaming event to aid the Actors Fund, a New York nonprofit. Performance spaces were all but closed, and theater artists were looking for opportunities, so Leon agreed to direct over Zoom, and McDonald signed on to play Suzanne Alexander. McDonald, who had trained as an opera singer, hadn’t read Kennedy’s work in school, and found herself enraptured by the script. (“Abyss, bespattered, cureless, misfortune, enemy, alien host, battle groups fated to fall on the field today,” chants Suzanne, close to madness near the play’s end, transforming her English literature lessons into a kind of funeral rite.) Once the event was over, the actor says, “I turned off my computer, I couldn’t move. Gutted. Like a fish.” Not long after, Richards planned a Broadway run.
For McDonald, the production has been its own kind of education. “Adrienne is forever and always a teacher,” the actor says. “I’ll get an email that says, ‘Audra, you need to read this book,’ or, ‘I want you to watch this particular interpretation of “Jane Eyre.” ’” These lessons have influenced McDonald to the point that she doesn’t just want to bring Kennedy’s work to Broadway; she wants to conjure the playwright herself in her portrayal of Suzanne Alexander. “She has her own rhythm,” McDonald tells me over the phone, and suddenly it’s like I’m talking to Kennedy — that trademark lilt. “Even where her voice sits, you know, and then she gets a little — not lost in the thought,” McDonald continues, “but she’s still emotionally tied to all of it, which I find so moving. I want to be able to capture that. I want to be able to bring Adrienne.”
But the question remains: Will she come? At 91, Kennedy’s not sure she can travel to New York for the opening. Perhaps the next generation will take it from here. In recent years, she’s corresponded with Harris; when he got engaged in October, his fiancé, the television executive Arvand Khosravi, asked Kennedy to write a surprise inscription on the inside of his ring: “Happiness. Is. To Me. Greatest Thing,” it says, her syntax intact. Throughout the pandemic, the two writers had discussed a co-production — a double billing of one of her plays, and a new play from Harris about her influence on him, his grief over his grandmother’s death and his suspicion of the theater industrial complex.
Who knows when that might happen. Kennedy mostly stays at home these days and, this late in life, doesn’t expect the recognition she’s been denied. (She won’t even allow herself to be photographed.) “I’ve been around a long time,” she tells me. “Playwrights aren’t icons.” It makes me think of some advice she’d sent me years ago, after I’d had a little success in the theater: