“The Political, The Unexpected, The Landscape”

Exploring the work and life of Adrienne Kennedy

By Kamilah Bush, “Ohio State Murders” Dramaturg

In the first pages of People Who Led to My Work, playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s memoir, she remarks, “you could invent enchantment with paper.” The enchantment Kennedy has created over her nearly 60 year career, has been of the most dizzying and unique kind, inspired by her own stories and those of her family.

Born in 1931 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Kennedy is the daughter of a social worker and an elementary school teacher. Her parents, both from Montezuma, Georgia, were a college-educated, middle class couple who raised their family in the integrated suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. She spent most mornings listening to her mother recount her childhood and detail her dreams, spent her Saturdays at the movies and her summers taking the segregated train down to Georgia to visit her grandparents. This, and her time spent at Ohio State University from 1949-1953, is the bedrock on which her theatrical endeavors have been built. 

In 1964, Kennedy’s searing voice roared to the stage with her first major work Funnyhouse of A Negro, a one-act drama which presented the fragmented identity of its central character called Negro Sarah. Swiftly moving and brutal at times, Funnyhouse became the hallmark of her career, employing dreamlike sequences, poetry and violent imagery, which illustrated the horrors of racism and sexism and the weight of remembering. This play brought her the first of her two Obie Awards and led to Rockefeller grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship and an honorary doctorate from her alma mater. 

Between Funnyhouse and 2018’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, she penned 24 plays. Five of them, including Ohio State Murders, feature the character Suzanne Alexander. Collectively known as The Alexander Plays—She Talks to Beethoven, Ohio State Murders, The Film Club, The Dramatic Circle and Sleep Deprivation Chamber—they center on Suzanne, Kennedy’s autobiographical stand in. Suzanne, like Kennedy, attended Ohio State in 1949, was denied entry into the school’s English department because she was Black, was harassed and demeaned by her white dorm-mates and went on to use her experiences to fuel her acclaimed writing career. Though she admits that all of her plays are “an amalgam” of her life and the stories of her mother’s, The Alexander Plays most closely mirror the facts of her own lived experiences.

Still, as the refrain of her 1969 play Cities in Bezique rings, “all images remain.” Each of her stories is an overlay of memory and echo, concerned not with reality but with, as she has said, “the political, the unexpected, the landscape.” They are all an unraveling of the particular personal and societal indignities which have married themselves to Black women. This unraveling, necessarily invites brutality and invokes images which many of the theatrical works of her contemporaries wished to turn away from. Her work is the difficult sort, but to call her work shocking is a reduction. A more accurate descriptor would be unsettling. Kennedy disquiets the theater, she challenges it. Perhaps this is why the bulk of her work has been in the academic sphere rather than on the professional stage. 

With an unmatched ability of releasing a narrative from the constraints of time, form and structure, Kennedy’s work has inspired generations of playwrights. There is a nearly straight line between her plays and the plays of Suzan Lori Parks, Dave Harris and Chisa Hutchinson, and like playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has said, “every playwright writing today writes in Adrienne Kennedy’s shadow. Full stop.”