Introduction by Travis Baker, MFA ’13 Candidate (Fiction)
During the 1994-95 season at the Signature Theatre Company, I was introduced to the work of Adrienne Kennedy as well as the woman who created it. The image of a girl on a swing, a movie star on a balcony, headlights in the night – and a small woman with a fierce energy – remain with me all these years later. When the concept of Image came up for this issue of Masons’ Road, I immediately thought of Ms. Kennedy and she was kind enough to speak to me over the phone from her son’s home in Virginia. Our conversation follows.
TB: The characters in your work, much like the Chorus in Henry V, often take us to another time or place by use of imagery. Jean, in June and Jean in Concert, takes the audience to her childhood or the Negro in Funnyhouse of the Negro talking about his home. What are you striving for with the use of this imagery?
AK: Well, the first person who influenced me was Charlotte Bronte with Jane Eyre. I was always imitating Jane Eyre, a person talking about landscape and feeling. And then I discovered Lorca and I wanted to do what he did. How they used landscape to talk about feelings and the past. You see, I felt I’d failed at writing the Jane Eyre novel but then I read Poet in New York by Lorca and saw how he talked about New York City and Harlem and I knew that landscape. We were living in New York. My work became a blend of those two writers. Maybe I couldn’t sustain a narrative, but I could have people talk briefly.
Of course, Hamlet is my favorite play – Hamlet talking about his father, talking about his feelings and the past.
TB: Much of your work brings up photographs, such as the (girl) in The Movie Star has to Star in Black and White, in which the young black girl writes to Hollywood stars for their autographed photos. Where did the influence of photographs and their representation of a perceived image versus the actual image come from?
AK: I think the contrast was unconscious. My mother was a very unusual person. She kept this scrap book with all of these photographs from her life, from 1926 until the mid-50’s. I used to study over and over again all these photos of my parents when they were young and their friends. I was as obsessed with that as with the Bronte narrative – studying, trying to figure out who my parents were and how, now, they seemed at odds with the people in the photographs. I was always trying to fill in the gap with photos from the past…make sense of the gap.
And, of course, I was obsessed by movie stars. Once a week, around 1937, my mother took me to the movies and I would watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and how they lived in Paris and I would ask my mother, “Why do they live in Paris and we live in Cleveland?” We lived on this dark little street, Mount Pleasant, and they lived in Paris and Hollywood. I would ask her, “Why can’t we live in Hollywood?” I had a movie star scrapbook starting from when I was 12 years old and I would ask myself, why do these people live in these places? Hamlet lived in a castle in Denmark and I lived in Cleveland.
My mother was also obsessed by movies. She was a school teacher and ran the house like the army, yet we’d step into this little theatre, the Waldorf, and she’d spend an hour and a half crying! I guess you’re trying to put yourself there, in those places that aren’t Cleveland.
TB: What are some of the memorable images from your career?
AK: Well, in Funnyhouse [of a Negro], there was hair, black people’s obsession with our hair. Good hair or bad hair because it was kinky and had to be straightened and it’s very much coming to grips with hair. And when I was writing the play, I was in Africa and Rome, and for the first time my hair wasn’t straightened.
And owls, from The Owl Answers. My grandmother had this garden. I’d wake up and have this owl looking at me from the garden and it scared me. The same thing in Africa. In Africa we stayed at the Ambassador, a very famous hotel, and the cottages were so beautiful yet you couldn’t sleep in them because the rats would invade at night and I would dream of rats which is where A Rat’s Mass came from.
Of course, I’d still like to be Charlotte Bronte.