Adrienne Kennedy has been a force on the American stage since the premiere of her groundbreaking Obie Award–winning Funnyhouse of a Negro in 1964. Her haunting and powerful plays, filled with unexpected juxtapositions and startling transfigurations, dramatize interior realities “in a dreamlike fashion, never taking a straight path from one event to another if a more beautiful route is available,” in the words of actor Natalie Portman. For the critic Hilton Als, Kennedy “is a kind of film scenarist . . whose strongest work renders the stage more cinema-like, less intransigent, more open to different ways of moving.” This Library of America volume presents, for the first time, a collected edition of Adrienne Kennedy’s writing, spanning six decades and including five uncollected and ten previously unpublished works.
Kennedy’s early surrealistic one-acts imagine unsettling, often terrifying scenarios that confront fundamental questions of identity, history, and cultural power. In The Owl Answers, set on the New York City subway, the play’s biracial protagonist attempts to grasp who she really is while surrounded by the ghosts of prominent figures from European history. In A Lesson in Dead Language, a classroom of girls in bloodstained dresses receives Latin instruction from a human-sized white dog. One of Kennedy’s greatest plays, A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, depicts a woman’s quest for self-understanding through the distorted mirror of the mostly white casts of the black-and-white films she loved as a child.
Kennedy’s later plays include bold treatments of the autobiography of Charlie Chaplin (A Lancashire Lad) and of episodes from the life of Beethoven (She Talks to Beethoven), as well as the suite of dramatic works featuring her literary alter ego, the writer Suzanne Alexander, among them Ohio State Murders, which was staged on Broadway in 2022. Sleep Deprivation Chamber is a searing indictment of racially motivated police violence based on a real-life incident involving her son Adam P. Kennedy, who cowrote the play. Also gathered in this volume are Kennedy’s adaptations of Euripides’s Electra and Orestes, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and John Lennon’s nonsense books, all brilliantly reimagined.
Like her plays, Kennedy’s fiction and her memoir, People Who Led to My Plays, have a vividness and at times an almost hallucinatory intensity. Writings from Kennedy’s later years take the measure of her rich life, as in the essay “Almost Eighty,” in which she poignantly excavates the past through a scrapbook compiled by her mother. Taken together, the work gathered in Collected Plays & Other Writings is a celebration of Kennedy’s singular achievement on stage and page alike.
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