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:
I. Used yellow pads. For. Years. And years
I like IPAD because it reminds me of
My. Old typewriter
But honest Scott
All the dots are errors
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:
You. Have. Done. The work.
Pull. Away. From the scene. As
soon as you
Crowds of people can. Kill you.