Funnyhouse of a Negro
nytheatre.com review by Scott Mendelsohn
January 19, 2006
Rarely have I felt the complexities of racial identity so compellingly articulated as by Funnyhouse of a Negro. The play is under an hour, yet manages to compress a huge number of perspectives into its short running time. In it, Adrienne Kennedy explores the psyche of Susan, an educated young black woman—the daughter of a light-skinned mother and a dark-skinned father—who commits suicide. Anchored in the early 1960s, when it was written, this story of a girl's desperate escape from racial self-hatred serves as a benchmark against which to measure the current variety of African American identities and role models, ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Condaleeza Rice to 50 Cent, that have evolved since that time. As directed by Billie Allen, who played Sarah in the original 1963 production, Funnyhouse of a Negro also invites its audience into the mind of an individual struggling with mental illness. Sarah is not simply a stand-in for every black woman, but a very smart, sensitive woman whose damaged psyche includes a deep understanding of her history and cultural dislocation.
Kennedy dramatizes the suicide as a fugue. Written in a tight, poetic form, her characters—presented as different personae within Sarah's mind—cycle through its story many times, with each repetition adding layers of meaning. Sarah (Suzette Azariah Gunn) has isolated herself in her rented room, which contains her bed, a desk, piles of books, and a life-size, utterly white plaster statue of Queen Victoria. She is haunted by her light-skinned mother (Kellie E. McCants), who may have been raped or killed by her “black beast” of a father (Willie E. Teacher). When the father's ghost comes banging on the door, Sarah tries to block it out, speaking to Queen Victoria (Trish McCall) and her alternate persona of the Duchess of Hapsburg (Monica Stith), who constantly insists, “my father was the darkest, and my mother was the lightest, but I am yellow. I am in between.” Sarah has tried to erase her African heritage by immersing herself in the world of European culture, amongst white friends whom she describes as “like myself...shrewd, intellectual and anxious for death.” However she tries to leave it behind, the banging always intrudes, until finally Sarah's father enters, begging her to forgive him for his blackness. Sarah refuses.
Rejected by Sarah, the father removes his hat and, as in a dream, becomes Patrice Lumumba, the first elected prime minister in the Congo, who was assassinated by competing tribes with the collaboration of the Belgian government for his African nationalist position. Her father becomes a multi-faceted figure, far more than the initial crude, racist stereotype of him as an animal/rapist. Apparently his mother, Sarah's grandmother, asked him to “be Jesus,” and to travel to Africa to carry the gospel and education to Africans. Like her missionary father, Patrice Lumumba sought “revelation on the golden savannah, amongst the white francopenny trees”: some way to transform the tragedy of Africa into a source for hope. But he has been murdered for his ideals, by fellow Africans who wish to remain allied with Europe for personal gain. This father/Lumumba figure, who is joined by Jesus (Lincoln Brown), accuses Sarah of betraying them. They are icons of beliefs that might refute the white racism that eats at her. To escape all this, she hangs herself, in the same way that she claims her father killed himself after she rejected him.
But, as the story is told through the eyes of a mentally disturbed woman, we can never be sure what actually happened. The play further complicates the situation by giving us two white performers—Elena McGee as Sarah's landlady and Danny Camiel who appears in one scene as her Jewish boyfriend—who sit just outside of the proscenium, commenting and laughing at the action. According to the landlady, Sarah's father did actually visit and ask Sarah to let him back into her life. But at the end of the play, after Sarah has killed herself, the landlady announces that Sarah's father is alive, a doctor married to a white woman, in an apartment surrounded by books and artifacts of European culture. This information, combined with her education, her clothing, and the décor of her room, suggests that Sarah is financially comfortable and her isolation arises primarily from her mental condition and cultural dislocation. Other than clues, we are not given a clear picture of her life outside her own perception; we have no idea where her mother is, and cannot truly know where her father is.
Kennedy's play does make clear that, whatever the opportunities of Sarah's life, her internalization of white values carries with it a toxic self-hatred. Sarah cannot silence this primal force with logic, or replace it with other images, and her inability to reconcile it leads to her suicide. The designers go a long way towards conveying the hurricane power of this hatred, especially Michael Messer, whose music and sound effects create a haunted house of startling tangibility, and Aaron Black, whose lights shift like dreams with each change of mood. Above all, for all the layers of global and historical context, Allen makes sure her fine ensemble stays close to Sarah in the story. As the ghost figures of Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg, Trish McCall and Monica Stith find an exaggerated, entertaining style that never overpowers Suzette Gunn's sensitive and painful performance as Sarah. Willie Teacher channels both the mournful pleading of a father with his daughter and the hot judgment of Lumumba's quest for justice.
The audience at the performance I saw consisted of a mix of about half African American families and couples and half white theatre aficionados like myself—perhaps not so different a mix from the audiences that saw the original production in 1963. As we left, some faces showed befuddlement at the demands the play placed on us, but clearly the accomplished and heartfelt ensemble performance carried us closely through its storm. Years after its original production, the play has become a time capsule of a certain desperation; while its particular urgency may belong to the past, Sarah's ghosts accompanied more than a few of us out of the theatre that night. I saw them in one group's particularly focused conversation, and heard them in a knowing laugh from an older man. Whether for sale in the record store, or playing on cable TV, this revival makes it clear: Sarah's ghosts are among us still.