Special promotional content for Forward Theater Company by Khalid Long, PhD, Production Dramaturg & Asst. Professor/Columbia College
Adrienne Kennedy’s career as a playwright stretches over five decades. She wrote her first play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, in 1964, which won her an Obie Award for Distinguished Play. Kennedy wrote her most recent play, He Brought Her Back in a Box, in 2018 as a world premiere for Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn.
In between these bookend plays, Kennedy has written a body of work that defies conventionality and easy categorization. Furthermore, she has taught at several academic institutions, including Yale University, Stanford University, Brown University, Harvard University, Princeton University, New York University, and the University of California at Berkeley. And she has won significant awards, including a Guggenheim Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Grant, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement, the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Award, the American Book Award for 1990, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, among others. Kennedy was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2018, and, as recently as August 2021, Kennedy was named the recipient of the Dramatists Guild of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Without question, Kennedy’s long career has established her as one of the most important figures of American theatre. “While the dramaturgy of surreal-expressionist-poetic theatre has placed Kennedy within a theatrical avant-garde in America,” according to Paul Bryant-Jackson and Lois M. Overbeck, “her subjects profoundly challenge the problematic of race, culture, gender, and class.” As such, her audiences witness the devastating and alienating effects of colonialism, racism, and sexism.
Even more, Kennedy’s plays are snippets of her life interspersed within her dramas. Since the premiere of Kennedy’s first play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, which positioned her as a pioneer of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s, critics have noted that her works are semi-autobiographical. But as theatre critics Hilton Als has noted, “But, as usual in Kennedy’s plays, the autobiographical strain is not direct.” Als’ comment is valid for Kennedy’s oeuvre until we get to Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?
To the casual eye and ear, Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles? is a memory play (some scholars would consider it a documentary drama) that details Kennedy’s experiences in London in the 1960s after accepting what she perceived to be an invitation to develop a play based on Beatle’s member John Lennon’s book, In His Own Write. Throughout the play, Kennedy, in an interview style, is asked several questions by her son, Adam, in which she is propelled to reflect on a period of her life where she consecutively encounters actress Diana Sands, actors Victor Spinetti and James Earl Jones, writer James Baldwin, socialite Ricki Huston, theatre royalty Laurence Olivier and, of course, The Beatles.
A closer look, however, reveals how Kennedy’s narrative follows in the tradition of Black women writers, to quote scholar Joanne Braxton, who use literature by way of the “African American oral tradition of spiritual narrative and bearing witness” to “define their experiences,” and recall “a coming to consciousness of self in a world that does not treasure, nurture, or protect black women.”
In this vein, the Mother and Son discussion presented in the play offers a glimpse into the pre-celebrity-playwright era in which Adrienne Kennedy would soon traverse. For instance, audiences will come to know that Kennedy and her husband, Joseph, split not long after having two children together; they learn of her seemingly close relationship with her mother; and her fascination with Olivier. While audiences will come to know Adrienne Kennedy a bit more, they may even perhaps come to empathize with her as she illustrates a moment in her life where she was pretty vulnerable (especially economically), and like so many aspiring artists, was in search of fame and fortune.
The Forward Theater Company production of Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles? runs September 9-26. Tickets are available at ForwardTheater.com.