The writers Adrienne Kennedy and Tanya Selvaratnam met when Kennedy was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University, where Selvaratnam was a student, and they both lived in Adams House. Kennedy’s play Funnyhouse of a Negro is currently playing until June 19 at Signature Theater in New York City. Selvaratnam will perform in Brooke O’Harra’s I’m Bleeding All Over the Place at La MaMa from June 16-26 and in Sibyl Kempson’s Love Life at The Whitney on June 20. Selvaratnam asked Kennedy a few questions about her life and work.
Tanya Selvaratnam: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Adrienne Kennedy: I wanted to be a movie star, like Bette Davis in The Letter or Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights, Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight, Judy Garland. I was named after a movie star, Adrienne Ames.
TS: Whom did you admire or look up to when you were young?
AK: My parents. I thought my mother was beautiful, as well as her friends who were in her Bridge club. My father, a YMCA executive, because he gave speeches and was called on to help people and was written about in the Cleveland newspapers. He had an office with his name on the door. Both my parents paid a lot of attention to me. They constantly analyzed race, and I was their audience. I loved people on the radio, Jack Benny and Rochester. I loved people in the movies. My Latin teacher.
TS: What was an early inspiration, like a movie or play?
AK: I wrote a whole book on this, but still today it’s Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, which I saw at the age of sixteen with the original Laura. After this play, I decided that the four members of our family were worthy to be on stage and that our living room and dining room would be good settings for a play. Before that, I felt plays had to be set in romantic locales.
TS: Was there a moment you knew you wanted to be a playwright? What were the circumstances?
AK: When I saw The Glass Menagerie, I decided I could write scenes of family turmoil, but not until I was about 22, did I want to be a playwright. It was the 1950s. I lived in New York then, and I was intoxicated by Tennessee Williams’s career, his plays, movies. People paid so much attention to him, and I was quite taken with that.
TS: It’s been more than 20 years since we saw each other. What have you been up to and what are you working on now?
AK: Since we saw each other, I taught for many more years and went round to colleges and did “Conversations with Adrienne Kennedy.” I won some awards, my favorite being the Anisfield Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award. I had a season at Signature Theater Company in New York. With my son Adam Kennedy, I wrote Sleep Deprivation Chamber, as well as Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?. I work always on my journals. There were productions of Ohio State Murders and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White. I work always on my mother’s 1928 Atlanta University Scrapbook. I received a 2016-17 Hutchins Research Fellowship from Harvard University. I started a blog with my son Joe Jr. and worked with my grandson Canaan on his book, Struggles to Victory.
Adrienne Kennedy is a playwright. Her autobiography People Who Led to My Plays about the people and culture that influenced her was recently reissued by Theatre Communications Group. All of her plays, including Funnyhouse of a Negro, are available in both The Adrienne Kennedy Reader and from Samuel French. The summer 2016 issue of The Harvard Review is publishing her poem “Forget” about the southern town her parents were born in. She met Tanya Selvaratnam in Cambridge when they both lived in Adams House at Harvard University.