Passed Over: The Tragic Mulatta and (Dis)Integration of Identity in Adrienne Kennedy’s Plays

Passed Over: The Tragic Mulatta and (Dis)Integration of Identity in Adrienne Kennedy’s Plays

African American Review
Volume 35, Number 2 (Summer, 2001)
pages 281-295

E. Barnsley Brown

Much recent interest in the drama of Adrienne Kennedy has been spawned by the publication of her innovative autobiography People Who Led to My Plays (1987), the 1992 Great Lakes festival devoted to her work, and the recent productions of her plays by the Signature Theatre Company, which devoted an entire season to her work. Yet Kennedy has yet to receive the widespread critical attention she deserves as one of the most unique and innovative twentieth-century American playwrights. [1] Compared to August Wilson, who has garnered many accolades and is fast replacing Lorraine Hansberry as the African American playwright whose work is anthologized, taught, and critiqued, Kennedy’s work is still relatively unknown by the average theatergoer, and even by some academics. And while critics praise August Wilson’s use of African beliefs in the supernatural and the presence of the ancestors, these very elements are present in Kennedy’s earliest plays from the 1960s. Wilson’s characteristic themes—the inexorable legacy of history, the tenuous line between dream and reality, memory as a (re)constructive process, and the conflicting forces in identity formation—were addressed by Kennedy over a decade earlier. It bears asking, then, why Kennedy’s work has been largely ignored until recently, and her message, a message grounded in the politics of oppression, often overlooked.

Kennedy ascribes her limited critical success to the fact that her plays are “abstract poems” (Diamond, “Interview” 157) and thus do not easily fit into an American theatrical tradition dominated by realistic plays such as those of Alice Childress and Hansberry. I contend, however, that Kennedy’s lack of widespread popularity can be more accurately attributed to her uncanny ability to make audiences feel ill at ease through her dramatization of the politics of identity and, in particular, of miscegenation. As she admits at the end of her interview with Elin Diamond, “My plays make people uncomfortable so I’ve never had a play done in Cleveland [her hometown], never” (157). The volatile content of Kennedy’s plays-her (not so) standard theme of a history of racial and sexual abuse leading to fragmentation and even death-does not make her plays either light viewing or reading. In effect, Kennedy’s painful exploration of miscegenation through a fragmented, postmodern form challenges and even assaults her audienc e, revealing both her riveting power as a writer as well as the grounds upon which her work has been passed over by her contemporaries, critics, and scholars alike.

By tackling the taboo topic of miscegenation and representing it in both the form and content of her plays, Kennedy represents the African American struggle against both external and internal oppression. In her plays, which she has described as “states of mind” (qtd. in Cohn 108), Kennedy shows the self in dialogue not only with society but also with the fragmentary vestiges of otherness within the self, those internalized markers of oppression. Kennedy thus creates psychic landscapes in which the ongoing battle between conflicting discourses and mythologies is made manifest through symbols, composite characters, and a plurality of voices, all of which reveal the violent struggle between whiteness and blackness within as well as outside the self…

…If the reading or viewing audience cannot locate Sarah, then who can? Kennedy brings home the impossibility of fixing Sarah’s identity and forces the viewer to confront his or her own displacement within the phantasmagoric world of the play.

As the tragic mulatta, caught between races, caught between “room” that do not offer a home or a place to belong, Sarah represents (t)races of an unattainable, stable, and unified subjectivity and identity. In actuality, Sarah and herselves are at once black and white, male and female, English and African (American), contemporary and historical. These traces of identity pass by the spectator in ephemeral moments, reflected, refracted, and distorted, as in a funnyhouse mirror. Kennedy seems to be suggesting that not only is the lack of a unified self a human condition, but it is also a subaltern condition, aggravated by racial animosity. By conveying Sarah’s internal struggle through traces of multiple selves, Kennedy thus underscores the racial hatred that has long characterized American society and effectively revises the family drama to reveal the tragic effects of racial hatred on an individual as well as collective level.

Kennedy embodies the racial polarization that has long characterized American society in Sarah’s fragmented consciousness by emphasizing colors–white, black, and yellow, the “color” of the mulatto. The colors themselves take on a life of their own as Sarah talks about how her statue of Queen Victoria is “a thing of astonishing whiteness” and “black is evil and has been from the beginning” (5). Sarah’s struggle to integrate her warring heritages is embodied throughout by a relentless repetition of “white” and “black” on every page of the play’s dialogue. Even the stage directions emphasize the colors of costumes, lights, and props—for example, “a white nightgown” (2,4), “white light” (2), “an ebony mask” (7), “a black shirt and black trousers” (9). “a black and white marble floor” (16), “a dark brightness” (20)—all of which point to Sarah’s internal struggle. Yet the images of whiteness in the stage directions far outnumber those of blackness, demonstrating Sarah’s obsession with white culture and her desire to pass for white.

In actuality, Sarah desires to repudiate her black heritage, symbolized by her black father, whose persistent knocking is heard throughout the play, thus suggesting that Sarah’s black heritage cannot be ignored. Kennedy makes Sarah’s desire to pass most evident in the following monologue, in which Sarah speaks of her desire for much more than integration into white society:

As for myself I long to become even a more pallid Negro than I am now; pallid like Negroes on the covers of American Negro magazines; soulless, educated and irreligious. I want to possess no moral value, particularly value as to my being. I want not to be. I ask nothing except anonymity…. It is my dream to live in rooms with European antiques and my Queen Victoria, photographs of Roman ruins, walls of books, a piano, oriental carpets and to eat my meals on a white glass table. I will visit my friends’ apartments which will contain books, photographs of Roman ruins, pianos and oriental carpets. My friends will be white.

I need them as an embankment to keep me from reflecting too much upon the fact that I am a Negro. For like all educated Negroes… I find it necessary to maintain a stark fortress against recognition of myself. (6)

Educated in a Eurocentric tradition and “soulless,” stripped of pride in her blackness or “soul,” Sarah desires complete assimilation, as shown in her reverence for the symbols and trappings of Eurocentric civilization–European antiques, books, oriental carpets, photographs of Roman ruins, and so forth.

Kennedy shows that Sarah has absorbed white racist ideology so fully that she and herselves repeatedly refer to her father as “a wild black beast” (5). Sarah also believes he raped her mother, thus adhering to the mythical idea of the black rapist. [5] As Rosemary Curb argues, “Sarah experiences the racial warfare within herself by consciously identifying with the White oppressor self against the Black oppressed sell” (“Fragmented” 181). In fact, Sarah and herselves identify so completely with the white oppressor that her final disintegration of selfhood, her tragic hanging at the end of the play by either murder or suicide, is best read as the death of her Negro self (yes)….

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