American playwright Adrienne Kennedy was touring the Tower of London in 1960, listening to a guide relate tales of the prisoners who spent their last days there. Suddenly she was seized by the story of Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII.
“As he described her walking across the ramparts, I totally identified with her,” feeling Boleyn’s fear and dread, Kennedy said in an e-mail interview.
That experience served as a catalyst for Kennedy’s play “The Owl Answers,” which opens this week at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, paired with another one-act, Amiri Baraka’s “Dutchman.”
Kennedy said she understood the welter of emotions that Boleyn must have felt, given her own history. Her grandmother, a black girl working as a servant in a white household in Georgia, was impregnated at 15 by the man of the house, who never acknowledged the child. Kennedy said her family lived in fear, secrecy and shame.
“Adrienne’s mother is the product of rape,” said “Owl” director Talvin Wilks, who has been in close touch with the playwright. “Adrienne talks about the discoveries she made on trips back to Georgia, including the white branch of her family, and the fact that she has family over there in England. Her mother carries all of that history through her actions and understandings of herself, and imparted all of that on Adrienne.”
“Owl” centers on a biracial American woman who seeks to bury her white father at London’s Westminster Cathedral. A chorus of historical figures, including Boleyn, Shakespeare and William the Conqueror, heap scorn on her and question her heritage.
‘One of the greats’
Kennedy, 84, is seldom staged in regional theaters like Penumbra, but she continues to influence young writers through college productions of her work. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks calls her “one of the greats of contemporary playwriting.”
So why is she not better known?
In “Owl” and “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” Kennedy’s best known work, she deals with the nation’s complicated ideas about race. Her themes should have resonated with the civil rights movement, but her plays were not overtly about uplift, and her experimental, image-laden writing contrasted with the poetic realism that predominated among black artists then. And because Kennedy was a black woman, she was more a curiosity than a fully embraced member of the white-dominated avant-garde of that time.
With “Owl,” Penumbra is helping to right a historical wrong. While Kennedy won an Obie Award for the play, she has not been as acclaimed as Baraka.
That is gender bias, plain and simple, said Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy.
“People can talk around it by saying that black women stepped aside to let black men step forward, or that she was writing in a nonlinear form,” he said. “And it’s too bad, because her writing is powerful and illuminates a part of our complex experience.”
Two plays, in conversation
“Owl” and Baraka’s “Dutchman,” in which a white woman and black man meet on a train with fatal consequences, complement each other, he said.
“There’s certainly an intellectual dimension that brings these two major heavyweights of the ’60s together and puts them in dialogue,” said Bellamy, who is directing the Baraka play. “It’s a conversation long delayed.”
For director Wilks, who also is a Princeton-trained playwright, “Owl” is a personal touchstone. One of the earliest plays he wrote was about a character who inhabited the mental space where Kennedy’s main character, Clara Passmore, dwelled.
“He was an overassimilated black man trying to come to grips with racism and the things not taught to him,” Wilks said. “So, he has a nervous breakdown. ‘Owl’ takes place in that type of psychic crack, that psychic maelstrom.”
The play, which stars Austene Van as Clara, has five major monologues that have bedeviled directors. Wilks said he’s treating them as confessions that touch upon the fluidity of identity, and the ways in which the past informs the present and the future. “There’s a structure change, from present tense to future tense to past, as her language and identity switches,” he said.
He sees Clara’s character as representative of parts of our nation’s history. She may seem foggy or mixed up at times, but that’s fine by him.
“Wherever she is at that moment, she’s living her truth.”