Race relations in America were in tumult when Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro was first staged in 1962. The Brown University Theatre and Sock & Buskin production of this avant-garde historical set piece (through October 5) may be as surreal and confusing as the period was, but it certainly packs a punch.
More than a dozen figures, mostly weirdly garbed, scatter and dash around the stage, and you can’t necessarily figure out who is who from the program. The black self-consciousness of the time, ratcheting up to self-loathing, comes across more strongly than does any anti-white hostility. This is a fever dream boiling up from the black psyche and has more to do with surviving than with blaming.
This angry play is 75 minutes long in this production, directed by Kym Moore. In its time, it was addressing long-suffering blacks, and perhaps sympathetic whites, giving permission for stifled rage to be expressed. Nineteen-sixty-two was a time, after all, when blacks were still calling themselves Negroes or colored people, and they were still in this society’s shadows.
That was eight years after Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that finally initiated post-Civil War reconstruction, supposedly for real this time. The play was produced two years after the first sit-ins in the South, but four years before the Black Power Movement began.
For the most part, what specifically “happens” in this experimental play doesn’t much matter. That’s an odd thing to say, but in fact most of the images and even dialogue in this play could be exchanged with similar ones. The playwright’s offering is to convey an impression of dire social circumstance, and the specifics don’t much matter. Funnyhouse of a Negro is basically a gladiatorial arena in which demons of black despair fight it out.
Director Moore finds plenty of ways to enliven the proceedings, which are chaotic but have the semblance of controlled chaos. The actors are attentive and energetic, difficult tasks when what has to be inhabited is more idea than person.
An incidental character, Funnyman (Sam Yambrovich), caped and dressed in black, starts things off by clambering across the stage, screeching with laughter and scratching like a monkey as he occasionally will do later. There is fear of Father (Jonathan Dent), who “comes through the jungle, he the blackest of all.” At one point, “Black is evil!” is announced and echoed by everyone.
Short monologues are repeated, placed in the mouths of different characters. There are two Patrice Lumumbas, for example — Clarence Demesiar and Jonathan Dent. (He was the first legitimately elected prime minister of the Republic of the Congo, after it ceased being the Belgian Congo. Of course, he was murdered soon afterwards.) The role of Landlady is played simultaneously by three actors: Hannah Lennet, Alicia Coneys, and Jessica Laser, a wise decision that fragments what would seem to be longer passages.
Introduced late in the proceedings, Sarah (Erin Adams) becomes a representative black woman to whom representative things occur, such as losing her hair — or perhaps only fearing she is doing so. Occasionally, a black doll’s head rolls across the stage like a guillotine victim’s, to the shock and terror of all. A thick rope and noose is wrapped around Sarah, like the snake around the tree in the Garden of Eden.
Rage is loudly expressed, and when it quiets down to take a breath, tends to be incoherent. For all its proper intentions, Funnyhouse of a Negro has that disadvantage.
Before the play-proper began in Leeds Theatre, something was explained to us over the speakers, and we watched a brief video recording by Kira Davis on a large screen. A famous socio-psychological study was reproduced recently for this production, in which African-American children were shown two dolls, identical except for their skin color, and asked which was the good doll and which the bad. We watched some examples from the 15 of 21 children who preferred the white doll. A little girl, after she says the black doll is bad, is asked which one looks more like her, so of course her hand reaches to that one. To see that is as informative and heartbreaking as this play wants to be.