MASTER IN ADVANCED ENGLISH STUDIES

MASTER IN ADVANCED ENGLISH STUDIES
MASTER IN ADVANCED ENGLISH STUDIES: LANGUAGES AND CULTURES
IN CONTACT
UNIVERSIDAD DE SALAMANCA
Departamento de Filología Inglesa
2016-2017
Final Master Thesis
FROM ADRIENNE KENNEDY TO SUZAN-LORI PARKS:
(RE)CONSTRUCTING LIMINAL IDENTITIES THROUGH PERFOMATIVITY
Paula Barba Guerrero
SALAMANCA 2017
The work presented in this MA thesis is, to the best of my knowledge and belief,
original and my own work, except as acknowledged in the text. The work in this thesis
has not been submitted, either in whole or in part, for a degree at this or any other
university.
This thesis is submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of
Master in Advanced English Studies:
Languages and Cultures in Contact
to
Universidad de Salamanca
by
Paula Barba Guerrero
June 2017
Student‟s signature__________________________________________
Approved
Dr. Olga Barrios Herrero
Supervisor‟s signature______________________________________
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | iii
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
I would like to extend my profound and most sincere gratitude to my
supervisor, Professor Olga Barrios, for introducing me to the precious gift that
Adrienne Kennedy‟s and Suzan-Lori Parks‟ dramas are, her selfless guidance,
insightful commentaries and thorough assistance have helped me find my own voice
within the lines of this essay; without her help, completing this thesis would have
been much more difficult. I also feel hugely indebted to all of my professors, who, in
this Master‟s Program as well as during my undergraduate degree, have graciously
inspired and offered me the necessary insight to comprehend literature better. Their
courses have made me thrive while providing me with the required skill to write this
dissertation.
On the other side of the spectrum, I am thoroughly grateful to my parents and
sister, for their always too generous support, their unconditional belief in me and their
endless demonstrations of affection, which have kept me going even in my worst
moments of doubt. And to my friends who have relentlessly encouraged me and stood
by my side, clearing up my insecurities.
Last, but definitely not least, I would like to express my gratitude and
admiration to both Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks, for allowing me to grasp
the unwavering, passionate rhythms of their beating hearts.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | iv
ABSTRACT
The present study examines the transition that African American identity undergoes in
four landmark works of the magnificent playwrights Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori
Parks, namely Funnyhouse of a Negro, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, The America Play and
Topdog/Underdog. To do so, I will explore the application of Arnold van Gennep‟s tripartite
thesis on defining his rites of passage to show the evolution from a (pre)liminal, abject
conception of blackness into a postliminal, performative definition of the self. Thus, these
plays will analyze the notion of identity as a malleable flux bound to changing over time that
is in search of subverting the sociocultural normative codes established by the (white and
colonial) hegemony in control. In doing so, these playwrights aim to subvert and deflate
normative configurations of the self so as to reach an open, hybrid space where a plural
dialogue can take place. This notion is explored in depth by the postcolonial theorist Homi K.
Bhabha who, in his book The Location of Culture, encourages the operation of the third space
as a place to pact the non-constrictive standards upon which the reconfiguration of postliminal
identity and culture is going to be based. Following his line of thought, African American
playwrights will traverse the black lapse in history, rejecting condescending indoctrination so
as to reconstitute who they actually are without encumbrance. Thence, whereas Adrienne
Kennedy‟s drama exhorts the personal suffering of a hyphenated individual, the theatre of
Suzan-Lori Parks moves towards a reconceptualization of identity closer to Bhabha‟s theories
that sets the African American community free from oppressive history through the
employment of collective memory.
KEY WORDS: African American, Drama, Identity, Liminality, Performativity, Space,
Women Writers, Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan-Lori Parks, History, Collective Memory.
Barba Guerrero |v
RESUMEN
El presente estudio examina la evolución del concepto de identidad afroamericana en
cuatro de las obras más significativas de las magníficas dramaturgas Adrienne Kennedy y
Suzan-Lori Parks, Funnyhouse of a Negro, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, The America Play y
Topdog/Underdog. Para ello, analizo la aplicación del sistema tripartita elaborado por Arnold
van Gennep al tratar de establecer las diversas fases de un rito de paso. En consecuencia, se
explora la transición disponible desde la concepción de identidad negra como una categoría
degradada, hasta la reconstitución de la misma como performativa y postliminal. Así, en estas
obras la noción de identidad se percibe como una entidad dúctil que persigue la subversión de
los códigos socioculturales normativos (establecidos por una hegemonía colonial y blanca)
para alcanzar un espacio abierto e híbrido donde acordar nuevas pautas socioculturales no
restrictivas. Este lugar, también conocido como tercer espacio, ha sido estudiado por el
teórico postcolonial Homi K. Bhabha en su libro The Location of Culture. En él, Bhabha
pretende ejecutar una reconstrucción no normativa de la identidad y la cultura en pos de la
multiculturalidad. En línea con esta concepción algunas dramaturgas afroamericanas han
optado por explorar la ausencia de una auténtica historia negra, rechazando los discursos
paternalistas del pasado para reconstituir su identidad libremente. Por ello sugiero que, en las
espectaculares obras de estas autoras, se persigue una reconfiguración honesta de lo
afroamericano. En consecuencia, mientras que las obras de Adrienne Kennedy expresan la
angustia de una identidad dual, el teatro de Suzan-Lori Parks se mueve hacia una
reconstrucción del ser más cercana a las ideas de Bhabha, liberando a la comunidad
afroamericana del yugo de una historia colonial mediante el uso de la memoria colectiva.
PALABRAS CLAVE: Teatro Afroamericano, Identidad, Liminalidad, Performatividad,
Espacio, Mujeres Escritoras, Adrienne Kennedy, Suzan-Lori Parks, Historia, Memoria
Colectiva.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | vi
TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION ..................................................................................................................... 1
1. THE (RE)CONFIGURATION OF IDENTITY: LIMINALITY, PERFORMATIVITY
AND THEATRICAL SPACE ............................................................................................. 2
1.1 Decolonizing the Mind and the Stage: From Virginia Woolf and Alice Walker‟s Self-Space to
van Gennep‟s Preliminal Stage ....................................................................................................... 3
1.2 The Duality of Liminal Space: Transforming the Stage into an Ambiguous Threshold ........... 6
1.3 Performing Identity to Constitute a Postliminal Third Space ................................................... 8
2. SHAPING A BLACK (NON-)PLACE TO DENOUNCE LIMINAL IDENTITIES IN
KENNEDY‟S PLAYS ...................................................................................................... 10
2.1 Surrealist Techniques to Introduce Marginalization in Funnyhouse of a Negro .................... 11
2.2 Dislocation and Expansion of Kennedy‟s Initial Funnyhouse as Depicted in Sleep Deprivation
Chamber ....................................................................................................................................... 14
2.3 Liminal Duality as a Device to Question Identity in Kennedy‟s Plays .................................. 17
3. THE STAGE AS A THIRD SPACE FOR REVISITING HISTORICAL IDENTITY IN
PARKS‟ DRAMA ............................................................................................................. 19
3.1 The Relevance of History in the Mapping of Space and the Construction of Identity ........... 20
3.2 The Configuration of Identity as a Performative Collective in Parks‟ Drama ........................ 23
3.2.1 From Resistance to Acceptance: The Inclusion of White Matters to Widen the
Theatrical Spectrum........................................................................................................... 25
3.3 The Depiction of a Third Space to Encourage a Re-reading of History ............................... 27
CONCLUSION ....................................................................................................................... 29
WORKS CITED ...................................................................................................................... 31
APPENDICES ......................................................................................................................... 35
APPENDIX 1: Plot Summaries of Selected Plays .................................................................... 35
APPENDIX 2: Parks, Suzan-Lori. “From Elements of Style” ................................................... 39
APPENDIX 3: Parks, Suzan-Lori. Foreword to Topdog/Underdog ........................................ 41
Barba Guerrero |1
INTRODUCTION
Why do we sacrifice so much energy to our art? Not in order to teach others but to
learn with them what our existence, our organism, our personal and unrepeatable
experience have to give us; to learn to break down the barriers which surround us and
to free ourselves from the breaks which hold us back, from the lies about ourselves
which we manufacture daily . . . to fill the emptiness in us . . . Art is a ripening, an
evolution, an uplifting which enables us to emerge from darkness into a blaze of light.
–Jerzy Grotowski, “A Statement of Principles,” 1968.
The twentieth century has been considered one of the most prolific historical moments
in terms of dramatic production. Not only did theatre undergo its largest aesthetical
transformation from realist and naturalist configurations of performance to a distancing, nonrepresentational and ritualistic rebirth, but also increased the number of stories being told and
the variety of voices being heard. Such transformation, probably influenced by the wide range
of formal possibilities that the new theatrical approaches opened to the public, becomes
especially relevant when dealing with African American drama, for it has been the leader and
promoter of the movements that, since the second half of the century, have been emancipated
from colonial structures and leitmotifs.
It is because of the artistic melody played by this new wave of playwrights that the
most profound and hidden emotions result of colonialism, those that we fear to articulate,
emerge. Thus, African American drama gives way to a new interpretation of life under the
scope of a different culture, equally rich, which asserts its independence. The rupture with the
hegemonic patterns of expression and representation allows theatre to rewrite normative
history, subverting the subjugation of space to time in search of a historical past that can be
embraced. Therefore, space will be explored as a fundamental category in the configuration of
identity, which will encourage a depiction of authenticity in which personal confusion,
liminality and loss of balance are laid bare as instruments to embrace hyphenated selves.
Hence, imbued by echoes of the greatest dramatic theorists of the time, the theatre
written by African American women grasps a genuine representation of black identity
Barba Guerrero |2
symptomatic of the “radical erasure of the mnemonic myths and stereotypes obscuring black
identity” available in some plays of this period, among which the contribution of Adrienne
Kennedy and Suzan-Lori Parks should be accentuated (Favorini 251). In this essay, I aim to
explore the process of configuration and reconstruction that the black identity undergoes as
seen from Adrienne Kennedy‟s work to Suzan-Lori Parks‟ drama. By detaching from colonial
theatrical modes to seek a place of their own, these playwrights explore the void of black
voices in history and, therefore, decide to revisit tradition through performativity1 to promote
a postcolonial approach to theatre in which the stage becomes a third space where everyone is
included.
1. THE (RE)CONFIGURATION OF IDENTITY: LIMINALITY, PERFORMATIVITY
AND THEATRICAL SPACE
This section explores the theoretical framework upon which I will construct my
analysis of the plays by the African American playwrights Adrienne Kennedy and Suzan-Lori
Parks examined in this thesis. To do so, I will briefly inspect the most relevant African
American movement of the literary panorama in the United States during the second half of
the twentieth century (the Black Theatre Movement), which will lead me to consider space as
an essential category in the process of racial identification. After that, I will proceed to
analyze the progression that African American drama has undergone from Kennedy‟s
personal (non-)places (portrayed in Funnyhouse of a Negro and Sleep Deprivation Chamber)
to later understandings of black identity in Parks‟ Topdog/Underdog and The America Play.
In doing so, I will follow Arnold van Gennep‟s thesis on liminality, presenting the evolution
1
In using this term I refer to the depiction of identity as unfixed and malleable depending on the context to
subvert normative notions.
Barba Guerrero |3
of African American drama (written by women) as one of his rites of passage. To this I will
append some notions on performativity and liminality that will lead me to explore the manner
in which these playwrights reverse the status quo, trying to reach a multicultural society.
1.1 Decolonizing the Mind and the Stage: From Virginia Woolf and Alice Walker‟s SelfSpace to van Gennep‟s Preliminal Stage
The need to find a space of one‟s own when conforming identity is a prerequisite
usually taken for granted by the vast majority of the privileged society. However, such
concern did not go unnoticed to the African American playwrights of the 1960s who, led by
the rage resultant of racial abuse and creative repression, initiated the Black Theatre
Movement. Aiming to recover their cultural tradition, the authors of this movement explored
their African origins as root for their emergent self-definition, which was mainly seen as antiwhite (Barrios, Black Theatre 27). Paradoxically enough, it was the playwrights belonging to
the Black Theatre Movement who ruled the theatrical panorama of the second half of the
century for reincorporating the audience into the dramatic performance (Barrios, Black
Theatre 14). Opposed to the Western tradition of the fourth wall, which renowned theorists
such as Bertolt Brecht clearly reject, black theatre emerged as an authentic expression of their
true, black feelings that have been silenced for centuries. As a consequence, this theatre can
be recognized as culturally and politically engaged for taking action against the passivity
enforced by the Western world, both on stage and on the black community itself (Barrios,
Black Theatre 14). This enactment of blackness as something positive can be translated into
an adherence to a ritual, which aims not only to establish the new black identity, but to
reclaim a space for it.
It is for its socio-cultural relevance in favoring the emergence of the black
consciousness that the Black Theatre Movement becomes relevant for this study. However,
the lack of recognition of its female playwrights indicates the double standards which locate
Barba Guerrero |4
black female writers under a double oppression, in terms of gender and race (Barrios, Black
Theatre 31). Seeking the inclusion of women on art, both Virginia Woolf and Alice Walker
signal the need of a personal space in which one can express oneself freely. However, it is the
excellent novelist Alice Walker who decides to shed some light into the black female
panorama by encouraging women of color to reconcile themselves with art. She maintains
that, despite a clear absence of referents, one must pursue a personal observation of life,
making connections “where none existed before” (5). Besides, Walker regards the creatively
oppressive situation that previous female artists endured; “muzzled”, “mutilated” and
“anonymous” are some of the terms she uses to define the female creative spirit at that time,
but not without recognizing it as “vibrant”, “powerful” and “radiant” too (239, 241). Hence,
whereas these mothers were deprived of their own gifts and mentally colonized, their
daughters, influenced by that hidden force, regained enough power to make themselves heard,
even in an ambience that was not propitious for them to do so.
Because the Black Theatre Movement did not acknowledge or represent black
femininity properly, some of these female playwrights chose to deploy their disparate
sentiments on a personal environment, making use of highly innovative and experimental
techniques.2 Therefore, it can be claimed that the actual shift from Western modes to the rise
of a new dramatic diction was propelled by black women and their highly lyrical language.
Among these playwrights, Adrienne Kennedy stands out for offering some insight into the
psyche of her oppressed community by means of Surrealism. Kennedy writes Funnyhouse of
a Negro in search of a space to debunk her complexities freely. Her self-exploration is done at
a psychological level, exposing the agony of an African American that feels both of her
2
It was specially Ntozake Shange who, in her play for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the
rainbow is enuf (a chorepoem), denounced the sexist oppression that black women underwent and restored the
colored, female identity (Barrios, “Seeking” 617, 618, 619).
Barba Guerrero |5
identities (African and American) incompatible while attempting to reconcile both poles into
an enclosed space.
The impact that Kennedy‟s drama has on a later generation of African American
playwrights leads one to think of her as referent and instigator of the rite of passage that black
theatre has undergone up to the present time. The French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep
assures that “every change in a person‟s life involves actions and reactions,” which crystallize
into a complete behavioral schema, undergoing three basic stages: the preliminal stage, the
liminal and the postliminal ones (3, 11). According to his thesis on liminality, these phases
respectively correspond to processes of separation, transition and incorporation (11).
Therefore, one must get detached from its old identity to acquire a new social status.
This transition from the preliminal phase into the marginal one can be explored in
Adrienne Kennedy‟s drama. The selection of a room as the stage of Funnyhouse of a Negro
echoes Virginia Woolf‟s motto advocating for the need of women to have a room of their own
if they are to write fiction (6). However, the dichotomous and unfolded essence of Kennedy‟s
protagonist connected with the non-linearity of the play‟s plot transforms Woolf‟s self-space
into an ambiguous locus with the appearance of a trespassed shelter. In view of her own
duality as an African American, Kennedy abandons the existing definition of blackness
aiming to find one that suits her better. It is this process of detachment what allows her to
relocate her narrative into a threshold, where resistance to hegemony is promoted. Such
conception is emphasized by the technical configuration of the play: Kennedy‟s
disengagement with the conventional (realist) design of dramatic space is clarified by her use
of surrealist procedures that underline the instability of the room she has built for her own.
Because this room belongs to an African American, its mere existence is questioned
on stage. All along the play, the surrealist and symbolic devices govern the theatrical
panorama casting doubts on the plausibility of such black space. The coming and going of the
Barba Guerrero |6
protagonist‟s alter egos into her room present physically her constant flow of conflicting
emotions and thoughts, which concludes on a tragic ending. It is because of the liminal kernel
of the stage that Sarah is unable to decipher a way out of the margin, because only by leaving
aside the internalized foundations of colonization could she find a new identity that made her
free. Thus, the protagonist‟s downfall should be regarded as “the first step necessary to obtain
rebirth and self-affirmation” (Barrios, Black Theatre 126). In other words, in order to reach a
postliminal world and a redefinition of blackness with it, society must endure a
deconstruction of the self.
1.2 The Duality of Liminal Space: Transforming the Stage into an Ambiguous Threshold
Essential to van Gennep‟s theory, the liminal space is a locus in between two statuses
mainly signaled by duality and ambiguity which can only be overcome when one is integrated
into a different social category. Yet, because this process of reconstitution of the self
comprises various approaches to one‟s own identity, black theatre serves itself of certain
theatrical techniques that parallel the confusion of African Americans while trying to discover
their true identity out of an abject state.3 One of the masterminds of this rising of abject
liminality on stage is Adrienne Kennedy, who, intertwining reality and dreams, exposes a
compound of symbolical images that underline her characters‟ absence of a sense of
belonging.
In Kennedy‟s plays, the characters encounter a dual scenario that resembles their own
confusion. As Olga Barrios suggests, resumed in the character of Sarah are the oppositions of
race and gender that determine her confused identity (Black Theatre 126, 127, 129). Because
these African American characters do not belong neither to the former, nor the future stage,
3
In her book The Horrors of Power, Julia Kristeva defines abjection as “a border,” made of “ambiguity,” which
“while releasing a hold, does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it,” reason why she affirms
that abjection is “in perpetual danger” (9).
Barba Guerrero |7
they impersonate a hyphen, “waver[ing] between two worlds” with an unknown identity
(Gennep 18). This marginal condition is emphasized by the real/oneiric realities‟ clash, which
casts doubts on the reliability of what is being staged. This process can be easily identified in
two of Kennedy‟s best plays Funnyhouse of a Negro and Sleep Deprivation Chamber. In the
former, Kennedy presents her protagonist as a woman with a multi-layered psyche that gets
materialized into various characters. This reduplication into different personas serves as a
device to show Sarah‟s liminality: it does not matter how hard she tries to find her place in the
world because it will be inexistent for her in that she rejects who she is. On a later play named
Sleep Deprivation Chamber, Kennedy‟s previous scenario (a private room) expands into a
racist society that shows African Americans as outsiders on their own neighborhood. In doing
so, it enforces confusion and doubt by intertwining the apparently unresolved plot with
oneiric instances that revive old tragedies.
Arnold van Gennep‟s notion of liminality has also been taken up by the Scottish
anthropologist Victor Turner, who explores it in depth in his book The Ritual Process. Turner
asserts that liminal identities are “neither here nor there; [but rather] betwixt and between the
positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial” (95). Thus, these
marginal identities escape what he calls “the structure,” “a set of classifications” which
governs our daily lives dictating what is normative and acceptable, and unfold into an antistructure (127). Turner‟s conception of liminality as subversive becomes fundamental to
comprehend the role this marginal phase has in black theatre, becoming a means for sociocultural reversal.
Turner also maintains that, because of the symbolic charge of liminal transitions, they
tend to be connected to rituals. Their connection cannot be ignored when referring to African
American drama because of the enormous influence that African rituals have on it. This
ritualistic aspect of theatre serves to make the audience meld with the actors and become part
Barba Guerrero |8
of the performance, thereby integrating them into a dramatic dialogue that raises a sense of
communion among equals. This final notion is very important in that Victor Turner refers to it
(under the name of communitas) as the direct cause of liminality. According to his claims,
only those who stay together in the “limbo of statuslessness” that is liminality will experience
this feeling of connection and equality (95, 138).
However, even if he refers to artists as people on the limen (by mentioning certain
communitas such as the beat generation and the hippie movement), Turner fails to mention
the inestimable value of the emergence of black theatre as a promoter of racial pride. He
assures that artists “catch glimpses of that unused evolutionary potential in mankind which
has not yet been externalized and fixed in structure” and therefore is still unbiased (128). Yet,
Turner‟s positive conception of the threshold must be counteracted by mentioning the dangers
that a liminal place conceals. Located in a space where identity is denied, a notion that Marc
Augé explores under the name of non-place, the margin can become either a place for hope or
fear. Indeed, this second possibility can be easily perceived in Kennedy‟s drama in connection
with the non-places that her characters inhabit. Even if Kennedy‟s drama does not reach the
postliminal phase of van Gennep‟s tripartite structure, it provides a fundamental first step
towards the realization of racist atrocities that are both in the mind of the oppressed individual
and inherent to the colonizer. Kennedy‟s theatre promotes the recognition of past pain and
suffering, which will be recovered by later playwrights (among whom Suzan-Lori Parks is
highlighted), who will find in that terrible past a driving force which will make them heal.4
1.3 Performing Identity to Constitute a Postliminal Third Space
For Arnold van Gennep the postliminal stage represents the final part of a process by
which the self gets empowered. But, in order for that process to be complete, the African
4
Such procedure is not exclusive of Suzan-Lori Parks; in fact, as Olga Barrios contends, a similar “process of
individual healing” is available in Sanchez and Teer‟s writings (“African American” 220).
Barba Guerrero |9
American community must overcome the dangers of the threshold and become aware of who
they really are. Hence, a reconfiguration of identity is required. Yet, this redefinition must
take into account not only the present, but also the past, revisiting history to recover the
presence of black people in it.
Aware of the dangers of learning what Chimamanda Adichie calls a single story, the
African American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks attempts to recreate the past through a
postcolonial perspective. This point of view allows her to observe certain key moments of
history and rewrite them to incorporate a different truth, that of the black community. As a
result, in her Pulitzer winning play Topdog/Underdog and in a previous one, The America
Play, Parks explores the assassination of President Lincoln through a series of dramatic
devices that allow her to incorporate whiteness into her speech through performativity. This
characteristic is fundamental to comprehend the difference between Parks and Kennedy.
Whereas Kennedy is focused on exploring liminality, Parks‟ plays are oriented towards the
analysis of historical identity as a means for correction.
In order to revisit history, Parks explores identity as a performative category, in other
words, as a malleable flux of emotions and thoughts liable to changing over time. Thus,
through an apparently minimal nuance when considering identity, Parks manages to restore
blackness in history, while incorporating (in the case of Topdog/Underdog) a revisited version
of Western Realism. Yet, this postliminal society does not reflect the ideal communitas
envisioned by Turner. Instead, it denounces the negative impact of the socially constructed
category that race is, giving way for positive communitas in the dialogue started with the
audience.
In Parks‟ mesmerizing drama, performativity is installed through performance,
mimicry and naming. The characters tend to have names with allegorical meanings that
provide information, not only about themselves, but also about their future. Besides, these
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 10
characters do not exclusively represent themselves as individuals, but are illustrative of a
collective identity, unfolding in a redefined black consciousness. Consequently, one might
claim that Kennedy‟s attempts to reconfigure the African American identity through a rite of
passage culminate in Parks‟ drama, where identity is seen as performative and might therefore
be enacted by anyone. Thus, in exposing mimicry, Parks‟ theatre becomes the open means by
which a plural dialogue is reached enabling the transformation of the stage into what Bhabha
calls a third space, a locus where the differences become a nexus within a horizontal
arrangement, rather than an element that defines one‟s status in a hierarchy.
2. SHAPING A BLACK (NON-)PLACE TO DENOUNCE LIMINAL IDENTITIES IN
KENNEDY‟S PLAYS
The anthropological theories explored in the previous chapter become relevant in my
interpretation of Kennedy‟s and Parks‟ works. The playwrights‟ formal structuring of their
drama emerges as an innovative progression towards a different type of theatre; their
experimental writings engage in an indirect conversation with spatial, anthropological and
philosophical discourses, delineating a clear division between the rejected normative and the
liberated self.
Because of her honesty in rendering visible the contradictions available within herself,
Adrienne Kennedy stands for the perfect epitome of a personal quest for true identity and selfspace. Such intrinsic dispute concludes in the elaboration of “a new language and a new
style,” which will transform Kennedy‟s protagonists into “battleground[s] of Black and White
confrontation” (Barrios, Black Theatre 123). The introspective analysis of her own psyche
and the subsequent rendering of her tormented self through surrealist techniques turn her
plays into living proof of the racial struggle to find shelter that the African American
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 11
community endures. For such reason, this section will explore Funnyhouse of a Negro (1988)
and Sleep Deprivation Chamber (1996)5 –two of Adrienne Kennedy‟s masterpieces, to
analyze the place of blackness as a liminal non-place.
2.1 Surrealist Techniques to Introduce Marginalization in Funnyhouse of a Negro
Adrienne Kennedy was not initially understood by her contemporaries of the Black
Theatre Movement because her drama, which certainly was too experimental for their cause,
presented the duality of an individual trapped in between two categories: the uncontrollable
desire of being accepted (therefore white) and the necessity to impersonate an authentic black
identity. Yet, it is precisely in her unwavering attempts to examine and configure her true
liminal self that she has become one of the major playwrights of her time. Her plays, suffused
by the rhythms of Africa, respond to the extensive demands that certain twentieth century
theatre theorists (such as Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, Antonin Artaud or even Peter
Brook) will extol as the essence of the great new theatre.
In view of the insufficient, straightforward drama that was created at the time,
Adrienne Kennedy decides to formulate a new medium capable of meeting her needs. Thus,
in her examination of black space, the playwright exposes the tragic truth of her people: they
are denied a self-space to develop their creative talent while devising a genuine identity. The
climax of such elaboration is probably found in her play Funnyhouse of a Negro, where the
protagonist (Sarah) is compelled to confront her most profound fears and desires. Set in “what
appears to be a Queen’s chamber [with] . . . wine-colored walls”, Sarah (through her many
alter egos) embodies the desperation result of liminality to the extent of committing suicide
(2). Kennedy‟s peculiar employment of color and light is a technique utilized for its emphatic
effect over one of the thematic centres of the play, violence.
5
Sleep Deprivation Chamber is a play that Adrienne Kennedy co-wrote with her son Adam after he was
assaulted by a police officer; a fact that transforms the play into an avowal of such autobiographical event.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 12
Kennedy‟s exploitation of original dramatic techniques is nothing but her organic
response to the overflow of emotions that inhabit her, which results, as the playwright SuzanLori Parks beautifully asserts, in “a passionate odyssey into the psyche of post-Africa
America” (qtd. in Kennedy, “Adrienne” 58). Through visual images, Kennedy offers her
personal (and agonic) perception of the problem of race, and it is because of her vivid
imagery that Funnyhouse of a Negro seems permeated by violence and death (Barrios, Black
Theatre 121). The French writer Antonin Artaud assures in his book The Theatre and Its
Double that modern theatre must contain an element of violence, of cruelty to “wake [the
audience] up, nerves and heart” from their realist amnesia, a notion that clearly applies to
Kennedy‟s drama (84). In Funnyhouse of a Negro, this violence aims the spectators‟ empathic
response while facing the personal struggle, suffering and final death of one of Kennedy‟s
personas.6
The remembrance of blood that the mise-en-scène brings up, together with the room‟s
unnatural light effect (“a strong, white LIGHT [lighting the center of the room], while the rest
of the Stage is in unnatural BLACKNESS”), anticipates to the audience the gloomy mood of
the play (Funnyhouse 2). Besides, the setting dimly lit evokes an oneiric scenario that
questions the characters‟ consciousness and the room‟s existence. Moving “in a trance,”
Kennedy‟s characters are trapped into an enclosed environment that shifts from reality to
dreams because, as the playwright herself assures, the discovery of Lorca‟s drama propelled
her to reject the naturalist living room, “never again,” she says, “would I be afraid to have my
characters talk in a non-realistic way,” abandoning tradition for her “greater dream setting”
filled with “multi-layered” visual images (2, People Who Led 108, 98). Kennedy‟s
engagement with her own style contrasts with her protagonist‟s rejection of her non-
6
In an interview with Suzan-Lori Parks, Kennedy stated that she embodies different people, describing herself as
quiet and shy sometimes, but contending and strong in her drama (“Adrienne” 64).
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 13
normative idiosyncrasies, thereby suggesting that Sarah‟s funnyhouse is, in fact, one of Marc
Augé‟s non-places.7
Her rupture with Realism and her insistence on reclaiming the audience‟s participation
on the performance transform her drama into the kind of theatre suitable for Bertolt Brecht.
“[Art] is an object of instruction” praises Brecht asserting the consequent “collaboration
between participant[s] and the apparatus” that his theatre builds (“Example” 31). However, in
writing Funnyhouse, Kennedy gets emotionally naked in front of her audience to show the
ambiguity of her own self (Barrios, “Seeking” 612). The element of psychological nudity
present in the play allows one to consider the influence of Grotowski‟s statements on drama.8
Jerzy Grotowski argues that theatre must be free of artifice, it needs to be poor in ornament in
order to become rich in experience or, as he blatantly puts it “always avoid banality . . . avoid
beautiful lies . . . try to show the unknown side of things to the spectator” (“Skara Speech”
194-195). The effect aimed is to encompass every element of the dramatic performance
(including the audience) into a sort of ritual and spiritual experience, an outcome achieved in
Kennedy‟s masterpiece. After Sarah‟s death, Funnyhouse of a Negro can be easily read as the
“utterance of a scream” coming from a tortured psyche (Barrios, “Seeking” 611).
Apart from the evident connections with Artaud‟s Theatre of Cruelty and Grotowski‟s
Poor Theatre, Funnyhouse of a Negro also resembles what Peter Brook calls Holy Theatre, a
type drama that “not only presents the invisible but also offers conditions that make its
perception possible” (67). In such line the fact that violence is directed towards the self is a
peculiar choice that somehow resumes Kennedy‟s method: To become the catalyst in which a
social matter is studied, making visible her inwards struggle. Consequently, through drama,
Kennedy establishes a conversation with herself, a method previously utilized by the Mexican
7
Augé contends that a non-place is “a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned
with identity” (77-78).
8
Please bear in mind that whereas Stanislavski encouraged the actor to put layers onto himself, Grotowski
endorses the kind of theatre that gets rid of all those layers so as to expose authentic emotion.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 14
painter Frida Khalo, who also transformed art into the means to achieve self-introspection as
Olga Barrios thoroughly explores (Black Theatre 122).
Kennedy exposes the decisive influence of first Picasso‟s work and later the African
masks per se in her journey towards “exaggerate[ing] the physical appearances of [her]
characters” (People Who Led 121). For the playwright, Africa will be a constant in her
harrowing drama, encouraging her to “break from realistic-looking” structures and modes
(121). Her resistance to “the imposition of white literary structures” might be understood as a
statement of self-affirmation versus white hegemonic patterns (Favorini 9). Thus, in the play
the protagonist is entrapped into a reduced, delimited and separated room, haunted by a
permanent “KNOCKING” that gets louder as time passes by (Kennedy, Funnyhouse 3). Such
sound effect responds to Artaud‟s encouragement of “making a kind of alphabet out of . . .
signs,” opposite to traditional renderings (90). In the end, Sarah‟s egos serve Kennedy to
explore her identity physically. Just like Sarah, Kennedy is locked up into the claustrophobic
marginalization and subjugation to the white hegemony of her mind.
2.2 Dislocation and Expansion of Kennedy‟s Initial Funnyhouse as Depicted in Sleep
Deprivation Chamber
In Sleep Deprivation Chamber Kennedy‟s perception of black space gets magnified,
an apparatus that widens the play‟s thematic scope in search of the stolen power of the
oppressed. Yet, once again, ambiguity leads the spectator to wonder if such space is actually
available. Located in the threshold of Gennep‟s liminality, the play revolves around
blackness‟ duality, questioning the existence of an authentic black identity shelter in real life.
Adrienne Kennedy seeks to denounce the mistreatment that the black community
undergoes in Sleep Deprivation Chamber. To do so, she favors the inclusion of her initial
non-place (available in Funnyhouse of a Negro) into the real world. Ergo, racial assault and
violence are the main themes revolving around the play. Henri Lefebvre contends in his book
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 15
The Production of Space that space is a politicized tool in the hands of those in power to
impose and maintain the hierarchy they have created and of which they represent the top.
Such a conception of space leads one to consider power imbalance in Kennedy‟s play as a
direct result of an unfair system. Consequently, Kennedy must escape into a half-oneiric
reality in which she can explore and debunk the complexities of race.
While in previous plays Kennedy turns to herself in order to analyze the matter of
race, in Sleep Deprivation Chamber she expands not only her setting (which becomes
“Antioch College,” “Ohio Theatre,” a “[h]otel [in] Washington” and a “courtroom” in
Virginia) (5, 21, 41, 44), but also, as Brantley observes, her approach towards social issues,
making her “fluid, free-associating style” more visible. By portraying her familiar suffering
after the excruciating aggression committed by a policeman towards her son Adam, Kennedy
is offering to her audience the opportunity to get into her personal psyche, while allowing for
an external gaze to judge the unbalanced panorama. In a way, Kennedy‟s depiction of the trial
process intertwined with the plot of Hamlet raises doubts on the veracity of the theatrical
performance: Is the action real or is it one of the protagonists‟ dreams?
In Kennedy‟s play, black characters are designed in an abject state of being and
because of the liminal place in which the black abject is located, African Americans are
depicted as the inferior Other in the vertical system of power. “The letters have infuriated
them. And they are going to teach us a lesson” claims Suzanne in the play, clearly
differentiating between us (the abject Other) and them (the superior One) (Deprivation 39).
Thus, the abject, or alter ego, is defined by the space he inhabits, which is “divisible, foldable
and catastrophic” (Kristeva 8). In the play the black characters‟ abjection is disclosed both
physically and emotionally; being excluded and deprived of their own identity, these
characters tend to evoke an oneiric escape towards a more appealing reality.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 16
Such feeling of detachment and exclusion leads the characters to behave in a (liminal)
in-between reality and dream state, where the plot gets intertwined with the one of Hamlet.
“Ophelia, betrayal, disillusionment” is the opening line of Sleep Deprivation Chamber,
aiming to establish a correlation with Shakespeare‟s play (5). The fact that the very first word
uttered is the name of a female character with a tragic ending such as Ophelia points out to
the violence to be found in the play and to its connection with Funnyhouse of a Negro. “As
one incapable of her own distress/ Or like a creature native and indued/ Unto that element”
says Gertrude in Hamlet to introduce Ophelia‟s death as outcome of her lack of sanity
(Shakespeare 4.7). Such commentary, despite its literary beauty, establishes a correspondence
between the inferiority of African Americans (that entraps them in a liminal, dream-like nonplace) and Ophelia‟s own site (apparently located among the insane, the abject too).
The continuity of violent and surrealist motifs merged with lyricism, as depicted in
Suzanne‟s sentence “I can‟t stop thinking of the Ghost of Hamlet, his large head, slimy dried
blood oozing from his skin,” becomes a driving force in this play (Deprivation 2). However,
given that, as Brantley affirms, “Shakespeare‟s play becomes an emblem of a world that its
truly out of joint,” the relevance of their connection must be taken into account. Because it is
Hamlet, one must be led to consider the importance of doubt, guilt, uncertainty and tragedy
itself when dealing with Sleep Deprivation Chamber to comprehend the texts‟
correspondences. Being in a liminal stage (similar to Ophelia‟s madness), Kennedy‟s
characters are prone to be (mis)judged by the audience. Such witty theatrical device serves as
a mirror for the spectators, testing their own biases when dealing with racial dilemmas.
Thus, the interrelation between both plays suggests instants of dramatic irony that
transform the oneiric shelter into a living nightmare because, as Brantley postulates,
“[u]ltimately, fantasy and reality meld into a prison of the mind.” Sleep Deprivation Chamber
unravels, as easily anticipated by its title, moments of crisis and a profound sense of
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 17
desperation, which stems out of the characters‟ uncertainty. Such emotion is closely related to
Hamlet‟s existential questioning of life‟s sense as portrayed in his “to be or not to be”
soliloquy (Shakespeare 3.1). It is because of the autobiographical element that the play‟s
structural basis can be considered an “exercise of scenic imagination” (Favorini 3). According
to Attilio Favorini, at the end of the twentieth century, memory was considered “the nexus for
the visceral, the cerebral, and the social,” which explains Kennedy‟s conjunction of violence,
remembrance and social critique (8). Hence, Sleep Deprivation Chamber illustrates the
memories of anguish and hopelessness of a mother in the form of a sleep deprivation
chamber, where, as Favorini argues, “the spotlight of consciousness flickers uncertainty,”
enabling the traumatic sequence to enter an eternal loop of repetition and revival (217).
Entrapped in the retrospective of Teddy‟s beating, the characters win the trial under
the gloomy note provided by “the sounds of his screams” in the taped film with which the
play ends (Deprivation 72). Because, as Sarah anticipated in Funnyhouse of a Negro,
“[s]treets are rooms, cities are rooms, eternal rooms,” and even in trying to create a place for
themselves in cities, African Americans always find themselves enclosed in cage-rooms (7).
2.3 Liminal Duality as a Device to Question Identity in Kennedy‟s Plays
Despite having different formal approaches towards ambiguity and duality, both
Funnyhouse of a Negro and Sleep Deprivation Chamber make use of Kennedy‟s new
aesthetic in order to define the black non-place (and, consequently, non-identity) while
denouncing self-inflicted violence and racist brutality.
The relationships between blacks and whites are twofold, both in the mind and in the
body of the oppressed, which emphasizes the importance of power and immobility in her
plays. Such configuration results in a dichotomous rendering of both races as alter egos,
which sees itself materialized through space, leading the protagonists to marginalization and
liminality. As there is no space available for them, which is essential for the study of content,
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 18
Kennedy‟s examination of her characters‟ liminal idiosyncrasies when impersonating the
hyphen could be seen, in words of Barrios, as a journey, moving out of extreme anguish
towards a sort of spiritual rebirth of the author (Barrios, “Seeking” 611). Thus, in the plays,
space and identity are inexistent and the protagonists are left in the limbo of statuslessness in
which there is no sense of belonging, no home or shelter to protect themselves either from
their colonized minds (Funnyhouse of a Negro) or from the superior and violent other (Sleep
Deprivation Chamber).
Captured in a restrictive heterotopia,9 Sarah exhorts her own duality. “[M]y father is
the darkest, my mother is the lightest. I am in between,” says she in an attempt to understand
her idiosyncrasies (Kennedy, Funnyhouse 11). Such statement clearly recalls Frantz Fanon‟s
words “[t]he white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness,”
underlining Sarah‟s in-between state (11). Having wondered about a place to belong to, Sarah
concludes:
The rooms are my rooms; a Hapsburg chamber, a chamber in a Victorian
castle, the hotel where I killed my father, the jungle. These are the places
myselves exist in. I know no places. That is, I cannot believe in places. To
believe in places is to know hope and to know the emotion of hope is to know
beauty. It links us across a horizon and connects us to the world. I find there
are no places only my funnyhouse. (Kennedy, Funnyhouse 7)
Such a fundamental statement regarding her liminal state as one of Marc Augé‟s non-places
signals the characters‟ impossibility to find shelter, also mirrored in Teddy‟s trial.
The characters‟ suffering comes from their inability to elude their liminal state, reason
why, in the physical form of the Duchess, Sarah begs for shelter: “Hide me so the jungle will
not find me” (10). The rejection of African roots is the direct outcome of the colonization of
9
This term, introduced by Michel Foucault in his well-known essay “Of Other Spaces” refers to the “places
which are absolutely other with respect to all the arrangements that they reflect and of which they speak” (332).
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 19
her mind, because in a world where black means negative, Sarah is inevitably repelled from
her origins. Such notion is explored more in depth by Frantz Fanon, who refers to “the
epidermalization of [] inferiority” as the destiny of the black community (13).
In Kennedy‟s theatre, the audience‟s reaction is expected to work as in Brook‟s Holy
Theatre, “like the plague, by intoxication, by infection, by analogy, by magic” (58). Hence,
the audience is supposed to get shocked, identify human agony and react to it. An idea close
to Artaud‟s consideration of the need to find “an anarchic destruction generating a prodigious
fight of forms” in art for it to be meaningful (92. My emphasis). Thence, as Barrios suggests,
the death of Sarah will represent the rebirth of the author, allowing violence not only to
awaken an emotional response in the spectators, but also to become the author‟s aid-device to
heal, recover and find a true self (127).
Through the use of African strategies such as masking or repetition as a symbol for
neo-colonial resistance, Adrienne Kennedy aims to find a truthful and valid definition for the
black self, who is brutally tortured and excluded into non-places by the white other. Yet,
despite her dual depiction of black identity as representative of the community‟s inherent
dilemma, Kennedy‟s drama presents her inability to step out of the liminal cage in which she
is trapped, becoming the epitome of Gennep‟s transitory stage in a rite of passage.
3. THE STAGE AS A THIRD SPACE FOR REVISITING HISTORICAL IDENTITY IN
PARKS‟ DRAMA
Suzan-Lori Parks is a contemporary playwright highly interested in the manner in
which the past imposed by history shapes identity. Thence, she produces new history through
theatre to fill the gaps of the actual African American past while correcting normative
inconsistencies (Parks, “Interview” 317). In doing so, Parks eludes imposition of absolute
truths in order to set up a conversation with her audience. The playwright aims to encourage
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 20
her spectators to select their own roadmaps and debunk their personal understanding of her
plays, giving way to an open drama, which promotes the rise of different voices telling
various stories (“Possession” 4). Such outcome is only reached because of her public
configuration of theatre as one of Homi K. Bhabha‟s third spaces, which can be appreciated in
The America Play (1995) and in her Pulitzer-winning play Topdog/Underdog (1999), the
works that I will examine in this section.
3.1 The Relevance of History in the Mapping of Space and the Construction of Identity
In her drama, Suzan-Lori Parks configures identity and space by means of history.
Yet, in view of the imposed, normative definition of history that denies black presence, Parks
decides to explore that enforced past as a complex tautology from which she needs to break
free. To do so, she serves herself of mimicry and performativity in order to reverse
standardized codes. Thus, in this section I will examine the articulation of memory as a site
for historical resistance when configuring identity and space in The America Play.
Traditionally, history has been conceived as a closed category made of fixed codes,
which only mentions the canonical side of the story. Indeed, the French philosopher Henri
Lefebvre argues that history seems to be a “reflection on the past,” produced and composed
by “fragment[s] and segment[s of] temporality” subjectively selected by the elite in control of
power (80, 68, 110). As a result, minority groups have been denied a proper historical
identity, a configuration detached from Parks‟ postmodern standards that leads her to explore
the past as a forceful outburst seeking rebirth into the present.
In this line, Parks‟ representation of history is that of a living entity that might be reenacted (“Interview” 317). Reason why, aiming to solve “the riddle of the universe” (the
mystery of time and space), her drama eludes fixity in search of an authentic transcendental
connection with the African American roots (Parks, “Interview” 314). It is in fact through the
process of past and present fusing together that Parks‟ drama defies the retelling of pseudo-
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 21
normative black counter-narratives (Saal 58). The tenses get blurred to signal the characters
confusion provoked by their absent past, applying entropy to show their traumatic
disorientation.
To reconstruct history, Ilka Saal contends that Parks utilizes mimicry as the means to
counteract direct imitation (mimesis) of the normative codes of history (62). Homi K.
Bhabha‟s defines mimicry as “a double vision, which in disclosing the ambivalence of
colonial discourse also disrupts its authority,” a dangerous process that threatens the
colonizer‟s perception in that, through imitation, “the observer becomes the observed”
(Location 88-89). Consequently, Parks‟ repetitive structures serve as a corrective-device,
creating a rhythmical overlapping of revisions that goes in crescendo until it climaxes ex
abrupto (in both plays) with a Lincoln‟s impersonator‟s death.
In The America Play, the process of mimicry is studied in terms of identity (and
symbolically mirrored in space). Located in a “hole [that] is an exact replica of the Great Hole
of History” (a mimetic representation of history in spatial terms), Parks‟ protagonist, The
Foundling Father, relentlessly impersonates president Lincoln‟s assassination (7). Such reenactment of traditional history becomes a mimetic strategy utilized to underline the passivity
of normative historical codes and myths, a configuration that gains relevance on assessing
Parks‟ metatheatrical elements, because, in The America Play, the characters‟ professional
lives deploy identity as performative by means of mimicry.
According to Judith Butler performativity aims to disrupt standardized constructions
using reversal in an almost identical manner to that of Bhabha when dealing with mimicry
(136-137). A notion easily perceivable in The America Play, in which, by impersonating the
killing of Lincoln, The Foundling Father embodies physically the open wound of African
Americans, epitome of the bullet‟s hole in Lincoln‟s head (Dawkins 85). What is more, the
very action of “digging” into the “whole Hole” of History underlines the absence of a black
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 22
past to stick to, reassessing that metaphorical wound and explaining the characters‟ need to
exhume preceding events (America Play 17, 30). Thus, The Foundling Father‟s unfruitful
digging proves his inability to overcome white historical myths, therefore becoming a victim
of dramatic irony; for, as The Foundling Father10 himself asserts, “[t]he Hole and its
Historicity and the part he played in it all gave a shape to the life and posterity of the Lesser
Known that he could never shake” (10). In other words, despite digging into history, The
Foundling Father is unable to get through the biases of his normative, white (alter) ego, who
disallows his black heritage, reducing him to a mere embodiment of a mythical white figure.
On the other hand, his wife Lucy and their son Brazil confront reality moving towards
an honest expression of collective grief, which rewrites The Foundling Father‟s tragic ending.
Despite initially following Parks‟ performative mimicry, both characters manage to outgrow
the playwright‟s game reaching anagnorisis. As a professional “mourn[er],” Brazil
spontaneously bursts into tears with the acceptance of his father‟s death, an epiphanic instant
revealing performativity to the audience through the direct exposition of Brazil‟s shattered
self (America Play 26, Dawkins 87). It is thereby in the recovery of traumatic memories,
which have been obliterated by a white conception of history, that the inherited historical
trauma is unveiled, causing grief and pain. Such retrieval of past stories is epitomized in the
character of Lucy, who, communicating with “Thuh Whispers,” contrives to tie the race
together (America Play 28). So, by digging in her unconscious collective memory to, in words
of Parks, “hear the bones sing,” Lucy seizes her patrimony, giving voice to her ancestors
rather than believing in the biased myth of Western history11 (Dawkins 86, “Possession” 4).
As a result The America Play exposes Parks‟ thesis on history under an optimistic
light, where The Foundling Father‟s burial stands for the healing of the race, the closing of
10
In the first act The Foundling Father plays the role of Abraham Lincoln serving, at first, as a sort of omniscient
narrator to his own story, to which he refers as The Lesser Known‟s one.
11
Please see Appendix 2, figure two for a further understanding of the configuration of black history in The
America Play.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 23
the wound and the recovery of every black story that had been kept silenced in the collective
unconscious. According to Laura Dawkins, the Foundling Father represents the black
ancestors (both entrapped into hegemonic history), reason why his burial should be read as a
natural process of mourning in which trauma is overcome thanks to the community‟s most
valuable legacy, their kinship bonds (88-90). Such conception of communal healing works as
a centripetal force for the black community, leading the characters to find themselves while
moving towards a postliminal understanding of identity, which perfectly fits into Turner‟s
notion of communitas.
In Topdog/Underdog, however, the protagonists‟ absence of racial collective memory
revisits the black impersonator‟s death, in which the history/memory dichotomy is recovered
to explore the relevance of historical kinship relations in the construction of African
American identity (Dawkins 90). In doing so, Parks questions the veracity of identity per se
implicating herself in the matter of what is real, a question that, when dealing with African
American drama, finds its answer in the collective.
3.2 The Configuration of Identity as a Performative Collective in Parks‟ Drama
Having overcome the dichotomy of normative history versus collective memory,
Suzan-Lori Parks decides to revisit the Lincoln impersonator‟s matter so as to debunk the
complexities of racial memory. Being kinship the solution upon which her dilemma delved in
The America Play, Parks introduces in Topdog/Underdog a new familiar setting in which the
ancestral kinship ties seem to be lost. The protagonists‟ lack of roots problematizes the issue
of identity to the extent of incurring a very postmodern dilemma: Is identity real or forged?
In Topdog/Underdog, Parks‟ previous portrayal of communal healing shifts into the
horrid scenario of Western capitalism and fratricide (Dawkins 90). The play examines the
conflictive relationship of Lincoln and Booth, two brothers, whose names (result of a paternal
“joke”) seal their destiny accomplishing dramatic irony (Topdog/Underdog 24). Bereft of
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 24
parents to transmit them a racial heritage of communal values, Lincoln and Booth deploy the
dangerous outcomes of assimilating the American hierarchical system that prioritizes
individuality over the collective (Dawkins 91). Thus, abandoned into a “violent and
exploitative street culture,” the characters are forced to perform in order to survive (92). It is
precisely their different approaches towards performance what causes the tragic end. Whereas
Lincoln earns his living portraying the deeds of the assassinated president with whom he
shares his name, Booth gets immersed into a fantasy, which he confuses with reality.
Parks‟ reproduction of the Lincoln impersonator motif stands for a clear instance of
“Rep&Rev,” a formal procedure consisting of “repetition with revision . . . [where] characters
refigure their words and . . . experience their situation anew” (“Elements of Style” 9). This
atypical strategy is fundamental in Parks repertoire for recalling past and history into the
present. Because of Rep&Rev Parks is able to question memory, rendering individuality
unstable. For Lincoln the clothes of his presidential costume do not say who he is, advocating
for a well delineated self-concept despite the white painting in his face; yet, for Booth “the
symbol creates” what is real; in other words, he believes that “changing signifiers will change
reality,” an instance of which is found in his claim “[a]nybody not calling me 3-Card gets a
bullet” attempting to violently control how people call him (Dietrick 50, Topdog/Underdog
19). Therefore, Booth is absorbed into the illusory world of 3-Card, a Jean Baudrillard‟s
simulacrum12 that leads him to commit fratricide.
The entire identity dilemma lies therefore on the characters‟ absence of collective
memory, which gets massively worsened by the intrusion of capitalism. The brothers‟
reception of their inheritance right before being abandoned deploys their substitution of
familiar bonds by money. A fact that, connected to Booth‟s taste for the symbolic, explains
his determination to hide his unopened “inheritance” from Lincoln (Parks, Topdog/Underdog
12
Jean Baudrillard considers that reality has been relentlessly substituted by simulacra, which are copies of the
original, which might not be based on it because of the “liquidation of all referentials” (4).
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 25
105). Because of his fear regarding the “arbitrary and deceptive relationship between signs
and the real,” or, in other words, the understanding of Lincoln as Baudrillard‟s original, Booth
discards him because he disturbs the meaning of his simulacrum (Dietrick 51).
In the end, it seems that the minute the ancestral kinship connection is lost, the
traumatic experience gets buried under layers of appearances and ends up bursting, still
unexplored, into a powerful wage of violence, a clear reminder of Sarah‟s suicide in
Funnyhouse of a Negro. Booth‟s final reaction epitomizes his rage against everything that has
stolen his racial inheritance as symbolized by the money his mother gave him. Indeed,
Booth‟s connection of his elder brother to capitalism and whiteness provides a postcolonial
reading that goes beyond the characters themselves to refer to white colonial history. As
Booth states “[y]ou stole my inheritance, man. That aint right . . . You had yr own. And you
blew it,” a formal device that encourages the audience to read between the lines in order to
grasp actual meaning (110).
3.2.1 From Resistance to Acceptance: The Inclusion of White Matters to Widen the Theatrical
Spectrum
In her plays, Suzan-Lori Parks pursues an “open” articulation of performance, in
which “theatre is confronted with [its] possibilities beyond drama” (Lehmann 6, 26). Thus, in
Topdog/Underdog, she includes the essential formal elements of Western Realism to build a
fourth wall that she progressively deconstructs through mimicry. In doing so, she subverts the
realist conception of theatre in search of a more inclusive dramatic mode found in “the limbs
or branches of a dramatic organism . . . [which] form the space of a memory that is „bursting
open‟ in a double sense,” a theatre “distance[d]” from “superfluous” illusion also known as
postdramatic (Lehmann 27, Brecht, “On Chinese Acting” 131).
Following Hans-Thies Lehmann‟s argument on the contemporary use of form as the
theatrical subject matter, Parks introduces metatheatricality in her plays in order to unmask
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 26
the artifice of performance. Hence, whereas The Foundling Father exclusively re-enacts
Lincoln‟s assassination as a means to reflect on his head wound (metaphorically located in the
race‟s unconscious), which historical myths maintain wide open, in her Pulitzer-winning play,
the metatheatrical elements revolve around the protagonists‟ fraternal dynamics.
In Topdog/Underdog metatheatricality disposes dramatic irony rendering the
characters‟ anticipated fates true, a postmodern device that captures Parks‟ gripping essence
in underlining performativity to enlarge the scope of her plays (Dietrick 60-61). For instance,
Lincoln‟s unwrapping of Booth‟s inheritance, which is the trigger of his final shooting, is
preceded by previous metaperformances of his assassination. Hence, it is in the fusion of
content and form that one finds Parks serving herself of traditional, realist features with which
she lulls her audience into believing in their own passivity, while engaging in “the production
of situations for the self-interrogation, self-exploration, self-awareness of all participants”
(Lehmann 105). Resultantly, Parks theatre utilizes innovative theatrical elements to covertly
communicate with the audience (namely Rest and Spell13) because “[i]t is no longer the stage,
but the theatre as a whole which functions as the „speaking space‟” (31).
Parks defines good theatre as the one dealing with “theatre itself”, reason why she
utilizes symbols to mirror the dialectics of her drama (“Interview” 313). In
Topdog/Underdog, Parks uses mimicry to offer a layered symbolism that functions as a
mirror, formulating a mise-en-abyme. Not only does she explore costumes, performance or
embodiment of characters on stage, but also, through wordplay, she establishes a connection
between 3-card monte and the play being staged. In the play, Lincoln tells Booth (and the
audience) “you was in such a hurry to learn thuh last move that you didnt bother learning thuh
first one,” which is “there aint no winning;” as Lincoln argues, “it may look like you got a
chance but the only time you pick right is when thuh man lets you” (106). Therefore, in
13
Please see Appendix 2, figure one for a better understanding of Parks usage of these elements.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 27
questioning the theatrical basis of naturalist drama, Parks undergoes a deconstruction of such
trend to show its illusory trap. Whereas The America Play presents an experimental scenario
in which Western modes and white structures are clearly avoided, Topdog/Underdog
expresses Parks desire to include and reverse them through direct exposure of their artifact.
3.3 The Depiction of a Third Space to Encourage a Re-reading of Historical Identity
Parks‟ formal reversal of previous theatrical (and illusory) modes results in her plays‟
manifestation of unresolved controversies. With this structure, Parks avoids indoctrinating her
audience and, instead, provides an open third space in which they can talk about what they
perceive freely. In doing so, Parks is assessing a social “transition” from liminality to
postliminal identities, which is physically mirrored in space through formal mimicry, moving
towards a new type of collective or public theatre (Bhabha, Location 220).
As a playwright, Suzan-Lori Parks constantly returns to her set of motifs, namely
“memory and family and history and the past,” and explores form as a fundamental element
for the assimilation of the dramatic action while revisiting content (“Interview” 310). Hence,
her approach varies depending on the play; for instance, whereas The America Play explores
identity in terms of a mental, collective space that gets discovered allowing for an authentic
rendering of historical identity, in Topdog/Underdog her motifs are accentuated by
performance to open up space into a site for questioning the biases of our world.
Thus, one might argue that Parks moves from establishing the space of collective
African American memory (communitas), to actually depicting a shared cultural place for
everyone to go and discuss these matters subjectively.14 Such locus is what Homi K. Bhabha
knows as the third space, a site where “the pact . . . between the I and the You” takes place,
ensuring that “meaning is never mimetic and transparent” (Location 36). In such hybrid
14
Please see Appendix 3 to comprehend Parks‟ articulation of both self-reflexivity and the inclusion of the
audience with clarity.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 28
space, “the binary division[s]” are rejected so as to subvert “the attempt to dominate in the
name of cultural supremacy” (Bhabha, Location 35, 34). Thus, this cultural third space,
“where the negotiations of incommensurable differences” occur, provides a set of tools to
identify “object[s] of otherness” and to reclaim their cultural asset (Bhabha, Location 218,
“Third Space” 211).
Parks affirms that “in encouraging [her]self to listen to the stories beyond [her] default
[ones] . . . [her drama] assumes a new structure” (“Equation” 21). Because, as the storyteller
Chimamanda Adichie argues, “stories matter, many stories matter. Stories have been used to
dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.” And this
is precisely the value that resides under the third space configuration, that of empowerment,
re-reading and formation of a true self-concept, or as Parks beautifully asserts, to listen to
The bones [that] tell us what was, is [and] will be; and because their song is a
play . . . [to produce] theatre like an incubator to create “new” historical events
. . . [to] re-member and stage historical events which, through their happening
on stage, are ripe for inclusion in the canon of history. (“Possession” 4-5)
In a postliminal ambience of acceptance and multicultural exploration, Bhabha‟s third
space could be found anywhere. Yet, as our social space has been reduced, an imminent need
to produce new social spaces has risen. Therefore, in distancing from the illusory box realist
conception of drama, postdramatic theatre moves towards a public configuration of space,
enabling a cultural re-appropriation of the stage as a place for ritual and communication
(which goes back to the origins of theatre). It is because of Parks‟ opening of drama that
theatre becomes a third space where other positions are bound to emerge, displacing
normative history towards new structures of identity (Bhabha, Location 211). Consequently,
one must argue that Parks manages to encompass form and content in order to grasp
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 29
postliminality by means of postdramatic theatre while offering her revision of the African
American past.
Crossing through the threshold that “unite[s] oneself with a new world,” Suzan-Lori
Parks offers a revision of history in terms of correction and re-enactment (Gennep 20). She
rejects historical conventions (which she denaturalizes through mimicry) in favor of
authentic, shared memory to configure identity as a fluid and dynamic category that
undergoes constant metamorphoses, but is deeply rooted in the communal unconscious. Thus,
she encourages the transformation of theatre into a third space where the colonial burden can
be discussed and left behind, reaching postliminality.
CONCLUSION
The dramatic transition from Adrienne Kennedy‟s experimental drama à la Artaud to
Suzan-Lori Parks‟ postdramatic theatre accomplishes the tripartite progression delineated by
Arnold van Gennep for his rites of passage. In articulating an authentic rendering of African
American identity, the playwrights show a tendency to elude colonial discourse, translating
racist patterns and their threatening outcomes into their own diction. Therefore, despite
Kennedy‟s desire to escape liminal abjection, her protagonists become victims of the sort of
racial violence brutally committed either against one‟s multi-layered self, or against a mere
product of otherness. Thus, her haunting expression of identity is restricted both physically
and mentally to a shattered persona, made of bits and pieces that actually cannot fit together.
However, it is thanks to Kennedy‟s honest redefinition of blackness that later
playwrights, such as Suzan-Lori Parks, manage to conform the black experience as an
overflow comprised by a true historical identity grasped through collective memory and
kinship (Turner‟s communitas). In doing so, the application of innovative formal procedures,
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 30
such us extreme performativity, symbolic mise-en-abyme, wordplay or mimicry, allows for
Parks‟ compelling drama to escape the containment of liminality seeking the positive
reconfiguration of identity into a postliminal third space of sharing. Hence, theatre achieves
the status of a public landmark for postcolonial discourse to be rendered without let or
hindrance.
In the end, both Kennedy and Parks manage to perfectly design a cultural transition
from a wrecked identity entrapped in between two worlds without belonging to none of them,
to the performative mimicry deployed in Parks‟ historical explorations as a sign of the
reproduction of social, hybrid spaces where identity can be explored as the post-race
malleable turmoil of reflections and feelings that it truly stands for.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 31
WORKS CITED
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Mitchell and Danille K. Taylor. The Cambridge Companion to African American
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American Women Playwrights through the 1960s and 1970s.” African American
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Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
---. “The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha.” Interview by Jonathan Rutherford. Ed.
Jonathan Rutherford. Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London:
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Brantley, Ben. “Righting a Wrong in a World Out of Joint.” Review of Sleep Deprivation
Chamber. New York Times, 27 Feb. 1996. Web. 14 Jan. 2017.
Brecht, Bertolt. “An Example on Pedagogics.” Ed. John Willett. Brecht On Theatre: The
Development of an Aesthetic. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964. 31-33. Print.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 32
---. “On Chinese Acting.” The Tulane Drama Review 6.1 (1961): 130-136. JSTOR. Web. 14
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Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. New York: Touchstone, 1968. E-book.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York and
London: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Dawkins, Laura. “Family Acts: History, Memory, and Performance in Suzan-Lori Parks‟
The America Play and Topdog/Underdog.” South Atlantic Review 74.3 (Summer
2009): 82-98. JSTOR. Web. 18 Feb. 2017.
Dietrick, Jon. “Making It „Real‟: Money and Mimesis in Suzan-Lori Parks
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Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory. New York: Routledge, 1997. 330-336.
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Grotowski, Jerzy. “A Statement of Principles.” Ed. Eugenio Barba. Towards a Poor Theatre.
London: Methuen, 1968. 211-218. Print.
---. “Skara Speech.” Ed. Eugenio Barba. Towards a Poor Theatre. London: Methuen, 1968.
185-199. Print.
Kennedy, Adam P. and Adrienne Kennedy. Sleep Deprivation Chamber. New York: Theatre
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B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 33
Kennedy, Adrienne. “Adrienne Kennedy.” Interview by Suzan-Lori Parks. Eds. Philip C.
Kolin and Harvey Young. Suzan-Lori Parks in Person: Interviews and Commentaries.
London and New York: Routledge, 2014. 58-65. Google Books. Web. 22 Jan. 2017.
---. “Funnyhouse of a Negro.” In One Act. New York: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.
1-24. Print.
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---. People Who Led Me to My Plays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. The Horrors of Power: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia UP.,
1982. Print.
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Print.
Parks, Suzan-Lori. “An Equation for Black People Onstage.” The America Play and Other
Works. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995. 19-22. Print.
---. “From Elements of Style.” The America Play and Other Works. New York: Theatre
Communications Group, 1995. 6-18. Print.
---. “Interview with Suzan-Lori Parks.” Interview by Shelby Tiggetts. Callaloo 19.2 (Spring
1996): 309-317. JSTOR. Web. 3 March 2017.
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B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 34
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Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, 1929. Print.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 35
APPENDIX 1: Plot Summaries of Selected Plays
Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro
“For if I did not despise myself then my hair would not have fallen and if my hair had
not fallen then I would not have bludgeoned my father‟s face with the ebony mask”
(13)
Funnyhouse of a Negro is a one-act play that tells the story of Sarah, an African
American girl who is deeply troubled by her dual identity. Such dilemma is depicted in the
play by the multiple characters that resemble Sarah‟s multi-layered identity. The play opens
in front of a closed curtain with the image of a woman who walks mumbling, in a trance, with
a bald head in her hand, a clear example of Surrealism that, besides, sets the mood for the
entire play. Once the setting is revealed, the audience is left to face Sarah‟s room, a Queen‟s
chamber that epitomizes her desire to be white. This room, however, will change over time,
giving way to multiple enclosed scenarios in which Sarah‟s duality is examined through one
of her alter egos. Apart from the room, there is another element permanent in the play, a
knocking. The effect this sound produces brings to the spectator‟s mind the calling of her
blackness, haunting her despite her constant denial of it. As the play advances we learn that
Sarah is in fact the daughter of the woman with the bald head in her hand and a man who
committed suicide when Patrice Lumumba15 was killed. Apparently, Sarah has not left her
room since her father died, and she will not manage to leave it in that, at the end of the play,
Sarah kills herself there. The play finishes with the apathetic remarks of Raymond and
Landlady, the only white characters in the play, who harshly insult Sarah after her death
implying that she committed suicide because her father, who had not died, abandoned her for
a white family.
15
Patrice Lumumba, who led the movement of independence of the country against the Belgian, colonial
oppression, was the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo. His opposition to imperialism led towards his
execution in 1961, an event that turned him into a key historical figure due to the involvement of foreign
countries (Belgium, US. and UK.) in his assassination.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 36
Adrienne Kennedy’s Sleep Deprivation Chamber
“The Bay Bridge is fallen. We live near the epicenter” (64)
Sleep Deprivation Chamber is a play divided into three scenes that tells an
autobiographical story of Adrienne Kennedy‟s life: The brutal beating of his son Adam
(Teddy in the play) by a police officer. The play is co-written by Kennedy and her son
offering a retelling of the real event merged with Surrealism and oneiric passages known as
“Dream Scenes.” The play opens with Suzanne, a theatre professor, rehearsing Hamlet with
her student cast in Antioch College. That day her son Teddy is joining the group to direct
them. While he does so, Suzanne falls asleep and enters the oneiric realm of the play in which
her son has been accused of murdering a French King and is sent to prison, where he gets
dismembered. These dream-like scenes (together with what appears to be Teddy‟s memories)
will be continuously intertwined with the play‟s plot as well as with the letters that Suzanne
writes to various personalities trying to gain their favor so that they support the family in the
real trial. The storyline can be summarized in the following schema:
Scene I: One night Teddy is unfairly beaten by Officer Holzer. After that he gets
questioned by an unknown man and by different lawyers. Teddy is encouraged to plead guilty
being assured that he most likely will go to jail. The audience learns of a video recording of
Teddy‟s beating and Suzanne continues writing letters.
Scene II: The action moves to Ohio Theatre, where they are rehearsing The Ohio State
Murders. Suzanne continues writing and Teddy keeps being questioned. The differences
between Blacks and Whites are explored by the cast.
Scene III: In the courtroom, the trial progresses. Teddy is repeatedly questioned. In the
end, he wins, but with the tragic tone of remembering a previous assault under the sound of
his screams in the video recording.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 37
Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play
“At thuh Great Hole where we honeymooned . . . you could see thuh whole world
without goin too far. You could look intuh that Hole and see your entire life pass
before you. Not your own life but someones life from history, you know, somebody
who killed somebody important, uh face on uh postal stamp, you know, someone from
History. Like you, but not you. You know: Known. (Rest)” (41)
The America Play is one of Parks‟ most experimental works, divided into two acts. In
the first one (Lincoln Act), the protagonist, The Foundling Father, an African American grave
digger with a similar appearance to Abraham Lincon, re-enacts the president‟s assassination
in a sort of amusement park where his shooters embody the figure of John Wilkes Booth and
kill him shouting different cliché sentences. In the second act (Hall of Wonders), The
Foundling Father‟s or Lesser Known‟s family (his wife Lucy and their son Brazil) get the
floor to tell the story of this character, a man so obsessed with his similarities to Lincoln that
spent his whole life trying to imitate him. This second act is divided into seven sections (Big
Bang, Echo, Archeology, Echo, Spadework, Echo and The Great Beyond) in which Parks
explores different notions (such as the Whispers, the Digging or the performed mourning)
essential to comprehend both The Foundling Father and the African American community
itself. This second act therefore offers some insight into the characters‟ psyche, allowing the
audience to unmask the symbolic meaning of the play‟s elements found in The Great Hole of
History.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 38
Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog
“People are funny about they Lincoln shit. Its historical. People like they historical shit
in a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book.
Not raggedy and bloody and screaming.” (52)
Topdog/Underdog is Suzan-Lori Parks‟ Pulitzer-winning play, which, in six scenes,
explores the games of power between the white hegemony and the black community (as
anticipated by the title) in a highly dysfunctional African American family. Abandoned by
their parents at a young age, both Lincoln and Booth (the protagonist brothers) are forced to
make a living out of themselves. As a result, Lincoln (known as Link back then) started
hustling 3-card monte in order to support their family financially. Yet, because of a hustle that
goes wrong ending with one of his partner‟s life, Lincoln decides to find an honest job and
quit hustling. After that, everything turns sour for Lincoln and he ends up living in his
brother‟s apartment (a room with one bed and no running water) and impersonating Abraham
Lincoln at his final moments in an arcade. This is the point when the play starts, showing us
how Booth, trying to beat his brother‟s record playing the cards, practices his hustler‟s speech
(a speech that is indirectly addressed to the audience). Once the two brothers are together on
stage the play revolves around their lifestyle, Booth‟s relationship with Grace and how,
despite being Lincoln the only one working, they manage to get expensive items thanks to
Booth‟s ability stealing. The play advances showing the brothers‟ fraternal dynamics until
Lincoln gets fired, begins hustling again, recovers part of his money and gets challenged by
Booth in their living room. Lincoln plays Booth and manages to win his inheritance (which
their mother gave him wrapped in a stocking and Booth had never dared to open). In the end,
urged by an uncontrollable rage, Booth shoots his brother, who dies while Booth repents.
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 39
APPENDIX 2: Suzan-Lori Parks, “From Elements of Style”
Figure One: Author’s Note of The America Play
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 40
Figure Two: Math and Equation of The America Play
B a r b a G u e r r e r o | 41
APPENDIX 3: Suzan-Lori Parks, Foreword to Topdog/Underdog
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