|Title:||Reversing Blackface Minstrelsy, Improvising Racial Identity: Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Reversing Blackface Minstrelsy, Improvising Racial Identity: Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro
vol. 1, no. 1, Fall 1997
Reversing Blackface Minstrelsy, Improvising Racial Identity: Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro
Lorde's image of a nightmare on the white pillow suggests that a fantasy of blackness occupies whites' most intimate psychic spaces. In the history of American theater, this is certainly the case; the U.S.'s first "authentic" innovation in theater (preceding the musical by centuries) was minstrelsy, in which white-skinned men painted their faces black and staged stereotypes of "toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, and bucks."  The most familiar minstrel figure may be the amiable buffoon "Sambo" (who later appeared in the acts of Stepin Fetchit, Amos & Andy, and Sanford of the TV series Sanford and Son). But never too far from the smiling, Sambo-type interlocutor is the stereotype of the primal, wild, heart-of-darkness African man always ready to rape the pure white antebellum Southern lady. These images still haunt American dramatic embodiments. 
In the twentieth century, these white-produced minstrel images have become the polluting blotches on dark pillows, and a large number of African Americans who write for the stage feel they must confront minstrelsy's entrenched legacy head-on. This century has also seen a number of plays, by both black and white writers, which attempt, with varying degrees of success, to reverse, satirize, and/or parody minstrelsy, and to clear out a space in American theater tradition for more complex representations of racial identity. A partial list of such plays could include Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, Alice Childress' Trouble in Mind, Jean Genet's The Blacks: a clown show, Lorraine Hansberry's Les Blancs, Amiri Baraka's Great Goodness of Life: A Coon Show, Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro, ntozake shange's spell #7, and George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum.
Reversing the minstrel is not easy, and attempts to do so run the risk of reincarnating the minstrel in more subtle, and therefore more effective forms. The title of Frantz Fanon's work Black Skin, White Masks pointedly reverses minstrelsy's "white skin, black masks," but does not suggest a liberation form the minstrel formulation. Fanon's study concerns the dramas of blacks trying to function in the white social theater on its own terms. The formulation of "black skin, white masks" implies that "skin" takes ontological priority over "masks." Yet Fanon also argues, in a proto-deconstructive formulation, "The Negro is not. Any more than the white man" (231). Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro, "Signifyin(g) upon" racism's master trope of minstrelsy, asks fundamental social, philosophical, and ontological questions about what "race" "is," how it comes to be reified, and how the impossible absolutes of "black" and "white" come to be internalized and even naturalized onto our skins and into our bodies.  Further, it anticipates its own critical receptions and asks what is at stake when a white spectator/reader, such as myself, asks these questions.
In Funnyhouse of a Negro, the distinction between "black" and "white" "identities" is already unhinged before the play ever begins. Kennedy writes from ethnically mixed heritages and from points of breakdown of racial classifications, as well as from multiple points within operating structures of racial classification, but claims no position as final. In representing her "own" "black female identity," Kennedy moves into an area otherwise almost entirely repressed from dramatic representation: a conscious acknowledgement of "mixed ancestry."
Funnyhouse itself exhibits a mixed ancestry of European, North American, African, and African-American forms and styles. The characters come from myths of European (particularly British) colonialism (Queen Victoria Regina, the Duchess of Hapsburg), Christianity (Jesus), U.S. antebellum gothic,  and Ghanaian figures (the Man/Patrice Lumumba). Even the play's "plot," or plotlessness, reflects Western European surrealism, modernist dismay at mythic discontinuities, postmodern ontological mazes, absurdist non sequitors, African-American gospel traditions, and African chants and masks. (The ebony masks, indeed, may allude both to African traditions and to Picasso's modernist borrowings of African traditions. )
Funnyhouse is resistant to plot summary. To represent the "plot" is to try to account for the strange "characters" and "set." The play takes place mostly in the room/mind of the main character(s), Sarah. Other characters in the play—the Duchess, Queen, Jesus, and Patrice Lumumba—are also "herselves." The cast of characters does not identify The Mother as "one of herselves," but she occupies as powerful a site in Sarah's Imaginary as any mother or other encountered in Lacanian psychoanalysis. Two other characters, white, are Sarah's landlady and Sarah's boyfriend Raymond, who are also listed as "Funnyhouse Lady" and "Funnyhouse Man." The play opens with the Duchess and Victoria discussing the knocking which recurs throughout the play; this knocking signals the return of the ebony-black father, who "raped" Sarah's very light-skinned black mother to produce the brown-skinned Sarah. Sarah discusses her fear and hatred of the black father and of blackness, and her desire to be lighter. She resents her "kinky" hair. All of Sarah's "selves" lose their hair in patches during the play. The landlady tells the audience that Sarah's father "hung himself in a Harlem hotel when Patrice Lumumba was murdered" but that Sarah insists instead that she "bludgeoned his head with an ebony skull" (8). Funnyman and Duchess then discuss the father as a Christian missionary in the African jungle. The father/Patrice Lumumba next appears and tells the audience of his dreams to save his race. The Duchess and Jesus go bald. The landlady recounts Sarah's cruelty to her father at their last meeting, her inability to forgive him for being black. Jesus says he will go to the jungle to kill the black man. The climactic scene takes place in the jungle, to which place all herselves have journeyed. With nimbuses on their heads, they speak and chant in repeated variations about the jungle-black father who "keeps returning forever, returning and returning" (21). In a succession of quick images the audience sees a statue of Queen Victoria "of astonishing repulsive whiteness," then the father rushing upon Sarah, then the hanging figure of Sarah simultaneous with the laughing landlady. The landlady says that Sarah has hanged herself, as her father had in the past. Raymond says Sarah's father never hanged himself; rather he is alive and well and living in the city with a white whore; "Her father is a nigger who eats his meals on a white glass table" (23).
I hope, in attempting to summarize the "plot," I have both aided readers who have not read or seen Funnyhouse, and at the same time dramatized the irrelevance of "plot" to the play's design. Funnyhouse resists sequence; instead, it structures itself on repetition, indeed compulsive repetition. Incongruous doublings and repetitions reinforce each other as the two powerful forces structuring Funnyhouse. The trope of the funnyhouse, for Kennedy, represents the confusions that may be experienced by some racially mixed African Americans attentive to both their African and their American, as well as to their African-American and European, heritages. Indeed, much of Funnyhouse was created, physically, on a ship to Europe and then to West Africa; most of the play was composed on the waters between the two continents. The play, then, is "founded" in groundlessness, alienation, errancy, transience, and multiplicity. 
One means by which Funnyhouse theatricalizes multiplicity and alienation is through the use of masks. Metaphorical masks lie at the center of the play's understanding of racial identity; indeed, notions of "black" and "white" are themselves masks. But even more immediately, literal masks abound in and structure Funnyhouse. In the first image of the play that an audience sees, "[b]efore the closed Curtain A WOMAN in a white nightgown walks across the Stage carrying before her a bald head" (2). Against the background of the white nightgown and the "white satin Curtain of a cheap material and a ghastly white, a material that brings to mind the interior of a cheap casket," the Woman's hair, "wild, straight and black and fall[ing] to her waist," becomes strikingly prominent. The juxtaposition of this wild hair with the decapitated, bald head foregrounds hair (both its presence and absence) as a major signifier of Funnyhouse.
Interestingly, the race of neither the woman nor the bald head is specified in the stage directions. This absence is even more conspicuous given that the title of the play would immediately sensitize both readers and viewers to racial identity. Readers and viewers learn from other characters later in the play that this woman is the very light-skinned black mother of the (presumably eponymous) "Negro," Sarah. In contrast to the very white fabrics of the nightgown and curtains, and to the very black hair of the woman, her race is not clearly either white or black; even calling her a "very light-skinned black" woman, as I have just done, imposes an inadequate classification upon her. Like many of its predecessor plays which Signify on the minstrel tradition or which attempt realistically to represent black life, Funnyhouse asks "what is a black?," "what is a white?"; but while many of the plays—The Blacks in particular—ask these questions in looking at the black-white binary system operating in full force, Funnyhouse asks these questions at sites where the system breaks down, especially in the figure of the mulatto or "yellow-skinned" individual, or the individual of "mixed ancestry." Kennedy, in her stage directions, never classifies the race of this mother in her own disembodied authorial voice, but only in the embodied voices of her characters—Duchess, Victoria, the landlady, Jesus, Sarah.
Readers of the play still do not know the race of the head that the Mother carries. Is the decapitated head a replica of the mother's own ("yellow")? Of Sarah's ("brown")? Of Patrice Lumumba's or the father's ("black")? If the bald head is white or very black, or if it is male, it may even more pointedly isolate race and gender as sites of difference which the play obsessively reflects upon. Or, if the head is "identical" to the woman's, it introduces the trope of duplication in a play of duplicity run amok, in which it is impossible to determine which is the "original" or "authentic" or "true," and which the mask. This bald head acts as a mask to the woman who holds it in that, even though her own head is completely exposed, the bald head "before her" mediates and precedes our perceptions of her. The woman (along with the bald head she carries before her) similarly acts as a mask to the play, which carries her before it. A mask not only presents a pre-formed representing surface, but also and simultaneously reifies surface/depth or outside/inside or appearance/reality or falsehood/truth binaries. This somnambulatory pre-amble across the stage foreshadows the play's impervious indeterminacies: the woman's dream-like state before the curtain may suggest that everything behind it is her dream—or nightmare. But it is not only a curtain of sleep, but also of entombment—it is "ghastly white, a material that brings to mind the interior of a cheap casket, parts of it are frayed and look as if it has been gnawed by rats" (2)—so that it pre-presents the play as a buried past returning to haunt, or as a psychic past unsuccessfully repressed. Even if everything behind the curtain is the mother's dream, it is a dream which grounds her/her daughter's experience of reality. The mother's preamble before the curtain sets off the behind-the-curtain as its double, both more and less authentic than itself. The behind-the-curtain is established as the site of the past by the mother's present figure preceding it. Or is the mother a false front, a figure from the past haunting the play's present? Which is real—the before-the-curtain, or the behind-the-curtain?
This preambulatory figure is a false front in another way. Kennedy has elsewhere cited plays such as Thornton Wilder's Our Town and particularly Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie as major influences on her.  The stage manager and Tom, respectively, perform the traditional roles of such figures who have a privileged ontological status, generate the play, and mediate between it and the audience. They are the trustworthy characters; we count on them to deliver the truth. Not so with this mother-and-bald-head duo, which misleads us—or rather, which arouses and at the same time denies our hunger for authenticity.
Behind the curtain we find two women—"Queen Victoria Regina" and the "Duchess of Hapsburg," according to the stage directions—who have no immediately clear relation to the head-and-woman who have/has just exited. Though they have their backs to the audience in this scene, so that audiences do not recognize them as "white" until later scenes, readers learn immediately that these two characters are white.  The Royalty in Funnyhouse
The exaggerated whiteness of these women already prefigures the very black father figure. Had the characters been played by "white" actors "underneath," their whiteness wouldn't be so pointed. Similarly, the "unnatural BLACKNESS" of most of the stage makes the "strong white LIGHT" of the Queen's chamber "unreal and ugly." But again, the more "pure" or polar these characters' whiteness, the more its dependence on the immediate co-presence of blackness—a "presence" which is tautological, as it achieves its presence in opposition to whiteness.
The "wild kinky hair" of the Duchess and Queen, in direct opposition to their starkly white masks, baldly proclaims the falsity of the role-playing. These characters are "black" on the "inside," "white" on the "outside." But these characters challenge the priority of whiteness or blackness, as well as the validity of these categories. Furthermore, readers "know" from the Cast of Characters that "Sarah" precedes the Duchess and the Queen, who are each "one of herselves" (1). Furthermore, "Sarah" is listed as "Negro-Sarah." Immediately identifying her as the eponymous character, that "Negro," bound so tightly with a hyphen to her more individualizing surname, also precedes that individuality. We "know" that Sarah is black, and that the blackness underneath the white masks of the Duchess and Queen is Sarah's blackness. And yet, not only is Sarah part white inside (genetically, psychologically) and white/black (also "brown" or "yellow") on the outside, but the Queen and Duchess, who are stark white on the outside and "black" on the inside are Sarah's "insides," entombed in her psyche. While a reader would "know" which "self" is the most authentic, a spectator does not for a long time, if at all, receive any clear indication. Are either the Queen or the Duchess the eponymous "Negro" whose "Funnyhouse" the play is? The characters' masks, and the characters-as-masks, complicate any sense of what is mask, what is real. In retrospect and belatedly (and most of the understanding and classifying in this play occurs this way), spectators understand the Duchess and the Queen to be, in some sense, "white." The first view we see of these selves of "Negro-Sarah," though, presents the black backsides of white characters. That is, from the start, the "Negro" is figured as an un-decode-able combination of contradictory racial signs of indeterminate priority or supremacy: a funnyhouse of racial signals, with no exit.
At the sound of knocking (a sound to recur throughout the play) Victoria and Duchess, in the first spoken words of the play, discuss what every character of the play obsessively discusses: the return of the father from the jungle:
The father is the repressed who cannot be completely eradicated, and whose recurrent return gives the play the structure of a repetition compulsion. This black man is already at least doubly a repetition of figures outside the play: he repeats the role of black rapist scripted in North American cultural myths from KKK propaganda to Black Militant plays of the 1960s, from the 1988 Bush campaign's use of Willie Horton to mass fears of "wilding" generated by media coverage of the "Central Park Jogger" trial. But he is also Patrice Lumumba. Furthermore, at his first physical appearance halfway through the play, "Patrice Lumumba" (as "he" is listed in the cast of characters) already at least doubly repeats signals within the play: not only does character after character repeatedly discuss him, and especially discuss the way he hauntingly "keeps returning forever, coming back ever and keeps coming back forever" (3-4), but he is almost an exact negative image of the first image of the play. Just as the mother always appears carrying the mask-like bald head, the man always appears carrying an "ebony mask" (7). While the mother is always dressed in a white nightgown, Lumumba/the Man/the father is always described as a "black" or "dark" figure. Furthermore, his "head appears to be split in two with blood and tissue in eyes" (7). This macabre allusion to Patrice Lumumba's death also encapsulates this figure's dramatically split personality: both Christian missionary and African primitive, both Sarah and Sarah's father, both dead and alive. A head split in two flattens both sides of the head to masks. All of these masks both emphasize the falsity of racial roles and spotlight their primacy to any self-identity.
Funnyhouse's repeated references to the black man's act of raping the light-skinned woman themselves repeat deeply entrenched Western European myths. In her first lines of the play, the Duchess recaps this metanarrative of ritual rape:
This conjunction of associations suggests that the ideal of whiteness is achieved only through the ritual sacrifice of white women (and the erasure of black women) through the mythic rape by a black man. Fanon asserts—from a masculinist and heterosexist perspective—that
Fanon goes on to emphasize the imaginary nature of white women's rape fantasies by black men. Critic Valerie Smith, however, acutely observes the actualized political nature of these cultural fantasies:
If these "myths of black male and female sexual appetitiveness" empower white men, their appropriation in the spirit of reversal and revenge may empower some black male playwrights. A few years after The Blacks appeared in New York in 1961, a plethora of plays by militant African-American playwrights began to recommend and/or reenact the rape of white women by black men as a symbolic gesture. This symbolic rape ritual, and caustic reversals and deviations of it, in such plays as Ed Bullins's The Taking of Miss Janie and LeRoi Jones's Dutchman, The Slave, and The Toilet, aimed for a symbolic reversal of the lynchings of black men still being enacted offstage and in the flesh. These KKK-style hatecrimes were often not only ignored but also perpetrated by law enforcers (as they still are today—most visibly, of course, in the recent videotaped beating of Rodney King by members of the LA police). Sometimes the lynchings involved actual castrations as well as other kinds of dismemberment. At any rate, actual lynchings as well as the implied threat of future lynching effected a symbolic disempowerment, emasculation, and castration of black men. In this context, the need for black men to symbolically reclaim their virility, and to reverse the roles of the metaphor of sadomasochistic sex, makes a kind of "sense." But by failing to refute abusive heterosexual intercourse as an appropriate metaphor for racial domination, by leaving intact the equations of masculinity with domination and of femininity with submission, these retaliatory plays empower the objectionable sexual metaphor and serve white supremacy as well as white patriarchy. 
In Funnyhouse, the narrative of the black father raping the light mother is a dream, residing in the deepest chambers of Sarah's psyche. The mother at the opening, which we later learn to be part of Sarah's dream (the Duchess says she awakens "shaken by nightmares of [her] mother" ), herself seems to be dreaming and sleepwalking. The next scene takes place in a chamber predominated by a "dark monumental bed resembling an ebony tomb"; overhead fly "great black RAVENS," conventional birds of ill omen, evil, and death, particularly in gothic phantasmagoria. Perhaps even more menacing, "[o]n the white pillow of [Victoria's] bed is a dark, indistinguishable object" (2). Not unlike the nightmare of the white pillow of Lorde's poem. Not unlike the dark bed itself, amidst the strong white light of center-stage.
This indistinguishable dark object on the white pillow, conjuring up a sense of the dark core at the heart of whiteness, that which whites most fear and by most fearing become whites—is identified, eventually, as hair. Hair loss is repeatedly linked with being raped ("the wild black beast raped me and now my skull is shining"). All the characters in Funnyhouse move back and forth along a stream of associations between rape (the black act on the white bed), hair loss (the black spot on the white pillow), health loss, loss of sanity, and death (alternatively represented as something very black and very white). The "alabaster face" masking both the Duchess and the Queen, like Desdemona's "smooth, as monumental alabaster" skin (5.2.5), connote at once unnatural whiteness and death. This conjunction of associations suggests that the ideal of whiteness is achieved only through the ritual sacrifice of white women (and erasure of black women). Like in The Blacks, the center-stage bed is also a casket, and the scenes acted around it resemble funeral rites. Unlike The Blacks, the rape ritual does not "occur" during the performance of Funnyhouse; rather the rape is always in the past and always returning, always a threat for the future. In The Blacks, the rape occurs at least symbolically in the temporal present, but occurs offstage. Both rapes become all the more immediate for being simultaneously not-present and present. By not being pinned down to a specific time, place, and person, these interracial rapes are generalized onto all white women of all times. Both plays on the one hand connect the symbolic (and physical) rape of a white woman with the imminent death (but also reinforcement) of white supremacy. In Funnyhouse, the mother and all of Sarah's "white" selves—Duchess, Queen, Jesus—lose their hair and their sanity, and Sarah "herself" seemingly commits suicide in response to the rape. In Funnyhouse, as in The Blacks, the rape myth serves both as the climax of black-white relations and as the foundation of these relations. The rape mythology produces, and continually reproduces, the very concepts of whiteness and blackness. It is what makes these white women white, and gives birth to whiteness as a concept. (This is also the case in The Blacks, where Diouf-Marie crosses from the "colored" lower regions of the stage to the "whites only" balcony at the moment when he is "raped" as a white woman.) In The Blacks, the rape propels the members of "the Court" to "the jungle," where they meet their death. In Funnyhouse, likewise, rape spurs the retributive trip of whites into the jungle—a trip which ritually enacts a symbolic and retrospective positing of the ebony black body at the origin of black racial identity.
Funnyhouse repeats, but hauntingly repeats, tropes of the racially motivated (and motivating) rape ritual and the primal black jungle from metanarratives of a Euro-American "political Unconscious." Whereas Genet takes up these tropes and metanarratives in a distanced, alienating satire, Kennedy seems not so much to delegitimate them as to dramatize their power. Indeed, it is this repetitiveness, this virus-paced replication in host psyches, which gives these mythemes such power. The jungle, repeatedly cited (and constituted via repetition) as the origin of blackness, the "heart of darkness," unfolds as the unoriginal site of concentrated repetitions, the heart of repetitions of representations of darkness. In this jungle, all the major strands of dialogue which make the black father black are "repeated several times" and spoken "tensely at various times in a chant" (21). The obsessional themes of the father knocking, his blackness in opposition to the mother's whiteness, the rape, the ebony masks, Sarah's fantasy of bludgeoning him to death, his plea of forgiveness for being black, all recur again and again in the jungle. But while the jungle has all along been posited as the origin of all those images of blackness, the "selves" must most frenetically conjure up primal blackness when they reach it. This jungle seems more like a psychic space—the "id," the "repressed," or the "Imaginary"—than a geographical one:
This scene seems to come from the palette of Henri Rousseau, from Gothic traditions, and perhaps from Grimms's fairy tales (as well as from private nightmares), rather than from observations of any actual jungle that Kennedy may have seen in her trip to Ghana. The wild black grass recalls the wild black hair, the "unmistakably Negro kinky hair" which Sarah sees as a "defect." Her selves lose this "glaring Negroid feature" after the rape which symbolically lightens them. Here, this wild black grass luxuriates. Yet even this heart of blackness is not absolutely dark but a "dark brightness, a grim yellowness." "Yellowness" in this play suggests both the ghostly whiteness of Victoria's statue, so old and white that it's yellow, and the derogatory term for "mulatta" (itself a derogatory term). If this "jungle" is the site of the psyche, then the psyche, like the jungle, achieves its status as origin and core of the "self" belatedly, by the obsessive reproductions of signals positing its originariness. The core self is just other people and other images, repeated often enough to become not only naturalized, but made to precede all repetitions.
It is no accident, then, that a play about the power of racial myths would be structured on a repetition compulsion; indeed, repetition compulsion is the aesthetic—or anaesthetic—par excellence of racism. But repetition is never exact; in Funnyhouse, repetition with a difference is not only a means for psychic, even brainwashing reproductions of racism, but also an alienating revelation of aporia, internal differences and disruption, cracks in the front of self-identity. In the following passage, the Duchess repeatedly states that her father is of African descent. But she says so in different ways:
"He is an African" sounds factual, but the stereotypical "jungle" sounds suspiciously fantastical, Rousseau-esque (reminiscent both of Henri Rousseau's wild black jungle-men and of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's primitive innocents prior to civilization). Not "a jungle," much less a specifically named jungle, but "the jungle," the site which contains the uncontainable, which exists everywhere danger is. A region of the self. To say that he "has always lived in the jungle" crosses over from biography to myth. One could read "he has lived in the jungle for his whole life," but the sense of "he has lived in the jungle forever," in a state of racist essentialism, also hovers. He is a trope, an embodiment of the jungle, which is itself a metaphor for an imagined space beyond whiteness. Later the black father becomes even less an individual human being. The Duchess says consecutively: "Hide me here so the nigger will not find me" and "Hide me here so the jungle will not find me" (9-10). "The nigger" and "the jungle" occupy the same syntagmatic position in her psyche. And, even more explicitly: "He is the wilderness" (10) and "He is a black man and the wilderness" (11). Embedding the slippage among the different types of men and the "jungle" in repeated phrases, the Duchess both conflates the variable terms and accents their non-identity as well as the racism operating in her e-race-ure of differences. Dehumanizing black men, the Duchess uses their bodies as embodiments of a dark repressed. Deliberate repetition with a difference, then, can be a strategic aesthetic for presenting the way race and racism are internalized, while simultaneously externalizing such an internalization. For Kennedy, this strategic aesthetic theatricalizes, simultaneously, indoctrination through repetition and alienation through difference.
The Duchess, a European "self" of the African-American Sarah, speaks a white racism which some blacks also internalize and struggle internally against. The object of the Duchess's discourse is either an African/nigger/black man or a missionary teacher/colonizer of the former. These possibilities cannot coexist, and do coexist, in the Duchess's schizophrenic representation. Her discourse slips easily along a chain of signifiers, from "African" to "the jungle" to "a nigger" to "an African" to "a missionary teacher" to "a black man." On the one hand this slippage presents these terms as synonyms; on the other hand, it opens itself up to the differences among these terms. The Duchess's discourse, then, floodlights a slippage that may occur in a white American cultural unconscious and become internalized even by individuals who try consciously to resist it. But this passage is spoken by a white figure on behalf of a black (as well as vice versa). It is a passage repeated with variations by every character in the play of every "color"—"black," "brown," "yellow," and "white." The colors of the "selves" speaking both are and are not relevant to the words they speak. Not only does the multiracial cast of selves transfer racist stereotypes, but the repetitions of racist discourse are the very means by which Sarah simultaneously obtains her race (or her racial self) and becomes alienated from it—and alienated from her "self(ves)," fragmented into mutually exclusive characteristics dispersed among many races.
Repetitions across monologues, like repetitions within monologues, perform similar paradoxical effects, both blurring and emphasizing differences, both indoctrinating through repetition and alienating through difference. Selves constitute themselves through repetition of other selves. Internalizing white cultural denigrations of Negro identity, NEGRO tries to evacuate this Negro identity and become a bearer of white signifiers:
Repeating the complexions of images on magazines, reproducing her light mother's education, imitating the quintessentially British Edith Sitwell, redecorating her rooms with the European and Orientalist interior decorations of her white friends, Sarah amasses a(n) (non-)identity out of the dictates of others.
But if the Negro-Sarah self of the speaking subject of the funnyhouse is a selfless self, the MAN-self (and indeed the collection of selves) is/are many selves, none of which is a "true" self, but all of which are replicas of mythic racial paradigms: "self" is just other people. MAN presents himself as simultaneously at least two (other) people:
Even this figure, simultaneously the site of Sarah's most authentic ancestry and its violator, embodies trauma only through its compulsive reiteration.
The impossibility of ever being present at, to "haunt," one's "mother's conception" (one's mother's being conceived by her parents? one's being conceived in the womb of one's mother?) spotlights the recurrent, indeed compulsively repeated motif of reproduction and regeneration in the most literal sense. Because Sarah sees herself as a product of a rape which is also an act of miscegenation, her very existence repeatedly signifies a past trauma, an originary trauma which may have been created belatedly by her to account for her repetition compulsion. For Sarah, then, racial and gender conflicts are signified and repeated by her very existence. Defensively repeating the trauma in order to mitigate it, she also reifies it. The rape of a light woman by a dark man is at once a fetishistic myth, an ideological state apparatus which itself reproduces and reinforces racism (and sexism), a "true" ritual (when it becomes a self-reifying or self-actualizing prophecy), and a screen obfuscating other understandings of race and of the complex reproductions of race and racism. Funnyhouse shifts the focus of its cultures' interracial rape myths/fantasies to the product of "miscegenation," and theatricalizes the poignant irreconcilability of mixed ancestries, identities, myths. Within the dominant rape myth, Sarah is herself a return of the repressed; she represents (to herself) black violation of whiteness. Kennedy shows the effects of this myth not only on white men, white women, and black men, but also on black women, or rather on a particular black woman, who is torn into multiple identifications.
But Kennedy shows not only the poignancy and endless reproductions of this myth, but shows also the means of reproduction to be in both black and white hands, but predominantly in white. In Funnyhouse, the offstage playwright is black (or is identified as black), but the play itself invalidates both the terms "black" and "white" as it presents an individual as genetically and psychically a mixture of races, traditions, and cultural myths. The racially pure Snow White and Ebony Black figures may powerfully haunt and define one's racial identity, but they are not themselves real.
And yet these myths are real—or realized—for we take part in a culture which reifies and binarizes "black" and "white" as bodily truths. Even as Funnyhouse deconstructs this binary system, it shows the system to service those who go under the sign of "white." Within the play, the funnyhouse of black and white mythologies is directed and supervised by the white Raymond ("Funnyhouse Man") and Sarah's white landlady ("Funnyhouse Lady"). While conspicuously black actors play Sarah's "white" "selves" (the Duchess of Hapsburg, Queen Victoria Regina, and perhaps the "yellow" Jesus), the Funnyhouse Lady and Man are played by white actors. Not only was the "real" theater of Funnyhouse's original performance owned by a white man and the play produced and directed by white men (Edward Albee and Michael Kahn), but the playing area within the play is also owned and controlled by whites. Sarah says of the places of performance that "the rooms are my rooms...the places where myselves exist" (7). But it is the landlady, not Sarah, who owns these rooms.
Mrs. Conrad and Raymond also "own" the narrative, or at least act proprietary in relation to it, as they mediate between "herselves" and the audience. In a scene with the Duchess (8-11), Raymond selectively dispenses vision and insight. He opens and closes "a prop of blinds" behind which "are mirrors and when the blinds are opened and closed by Raymond this is revealed" (8-9). Raymond is a Venetian blinder, controlling when both the Duchess and the audience can see themselves, and creating disjunctions and distortions in their self-images. Audiences may identify him as the artist figure (he is "dressed...in attire suggesting an artist"), "a poet" (6), and director; audiences may even identify with him. Though neither sympathetic nor sympathizing characters, Raymond and the landlady gain audience respect as the sane figures, partly by labelling Sarah as simply insane, by shutting out her more complex psychic vision:
Both the landlady's two monologues put "herselves"'s imagistic motifs into chronological, logical narrative. I found myself, upon my first reading of this play—actually, upon my first several readings—turning to the landlady's monologues with relief, for some sort of sense, some way to escape the twists and turns of Sarah's endless disorientation. Yet when I force myself to attempt to inhabit Sarah's disorientations, the landlady's monologues seem grossly inadequate to Sarah's experience.
Raymond and the landlady not only reduce and discount Sarah's stories and selves, they also close off the play by discrediting them in the most patronizing and apathetic of ways. I quote the quick-moving ending at length:
The two white characters of the play, Raymond and the landlady, not only have the final words, but also function as the dispensers of truth. They (seem to) give "the real story." It is they who control our interpretation.
That is, if we let them. For we also know that whether or not Sarah does have a father who lives out white codes, the father to Sarah's racial identity is a mythic black man who frightens and fascinates her. Furthermore, much as the play encourages audience trust in and identification with the Funnyhouse Lady and Man, it also confounds that trust. With the opening appearance of the Mother, we have seen, the play begins a pattern of encouraging and frustrating trust. For viewers without access to a written cast of characters, the maze of frustrated identifications becomes even more confounding. The cast of characters lists "Negro-Sarah" first, and subsequent characters as "one of herselves"; "Negro-Sarah" would appear to be the originary/authentic self. But, given that three of "herselves" appear before she does and speak close variations of her own speech, how does an audience tell that (or if) Sarah has priority over her other selves? Perhaps the only clue, ironically, is her disclosure of her failure to order herselves:
Sarah only gains ontological priority to her other selves by trying and failing to order them, and by representing her disorder to us. Sarah, then, forces the audience into assigning authenticity. She teaches an alternative aesthetic to that of Raymond and the landlady. Sarah's spectatorial aesthetic is one of decentered, disordered identification—identification which is also multiplication of selfhood.
As viewers are forced actively to seek the subject of the play and the object of identification, as Funnyhouse discourages even as it encourages faith in the white characters' dispensation of narrative "truth," the play simultaneously spotlights the races of characters and audience and encourages (and frustrates) identifications across race. Kennedy does not give a clear indication in her stage directions of the racial make-up of the audience. In interviews, however, she states that "the theater is segregated enough" and that she "write[s] for a total audience"; interviewer Wolfgang Binder concludes that Kennedy "herself aimed at a desegregated public" (MELUS Interview 108, 100). She writes plays "to break through barriers" (108). Kennedy does not like the labels "Black writer" or "woman writer," "never wanted to identify totally with women playwrights or Black playwrights or anybody," is "totally opposed to women's theater," and "would never tell a Black student to write for Blacks alone, especially nowadays" (MELUS Interview 108). Her racially mixed audience may be apt for an investigation of racially mixed selfhood (or selveshood). I would imagine that viewers of all races would identify with characters of all races and racial orientations in this play in which "black" and "white" are masks. As a white reader who has not seen the play performed, I feel much more empathy for Sarah than for her two white interpreters.
But this play also refuses to let me forget that characters' racial masks are always worn or carried, and that they precede selves. While Kennedy refuses the categories "black playwright" and "woman playwright," she characterizes herself as a "black woman" who is "an off-Broadway playwright" ("Interview" 151). The play refuses to let me forget that I am "a white reader" even as it breaks down the barriers of this fictional but operative (and always operating) category. Both the ebony mask of Patrice Lumumba and the white masks (behind which "wild kinky hair" flares) of the Queen and Duchess dramatize both the irrelevance and ungroundedness of racial identity to the body and the predominance and inescapability of one's race. Of any race. For Sarah externalizes interactions with white folks in ways that continually redirect me to the whiteness of my own mask, stance, and gaze. Sarah's repetition of her need for white friends as "a stark fortress against recognition of [her]self" (6) or as "an embankment...to maintain recognition against [her]self" (13) baldly reminds me that no matter how much I identify with Sarah and herselves, I do so as a white "friend" and "fortress." Sarah's foremost "friend" is Raymond, whose character and relation to Sarah sound startlingly familiar to me: "I would like to lie and say I love Raymond. But I do not. He is a poet and is Jewish. He is very interested in Negroes" (6). Raymond closes off and appropriates the play, claiming the last words for himself. Does my interest in texts of people of color perform a similar act? White feminists in drama have recently become "very interested" in Adrienne Kennedy: Am I—is Raymond—paradigmatic of this "interest"?
At a recent MLA session on Kennedy,  Paul Jackson argued that while Kennedy's images partook of American transcendentalist and European absurdist traditions, one can best trace these images "to their African origin." The very notion of an origin, a resting place, a priority, a ground, seemed to me alien to Kennedy's work. And yet I hesitated to raise my hand in the discussion period, not only because I was a graduate student facing five professors all of whose work I had long known and admired, but also because I was white and three out of five of the panelists, including Jackson, were black. And while Kennedy's work, for me, breaks down the binary black and white barriers, it was clear to me that for Jackson at least, Kennedy's plays do not work in this way, but rather confirm a pan-African identity, and do so powerfully. I wanted to ask Jackson, though, why he posited the conjuration of an African Eden as an origin, or as more originary than the European, European-American, and African-American imageries. But my asking such a question in that structural context would further re-reify the racial binarism.
In the end, I did ask Jackson about his sense of ethnic ontologies in Kennedy's work. I asked because it seemed to me that Kennedy herself dares to de-authorize all claims to ethnic onto-genesis. In (my) Funnyhouse, the myth of an African Eden, the dream repeatedly conjured up by the Man "to walk in Genesis and save the race...to return to Africa, find revelation in the midst of golden savannas, nim and white frankopenny trees, white stallions roaming under a blue sky, ... [to] walk with a white dove and heal the race, heal the misery, take [it] off the cross" (14), is as much encoded by Western Christian texts as is the nightmare of the wild, wicked, heart-of-darkness Africa, while the white masks of the Duchess and the Queen are no more ontologically unreliable than is the notion of a truth underneath, the real thing, blackness itself. Jackson answered that while Kennedy puts European, European-American, North American, African, and African-American identities into de-hierarchizing play, her evocation of an African imagistic origin may be more powerful than its self-destabilization. Whereas I was bent on making Kennedy a postmodernist. Another respondent, Betty Jean Jones, asked me, "Is there any doubt who Kennedy is?" "Yes," I answered, "I think that doubt is precisely the core of Kennedy's work, and that's why I find it so disturbing and powerful." I realized too late that Jones's question was rhetorical, and angry, and that my views on Kennedy's ontology were specific to me. I realized also that to many of the people at the session, even to myself at this point, I was a Raymond to Kennedy's Sarah, a Jewish, white liberal "very interested in Negroes," and speaking as if from a firm position of knowingness about their instability. 
Kennedy offers the possibility of a different kind of textual criticism: that of racially ambiguous, multiple, sometimes painfully contradictory identifications which never settle. Powerful plays like Funnyhouse of a Negro will inevitably evoke white guilt among white viewers and readers. But it goes further: it challenges us to try to make this guilt openly visible and productive and probing, rather than regressive. But Raymond's mode of reading/interpreting/commenting, which supersedes the former mode of multiple embodyings, warns me how quickly my identifications can turn into reduction and appropriation. However performatively constituted the black-white racial binary is, however much it is a product of compulsive repetitions of a mythic, perhaps belatedly posited trauma, and however exclusive and even false it is, its power is also—at this time in America—very real.
Baraka, Amiri. Great Goodness of Life: A Coon Show. Four Black Revolutionary Plays. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1969.
The Blacks. By Jean Genet. Dir. Gene Frankel. Pro. Sidney Bernstein, George Edgar, and André Gregory. Perf. Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones, Cynthia Belgrave, Louis Gossett, Ethel Aylor, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, and Charles Gordone. St. Mark's Playhouse, New York. 4 May 1961.
Blau, Herbert. "The American Dream in American Gothic: The Plays of Sam Shepard and Adrienne Kennedy." The Eye of Prey: Subversions of the Postmodern. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. 42-64.
Bogle, Donald. Blacks in American Films and Television. New York: Garland, 1988.
—. Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America's Black Female Superstars. New York: Harmony, 1980.
—. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Viking, 1973.
Boskin, Joseph. Sambo: The Rise and Demise of an American Jester. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.
Bryant-Jackson, Paul K. and Lois More Overbeck, eds. Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.
Childress, Alice. Trouble in Mind. Black Theater: A Twentieth-Century Collection of the Work of Its Best Playwrights. Ed. Lindsay Patterson. New York: Dodd, 1971. 135-74.
Engle, Gary D. This Grotesque Essence: Plays from the American Minstrel Stage. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1978.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1967.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.
Genet, Jean. The Blacks: A Clown Show. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Grove, 1960.
Hansberry, Lorraine. Les Blancs. Les Blancs: The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry. Ed. Robert Nemiroff. New York: Random, 1972. 35-188.
Kennedy, Adrienne. Funnyhouse of a Negro. In One Act. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. 1-23.
—. "An Interview with Adrienne Kennedy." By Elin Diamond. Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present. 4 (1989): 143-57.
—. "A MELUS Interview: Adrienne Kennedy." By Wolfgang Binder. MELUS 12.3 (1985). 102.
—. People Who Led to My Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1987.
Kolin, Philip. "From the Zoo to the Funnyhouse: A Comparison of Edward Albee's The Zoo Story with Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro." Theatre Southwest (April 1989): 8-16.
Lorde, Audre. "The Brown Menace Or Poem To The Survival Of Roaches." Chosen Poems—Old and New. New York: Norton, 1982. 92-3.
Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
O'Neill, Eugene. The Emperor Jones in Anna Christie/ The Emperor Jones/ The Hairy Ape. New York: Vintage, 1972. 1-54.
shange, ntozake. Three Pieces: spell #7, A Photograph: Lovers in Motion, Boogie Woogie Landscapes. New York: Penguin, 1982
Smith, Valerie. "Split Affinities: The Case of Interracial Rape." Conflicts in Feminism. Ed. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York: Routledge, 1990. 271-87.
Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.
Wolfe, George C. The Colored Museum. New York: Grove, 1988.
1. The phrase comes, of course, from film historian Donald Bogle's boldly-titled study Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films. See also his Brown Sugar: Eighty Years of America's Black Female Superstars and his exhaustive encyclopedia Blacks in American Films and Television. Useful studies on the stage minstrel include Boskin, Engle, and Lott.
2. In her study Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives, Marianna Torgovnick investigates the tropes forming the basic vocabulary and grammar of "Primitivist discourse, a discourse fundamental to the Western sense of self and Other": "Primitives are like children, the tropes say. Primitives are our untamed selves, our id forces—libidinous, irrational, violent, dangerous. Primitives are mystics, in tune with nature, part of its harmonies. Primitives are free. Primitives exist at the 'lowest cultural levels'; we occupy the 'highest'...." For all such tropes, "the primitive" is defined in opposition to the present—in opposition, that is, to a simultaneously constructed notion of the present. "The real secret of the primitive in this century has often been the same secret as always: the primitive can be—has been, will be (?)—whatever Euro-Americans want it to be. It tells us what we want it to tell us." But this process of projection bounces back onto Euro-American observers: "Euro-Americans begin as controlling subject, using tropes to describe the primitive Other. But they sometimes end by adopting the tropes in their perception of self.... For Euro-Americans, then, to study the primitive brings us always back to ourselves, which we reveal in the act of defining the Other" (8-11).
3. I am, of course, using the term "signifyin(g)" in the sense that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. so astutely and playfully discusses in his book The Signifying Monkey.
4. Herbert Blau reads Kennedy's work as obsessive dramas of a dying American Dream "so fractured...that it looks surreal or gothic." For Blau, what "really moves in memory, past the barbarousness of the jungle and the tawdry religious colonizing, is the royalty and elegance of a remembered (white) past, garnered from literature, inscribed on black skin. The poignancy comes from the double irony that the present fantasizing of the Negro is not the present fantasy of the white, but retrograde, as if inscribed not by white history but the romance of white history, the interminable bastardizing of the dream" (43, 61).
5. Torgovnick acutely discusses the neo-colonialism often implicit in the decolonizing intentions of modernist and post-modernist artists and exhibitors. "The imperial tendency entered the art world quite early in its attention to primitive objects." Implicit in Picasso's borrowings from the ethnographic artifacts he viewed were a whole baggage of Western myths and tropes of primitivism: "Continuing and expanding an older tradition of including blacks as signs of sensuality, paintings of the modern movement like Manet's Olympia and Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon had used blacks and African masks in connection with debased sexuality, especially the depiction of prostitution and brothel life. Is it an accident that these two paintings—linking nonwhites, women, and sex for sale have become icons of modern art?" (99). While Western exhibitors tend to display African masks as "disembodied heads, floating against neutral colored backgrounds, like art in the museum as jewelry store" (a tendency Kennedy mimics in Funnyhouse), "the masks would not be disembodied in their cultural contexts." The masks, which often connote metaphors of decapitation when re-implanted in their new Western contexts, would, in their previous contexts, have been "worn by men, in full costume, in dances." The gender-specificity of the mask-wearers is not unrelated to Kennedy's play. "The female masks, sometimes accompanied by false breasts, would also have been worn by men. While the contemporary Western notions of transvestitism cannot easily be imported onto the various African mask-wearers, such notions gave added attraction to African masks for Western borrowers who often conflate "the primitive" with "the female." Hence "the crossing between male and female was, for some moderns and post-moderns, a significant lure of African art" (116-117).
6. Philip Kolin sees the funnyhouse motif as a surrealistic image of the dehumanizingly cramped quarters of "the scarred cityscape of New York." For Kolin, Funnyhouse is above all a "play of urban alienation" (9, 10). See also Kennedy's account (itself fragmented and multiple) of her writing of the play in the "A Voyage" section of her autobiography People Who Led to My Plays. For example: "Away from all my old books, but now besieged and surrounded by a myriad of real, astounding new imagery (ocean, staterooms, the decks, standing at the rail), my unconscious and conscious seemed to join in a new way" (116).
7. Adrienne Kennedy, People Who Led to My Plays (60, 61, 65, 94); Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights (247); "A MELUS Interview: Adrienne Kennedy," (102).
8. The Duchess and Queen seem almost a direct quotation of The Blacks' Court. Each actor playing a member of the latter Court "is a masked Negro whose mask represents the face of a white person. The mask is worn in such a way that the audience sees a wide black band all around it, and even the actor's kinky hair" (Genet 8).
9. LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, particularly, makes me personally angry as he subordinates (my) gender oppression to (his) racial oppression. In fact, he even denies my gender oppression even as he perpetuates it. Embodying the myth of the black rapist in his plays, Baraka plays on my fears and vulnerability as a woman, and forces me to participate more strongly in a racist cultural psyche. I resent him for forcing me to feel my own embodiment, to play the white woman, to be racist. Baraka's paradigm, in addition, has undoubtedly been read as justifying white fears of black power: give blacks a little power and all havoc, rape, and murder break loose. The rape of one white woman by one black man justifies, demands, a hundred lynchings. The white woman as symbol of a sublime transcendent white culture is strengthened, an actual white woman is brutally victimized in the transaction between white men and black men, actual white women are further disempowered by their own fears of being raped and their dependence on men for protection, and black women are once again left out, unseen, in this ritual which forces racial conflict into visibility.
Similarly, Venetians in Othello, which if not an Ur-text is at least an earlier text of interracial rape fantasies, repeatedly cast sociosexual complexities into this simple ideological plot. Many of the Venetians, and even, at moments, Othello, can only understand the relation between Othello and Desdemona as one of rape or of prostitution. When Iago first reports to Brabantio the news of the elopement in the imagery of this racist ideological metanarrative, Brabantio states "[t]his accident is not unlike my dream" (1.1.144). That this metanarrative is figured so often as a dream or nightmare suggests that it operates not only at political, but also at deeply entrenched neurotic sites.
10. Margaret Wilkerson, chair. "Adrienne Kennedy: Reconfiguring the Subject" (a special session, #359). Panelists included Paul Jackson, "Kennedy's Travelers in the American and African Continuum: Resisting Images"; Elin Diamond, "Mimesis in Syncopated Time: Reading Adrienne Kennedy": Rosemary Curb, "(Hetero)Sexual Terrors in Adrienne Kennedy's Early Plays"; Betty Jean Jones, Respondent. MLA Convention, San Francisco, 28 Dec. 1991. An anthology of essays, to which this session was related, has since been published. See Intersecting Boundaries: The Theatre of Adrienne Kennedy. Bryant-Jackson's talk appears in expanded form as "Kennedy's Travelers in the American and African Continuum," (45-57).
11. I end this paper, then, as I began, with a gesture I find reiterated among many whites, particularly white women, who write about black literature: with an apology and an admission of fear. I begin and end with my white guilt, for like it or not, that guilt is basic to my experience and understanding of "race." My guilt is particularly acute because not only do I benefit from a system of racial oppression which I have been highly trained not to see, but because I also question, in this paper, the validity of the categories "black" and"white," and of the binarism—itself a binarism which is enacted around me (and which I enact) every day to my benefit. Paradoxically, the more I question the integrity of these body-identities, the more acutely and absolutely "white" I feel. This paradox is also not a paradox; for the more I question the claim to racial identity as a pre-social, bodily fact, the more aware I become of the power of the social to naturalize body-identities and then to hide the process of naturalization. In earlier generations white privilege may have been best conserved by whites' insisting on a "white" identity; in this context, the relevant strategy for blacks in the black movement was to question the validity of race. But the politics have again shifted. It may now empower whites more to disavow notions of race (and therefore of "quotas," for example), and empower blacks more to insist on black identity (and on the racism that still pervades). At this point in history in the U.S., whites trying to deconstruct the notion of "race" may actually serve racism.