Philip Kolin, a professor of English and the first Charles W. Moorman
Alumni Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at The University
of Southern Mississippi, has published a critical book on one of
the most respected African-American playwrights of the 20th century.
Kolin's Understanding Adrienne Kennedy, published this summer by
the University of South Carolina Press, offers an in-depth analysis
of Kennedy's plays, her short fiction, and her experimental autobiography,
People Who Led to My Plays.
For more than five decades, Kennedy's work
has raised profound issues about race, gender and selfhood in American
culture. These are all topics that Kolin explores throughout his
reading of Kennedy's career and her canon.
The book was written over several years from
archival materials at the University of Texas in Austin and at the
public library in Kennedy’s hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. In
addition, Kolin also worked with several theatre companies that
have staged Kennedy's plays, creating a book that makes Kennedy's
challenging canon more accessible. "Understanding Kennedy's
canon requires a knowledge of her family, her background, here politics,
and even her nightmares," Kolin said.
Recognizing that Kennedy's plays depart from
African-American political activists of the 1960s such as Amiri
Baraka or Ed Bullins, Kolin demonstrates how Kennedy's work accentuates
the highly experimental theatre of Off Broadway. Kolin stressed
that Kennedy “dramatizes the harrowing territory of the subconscious.”
"It is a chaotic world of shifting times,
locations, and selves,” he said.
Kennedy's protagonists are young, highly artistic
black women who are in a quest for their identity and their self-worth
in a prejudiced world. She presents them through fragmentary, conflicting
psychological states, reflecting a host of white and black, historical
and imagined characters.
Kolin noted that one of Kennedy's most famous
plays, “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” depicts the young Sarah
through four distinct characters—male, female, black and white.
Kolin pointed out that "Sarah's tragedy takes place in the
theatre of her mind."
In analyzing Kennedy's theatre, Kolin demonstrates
that her work runs deep with African rituals, Christian symbolism
(most notably the Psalms), classical mythology, recent urban history,
and psychoanalysis. Kolin said Kennedy's theatre is highly cinematic,
using many filmic techniques, including film noir. In fact, the
title of one of Kolin's chapters is "Adrienne Kennedy and Dreams
Her visionary and provocative plays have starred
important actors, such as Ruby Dee, Yaphet Koto and Billie Allen,
and have won several Obies, the equivalent of an Off Broadway Oscar.
In addition to providing a critical reading of Kennedy's works,
Kolin also includes valuable information about their performance
history and reception abroad.
Kolin's book will be of great value to individuals
in African-American Studies, Women's Studies, and American literature
and drama. Kolin teaches Kennedy’s plays in his undergraduate
survey of American drama and hopes to include her in a seminar he
wants to do on contemporary African-American playwrights next year.
Kolin, who has taught at Southern Miss for
31 years, has written or edited 30 books and published nearly 200
articles plus numerous poems and reviews. He is regarded as an international
expert on the plays of Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. For
the last 15 years, Kolin has been the general editor of the Routledge
Shakespeare Criticism Series.
Copies of Kolin’s book, Understanding
Adrienne Kennedy, will be available at Barnes & Noble in The
Hub. For more information, call (601) 266-4381.