Adrienne Kennedy Talks About Her Life


On the occasion of playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s 75th birthday, her son Adam Kennedy took her to lunch. After the meal, Adam switched on a tape recorder and asked, “How did you come to work with the Beatles?” For the next hour, the two chatted about the time they’d spent in England from 1966 to 1969.

A few months after that lunch, Adam mailed his mother a typed copy of their conversation. Reading through it, Adrienne recognized the rhythms of a play. She sent the transcript to a number of artistic directors, including the Public Theater’s Oskar Eustis, who decided to use the Kennedys’ piece, now called Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?, to open the Public Lab series, a
Mellon-sponsored project that aims to fully stage a new work every month. Currently in previews, the play runs through February 23.

Mom met the Beatles after she conceived the idea of adapting one of John Lennon’s nonsense books, In His Own Write, for the stage. As Adrienne recalls, “Well, I was a desperate person [laughing] . . . . And I was stuck on Bedford Street. And there we were, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. So I said, ‘What I’ll do, I’ll take my little money and I’ll go to London.'” That was a Tuesday. By Thursday, she and five-year-old Adam had boarded a plane. During their time in England, Kennedy was let go from the Lennon project. The new play focuses not on the rancor of artistic betrayal, though, but on the joys that mother and son experienced in London. It recounts dinner with Laurence Olivier, tea with James Earl Jones, a talk with George Harrison, the shade of Patti Hansen’s dress, how Paul McCartney lifted Adam onto his lap. Adrienne Kennedy spoke to the Voice about both the play and her remarkable (and multi Obie Award–winning) career as a playwright.

In this play, there’s a fascination with fame and famous people. Do you still feel that same attraction to celebrity? I’m still fascinated with the people I loved when I was 20. I’m still trying to solve the mystery of Brando, Montgomery Clift, Bette Davis, all those people I liked then. . . . People like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford—those people actually gave me an idea of what women were supposed
to be like.

This is your second collaboration with your son Adam. [The first, Sleep Deprivation Chamber, detailed Adam’s brutal beating by a police officer and trumped-up arrest.] This is quite a different work. My sons Joe and Adam, at least two or three times a year, they’d always ask me again: “Mom, tell me again, how did you meet the Beatles?” It was my birthday, and Adam came from Virginia. We had lunch. And he said, “I have my tape recorder, and while we’re sitting here I want you to tell me the whole thing.” I was kind of irritated. I said, “I have told you the whole thing.” He said, “No, you haven’t. . . . ” I was in a wonderful mood, so I said to myself, “I’m going to tell Adam everything I can remember.”

You’ve written about this period before in your mystery novel, The Deadly Triplets, and your London theater journal. I’ve tried to write about it. But in my opinion, I could never pull it together. I gave up—I had really totally forgotten. Other people often would ask me about London. I’d tell them about people I knew, but I’d given up trying to capture that particular incident.

Have you returned to London in the last several years? I used to go every year. I haven’t been in 10 years now.

What’s the allure of London? We read nothing but British literature when I was a kid. I really just had this romance about London, a place so enshrined in literature. I can’t think of a city that’s been more written about. I like the shape of London, the way it seems like a circle. I feel like it’s unwinding. And I’ve always been fascinated by British royalty. I disapprove of them, but I’m fascinated
by them.

It seems to me that many of your earlier plays are very concerned with a search for identity, and often a failure to find it. . . . In this piece, [where the main character is called Adrienne, the heroine’s] identity seems very secure. You do have to respect the passage of time, don’t you? And I suppose I am, by any standards, what society calls old. The fact that I do write these things down and some people in the academic world take them to heart, that has really given me a sense of—I won’t say security, but it’s given me a sense of calm. And teaching gives me that also. And I’ve watched my children grow up, and they seem to be fine, and I have five grandchildren. I understand I have a lot to be grateful for.

How much theater do you still see? I never go to the theater!

Really? I went to the theater a lot when I was in my twenties, maybe in my thirties. I tend to like the same people I liked when I was 20: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, O’Neill, in terms of Americans. I like Pinter a lot.

Edward Albee? He’s a very strong person, and he just loves the theater. Edward produced Funnyhouse of a Negro. Funnyhouse opened and closed very quickly—I guess you could say it was a failure. But he produced it, and at that time he was the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Of course, a writer has to have that—someone very powerful who champions your work.

Were other playwrights influential? Lorca. I feel that Lorca is the playwright who really influenced me most. . . . And there’s no doubt I was imitating my parents. My mother was always telling me her dreams—she’s a very dramatic person, very articulate. And my father was always giving speeches about the Negro cause. . . .Though I liked Lorca, it seems to me now that those were my two main influences—my parents.

That’s a gorgeous tribute. How did they respond to your work? My father liked my work and was very proud of me. My mother was horrified by it. I was always a very quiet, well-behaved child, and she couldn’t put it together. But she did like People Who Led to My Plays. And, of course, she’s very proud of my academic career.

Did you attend the production of your play Ohio State Murders this fall? Yes, I did. I thought it was an excellent production. Especially because of LisaGay Hamilton, who starred. Ohio State Murders does capture something of what I went through when I attended Ohio State. They’ve given me an honorary doctorate and spent a year honoring my work, and there’s been tremendous healing. But Ohio State Murders definitely captures the torment of that young person. I still feel that American society undermines black people—they undermine us tremendously and really are very unwilling to give us our due as people.

This country still has such a ways to go, although I wonder where in the world race isn’t an issue. The world is always in a turmoil over skin color. The hatred that people feel, I’m not able to articulate it.