Sarah lives in a quaint apartment in New York City. Her walls are covered with magazine cut-outs, her desk stacked with books.
As her walls are literally pulled aside on sliding tracks, her private world is exposed, and nightmarish figures emerge to breech her reality. Enter Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg, Patrice Lumumba, and Jesus Christ, the best and worst parts of Sarah’s self.
The Barnard theatre department presented a selection of two one-act plays by Adrienne Kennedy, “Funnyhouse of a Negro” and “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White,” with an entr’acte “Various Pre-Apocalyptic Postcoital Scenes” by Jackie Sibblies Drury from Oct. 17 to 19 in the Glicker-Milstein Theatre. All three pieces were directed by Alice Reagan, who previously directed “Jeune Terre” and “Promenade” at Barnard. Though challenging in both content and lyrical and narrative complexity, the trio of performances coalesced into a superbly acted, visually excellent production.
“Funnyhouse of a Negro” tells the story of Sarah, played by Zadokite Akili Wood, CC ’23, a writer living in a New York City apartment, as she navigates her mixed-race ancestry–revering her white mother, detesting her black father.
The narrative meshes the real and the surreal with fervor, splitting the space into raised apartment stage and white-tiled floor below, and fragmenting Sarah’s identity into a collection of haunting “funnyhouse” characters. The Duchess of Hapsburg, played by Sophie Freedman, BC ’20, Queen Victoria Regina, played by Genevieve Scott, CC ’23, Jesus, played by Blessing Utomi, CC ’22, and Patrice Lumumba, played by Jalen Ford, CC ’23, all of whom manifest elements of Sarah’s “self,” roamed around ominously with sweeping, dramatic movements before breaching into Sarah’s centric raised platform stage-apartment.
In a play birthed from the black arts movement in the mid-1960s, disparate poetic moments coalesce into a narrative of self-hatred, racism, and reckoning with one’s identity against pervasive images of haunting whiteness—a jarring avant-garde exposition.
Kennedy plays have often found their grounding in academic settings, primarily studied rather than staged due to their complex subject matter and textual intricacy.
In this production of “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” each actor rose to the challenge of the play with adept portrayals of their characters. Wood was heartrendingly tortured as Sarah, shifting from beaming while speaking about whiteness and admiring her alabaster bust of Queen Victoria, to despairing while clutching her knees to hide from the spectral characters that move around her on the periphery of the stage and her mind.
Utomi, Scott, Freedman, and Ford brought a certain physicality and prowess to their motley of roles. Their power culminated as a strikingly haunting chorus: moving and speaking in cacophonous tandem, or breaking into a strain of screams or chilling laughter, forcing Sarah to clutch her ears and writhe in agony.
Juxtaposed against the stunning, forceful gravity of “Funnyhouse,” “A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White” provided more complexly laced storylines, yet was a similarly provocative second act.
“Movie Star” tells the life story of African-American writer Clara, played by Christina Frye, BC ’23. As Clara scribbles down tellings of her trauma in a notebook, her story is told in turn by white actors both present and cinematically projected around the room: Lydia Georgantzi, GS ’20, as Bette Davis; Sophie Freedman as Jean Peters; and Estee Dechtman, BC ’22, as Shelley Winters.
With a three-scene structure, “Movie Star” was poignant yet confused, with layers of narrative overlapping and flowing movement, as characters shifted from a center elevated stage to beds on opposite sides.
The entracte, “Various Pre-Apocalyptic Postcoital Scenes,” starred Frye, Scott, and Dechtman. A short play written in 2019 for T Magazine, the New York Times’ Style Magazine, showed three women navigating a tangled relationship, again in a lyricized, poetic diction.
Drury’s entr’acte seemed awkwardly disconnected when paired with the plays surrounding it. In comparison to Drury, Kennedy’s dramatic voice is a language: It takes time to position oneself within it, never quite becoming comfortable, to gain an understanding of it. The entracte, then, was dislodging in its modernity; it provided a welcome comic respite to Kennedy’s heavy and challenging content, but jarred with its contemporary language.
Barnard theatre department shows are typically staged at the Minor Latham Playhouse. However, director Reagan opted for the more intimate setting of the GMT, a decision that was brilliantly realized.
Entirely transformative, the space morphed from a traverse stage for “Funnyhouse” to an “in the round” setup for the second act. With the set designed by Barnard associate professor Sandra Goldmark, the GMT never felt so alluringly spacious yet hollow, with actors charging through the space with fortitude, and, further still, intimate, with a fewer amount of chairs placed around the space than is typically seen.
Visually, the one acts painted resplendent, camp tableaus: In “Movie Star,” black and white cinematic representations of Clara’s writings dappled the roof and the floor. The sound of bubbling permeates the space as Dechtman collapses over and over, simulating drowning. In “Funnyhouse,” mannequin heads dropped sporadically from the ceiling, a noose hung loosely from Sarah’s neck, and flamboyantly-dressed characters in an array of colors picked at hair that they shed from their wigged scalps.
The collection of one acts was certainly a challenge, its content in its implications oftentimes difficult, if not frightening. Yet, entirely a feast for the eyes, the production provided visual invigoration—wholly stimulating, and captivatingly gravitating.