This article first appeared in the February 2013 Juilliard Journal and is reprinted with permission.
A year ago, drama student Ryan Spahn was cast as the White Bird in a play directed by Jessie J. Perez that combined two one-acts by American playwright Adrienne Kennedy. Spahn was unfamiliar with the plays—Funnyhouse of a Negro, which had won the 1964 Obie for best new play, and The Owl Answers (1965). As Spahn researched his part, he began to feel as if the works “lifted off the page as memory plays” and that they were “spawned from deep experiences of Kennedy’s life,” he told The Journal.
After stumbling upon Kennedy’s blog, he sent her an email, and the two started corresponding—Spahn describing rehearsing the plays, which were presented by his second-year class, and Kennedy sharing glimpses of her amazing 81 years, from childhood visits to relatives in the segregated South to early productions of her work and her friendships and collaborations with a who’s who of 20th-century cultural and political eminences. (Kennedy’s most recent work to be performed was the 2008 autobiographical Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles?, which she wrote with her son Adam; it’s about how, in the mid-’60s, she helped John Lennon adapt his poetry for the stage.)
My name is Ryan Spahn and I am a student at Juilliard who is currently working on your plays Funnyhouse of a Negro and The Owl Answers. I am greatly moved by your work and have spent many hours researching and looking into what motivates you to write what you write. You are incredible!
I do have one question: What is the role of the White Bird? I would love any insight into the presence of that being within the context of your story. I thank you, in advance, for your time and thoughts. You are very inspiring.
Dear Mr. Spahn,
All of my choices were emotional. I don’t analyze them.
As a child when I visited my grandparents in Georgia, there were many birds flying through the air and they seemed so mysterious and full of meaning. I could not understand—perhaps the mystery is beyond pure comprehension. [In the email, Kennedy attached Photo A, of a 1968 production of Funnyhouse at the Odéon Théâtre in Paris. She wrote that the French actor and director] Jean-Marie Serreau took me for a walk in the Luxembourg Gardens and then he had me read the monologues from Funnyhouse into a microphone so the actors could hear what I emphasized. We had dinner and they asked me was there anyone in Paris that I wanted to meet, anyone at all. I wanted to say Alain Delon, but was too shy. They were a great troupe with actors from Europe and Africa and this African band composed original music for the play and sat by the stage.
Photo B The apartment on Central Park West where we (myself; my husband, Dr. Joseph Kennedy; Adam; and Joe Jr.) lived when we returned from Africa and Italy in October, 1961.
Photo C Our garden in Accra, winter 1960. So inspired by Ghana: in a few weeks I would start Funnyhouse.
Photo D [Kwame Nkrumah, left, the president of Ghana, with Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of Republic of the Congo.] This photo was all over Ghana right before Lumumba was murdered [in 1961]. I carried this postcard with me everywhere in the fall of 1960. To this day it is my favorite photo of him. Kwame Nkrumah was president and we used to drive to his compound. The drive from Accra to the compound was a panorama of savannahs and where I was inspired to write of them. Our son Adam is named Adam Patrice Kennedy.
Photo E August 1, 1961, Rome: Salvator Mundi Hospital. When Adam was born, six weeks before we returned to New York. When we left, Funnyhouse of a Negro was in my suitcase. The Owl Answers was in fragments and would take another two years to finish.
Wow. These are great. Thank you for your words.
Michael Kahn and I spent hours and hours discussing Funnyhouse and Owl. Michael was the first to do Owl, at what is now [the] Lucille Lortel [Theater].
Thank you so much for all of these photos! The director encouraged me to find a song to sing at the top of the show. His idea is to have us all enter, like we are waiting for a subway. I would love to use as the lyrics the first email you sent me about what the White Bird meant to you. I wanted the song to be your words and your voice.
Yes, you can use. I love Juilliard. [In 1981 I adapted] Electra and Orestes there with Michael Kahn. Val Kilmer [Group 10] was Orestes.
Val Kilmer? That’s cool. I think [a picture from] your production is on our wall at school.
Photo F This is the landscape that set me on fire and inspired Funnyhouse. I took this pic [of my husband] Joe Kennedy interviewing Ghanaians in the bush near Accra, fall 1960. He had a grant from African Research Foundation in New York to study West Africans: Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria. Study was a year long. He had a Ph.D. from Columbia University in social psychology and taught at Hunter College. He went on to be a founding member of Africare.
Photo G Funnyhouse of a Negro, perhaps the most famous production, Jan. 1964 [at New York City’s East End Theater]. Directed by [former Drama Division artistic director] Michael Kahn. Produced by [Richard] Barr, [Edward] Albee, and [Clinton] Wilder [the trio that sought out the work of promising playwrights, among them Kennedy, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, and others]. The photo is by Frederick Eberstadt, and it shows Ellen Holly and Cynthia Belgrave.
Photo H My grandmother and her sister at the house in Montezuma, Ga., where my father was born, in 1904. This house is where I came for six childhood summers, and my feelings for it are in Funnyhouse.
A totally segregated Georgia town. Hot. Red dirt. Birds. White and Colored signs. Whites on one side. Blacks on the other. Like Africa, it had a very dramatic landscape.
I’m going to send you a rough draft of me singing the song.
I like [the song] very, very much. It even has the emotion of the songs they sang in my grandparents’ church in Georgia. My grandmother, Ethel Lee Hawkins, is at the heart of the Georgia text in Funnyhouse. She went to work as a servant at dawn. My father was born 1904 and was her only child. She wanted him to Save the Race and he tried. She wanted him to be Jesus. They all did. My father’s aunt and my grandmother sent my father to Morehouse College.
My mother told me complex, violent stories of her dreams and of her childhood. She was the illegitimate child of a wealthy white landowner in Montezuma, Ga. Her mother was a young woman who worked in his peach orchards. My mother was born in 1907, and everyone called her “that little yellow bastard.” Ironically her rich white father took an interest in her, sent her to boarding school and Atlanta University and bought her pretty clothes.
Montezuma of course had churches everywhere—white and black—amid all this hatred and segregation. “My mother looked like a white woman. hair as straight as…” As I wrote in People Who Led to My Plays [Kennedy’s 1987 autobiography], her stories and his public life and speeches are the foundation.
Ryan I send you these because these plays are REAL.
People love everything—I have shared your stories and it has helped us tremendously. Thank you!
Speeding underground in darkness is how the subway felt. Often when I felt unhappy, I would get on the subway and ride to end of the line.
I love your song. I wish these plays could be Off Broadway again.
[Montezuma, Ga.,] looks pretty much like it did in the 1930s. [It’s] where I visited my grandparents. [It was] violently divided by Main Street. White and Colored. [There was] a big fountain was in the center of the street. Blacks could drink only from one spigot. You could walk to town in five minutes from my grandparents’ house, and the house where she worked as a servant is a minute from here on Main Street. This hot little segregated town is the birthplace of my characters. Warm Springs, Ga., where Roosevelt came for [treating his] polio is an hour or so south.
Photo I My parents, Etta Haugabook and Cornell Wallace Hawkins, at Morehouse College, circa 1927.
Photo J This Main Street is where all the characters walked. My white grandfather had an office on the right hand side. My white grandfather owned peach orchards. My black grandfather sold peaches, pecans, and peanuts from a basket at the train station…
Photo K …to people who were going north from Florida and arriving from Atlanta. Segregated trains. The car for Colored was dirty. This is the train my brother and I rode into Georgia on.
[The heroine of The Owl Answers, the daughter of “the richest white man in town and his black servant”] Clara Passmore rode that train. Clara, like my mother, was called the little yellow bastard, and could not use the library, could not try on dresses in the one department store on that Main Street, could not sit at the soda fountain in the one drug store. As a child there, neither could I.
We did the first show. People were crying and were incredibly moved by your work. Some people seemed devastated and didn’t even speak to us after. What an incredible show.
I am stunned. Please let me know what some people say.
One of our teachers got down on one knee in front of us, almost like she was praying or bowing, and with tears in her eyes said “thank you.” Most people were moved tremendously by how much we, as an ensemble, fully invested in the depths of your work. Given that we rehearsed for four weeks a few hours a day, people seemed blown away by how much we accomplished and how much we exposed of ourselves, which is a testament to your work.
It has been a pleasure exchanging emails with you. I seem to get praise over the years but as a very famous black writer said to me, we get praise but the white guys get the money.
I will put together our emails, as we discussed. We can have our conversation in print forever.
Ryan Spahn is an actor, writer, and producer.