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‘Funnyhouse’ built on unstable foundation

By Adam Hughes

Section: Arts

February 26, 2010

Let there be no doubt about it: “Funnyhouse of a Negro” is the most spectacular production I have ever seen on the Brandeis campus.

The acting was very strong. The actors seemed to burst from the stage with precise, crackling energy, simultaneously capturing the supernatural unreality of the mental demons they portrayed while avoiding the trap of becoming over-exaggerated caricatures.  The set design was tremendous.  I could barely contain my gasp as the curtain covering the stage was pulled away to begin the play, revealing a broken, lifeless shell of a room that immediately radiated hopeless depression.  The presentation had every element necessary to create a uniquely moving theater experience.

It is a real shame, then, that the script itself was such a horrible disappointment.

“Funnyhouse of a Negro” was the first play written by Adrienne Kennedy in the early 1960s, and it earned her immediate success upon release. It won the 1964 Obie Award for “Distinguished Play” and launched her successful playwriting career, which she still continues now in her 79th year.  Her work is particularly notable for its exploration of racial issues through unique, heavily surreal and experimental narrative structures.

The main character is Sarah (Japonica Brown, GRAD), a woman of mixed race who is tormented by her unclear ethnic identity. Specifically, she loathes the black African heritage of her father, which she believes defiles the purity of her mother’s white heritage.  To explain how she could have been conceived from what she views as such incompatible backgrounds, she continually repeats a story of brutal rape by her father, to whom she attributes a stereotypical, tribal savagery.  Her psychological neuroses manifest themselves in four separate personae: the Duchess of Hapsburg (McCaela Donovan, GRAD), Queen Victoria (Tanya Dougherty, GRAD), Jesus (Ben Rosenblatt, GRAD), and former Congolese revolutionary Patrice Lumumba (Equiano Mosieri, GRAD).  Her apartment, the titular “Funnyhouse”, serves as the only setting, and her isolation within its walls means that the audience has no basis for determining what among her ramblings actually occurred in the context of the play and what is merely a product of her troubled mind.

Under the leadership of director David R. Gammons and choreographer Susan Dibble, Japonica Brown captured Sarah’s character expertly, successfully conveying the agony she finds in her very existence.  Her voice filled with pain for Sarah’s repetitive monologues, continuing until she was overcome with emotion and could only lie writhing on the bed as her invented apparitions played out her darkest fantasies.  Her entire supporting cast was very strong, rising to the challenge of capturing the story’s ever-present air of insanity.

The most impressive element of the show, however, was the design.  Scenic designer Carlos Aguilar (GRAD) was tasked with designing the Funnyhouse itself, simultaneously a shelter and a prison for Sarah and existing fully neither in her reality nor in her mind. Layers of dilapidated wood poking out from cracked, receding plaster formed the walls. Ghastly skulls fell without warning from the ceiling, punctuating Sarah’s most morbid delusions. A solitary noose hung from the ceiling, a permanent reminder of how far Sarah’s obsessions might take her. David Wilson’s (THA) sound design effectively completed the mood; most striking were the periodic bursts of carnival-esque dance music, which seemed to mock Sarah with their gaiety.

Despite all of these positives, however, “Funnyhouse of a Negro” still failed at providing a completely enjoyable theater experience for me. Simply put, I do not believe that the script provides a particularly relevant or constructive look at the issues involving race that it addresses.

When I was helping to plan events as a member of the Brandeis Mixed Heritage Club, the greatest challenge we kept encountering was finding media that offered a fair portrayal of a multi-ethnic character. We would regularly seek out movies claiming to feature strong characters of mixed heritage only to find the same cartoonish depictions of self-loathing and alienation. While these questions of identity certainly are faced by many in the mixed heritage community, the media never handles them with much subtlety or with regard to these individuals as complete people defined by more than just their ethnicity.

Perhaps this has left me very jaded when it comes to approaching characters of mixed heritage, but taken from this perspective, “Funnyhouse of a Negro” becomes just another iteration of a well-worn caricature. Indeed, the only difference between Sarah and the dozens of other characters left socially paralyzed by their mixed backgrounds is one of magnitude; Sarah is even more ridiculously consumed by self-loathing than most.

There’s something that seems rather dated now about the idea of a person being driven to the brink of suicide because one of their parents is black. Is there a constructive message about race relations to be taken from a story that’s so introverted and stark? While I certainly think we need more, not less, honest exploration of racism from the arts in our culture, Funnyhouse becomes so thoroughly extreme that I think it can only serve to obscure the discussion and perpetuate stereotypes.

I certainly don’t think I can speak for anyone’s racial experience outside my own, though, and I’m perfectly willing to admit that others might take a whole lot more from the play than I did. Indeed, it seems that most of the people I’ve talked to who saw it have described it as a very powerful, moving experience. What I can say, however, is that if you are unable to form this intense emotional connection to Sarah’s struggles, then the script doesn’t have very much to offer you. The atmosphere was too uniformly morbid for me to find a foothold to begin appreciating the story; in fact, the monotony only served to drive me even further away from the characters, and by the end, I had no personal investment at all in what would become of Sarah.

Based on the audience reaction, however, I’m sure I was in the minority on that point, and everyone involved in “Funnyhouse of a Negro” should be very proud of how much they were able to achieve with such challenging material. Regardless of my feelings for the play, the talent working with the Brandeis Theater Company was more than enough to make their performance well worth seeing.

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