Tonight, curtains go up on Funnyhouse of a Negro, Tashi Hutchins ’17’s directorial debut. The one-act play is part of Hutchins’ theatre and dance Independent Study.
Written by African-American playwright Adrienne Kennedy in 1964 during the Black Arts Movement, the play is an absurdist examination of racial identity. Kennedy was one of the few black females who contributed a significant work during the Black Arts Movement, making this play a must-watch.
Sarah, the play’s central character, struggles to accept her own mixed racial background as the play reflects on internalized racism. The play is partially autobiographical about Kennedy’s own experience. It was written in a literal liminal space, as Kennedy traveled between the U.S. and Ghana.
Despite the fact that the play was written over 50 years ago, Hutchins believes that racial tension described in the play is still relevant today, particularly in regards to the presidential election and the treatment of African-Americans in the media.
“I knew I wanted to do something that talked about the black experience,” Hutchins says, explaining why she chose this play in particular. “I chose Funnyhouse of a Negro because it takes place in her mind, and you can see how her mind is working as oppression becomes internalized and how you can come to believe ‘Wow, maybe I am a lesser human than white people or maybe I’m not good enough.’”
Hutchins also describes how applicable the play is to the treatment of black women today.
“I feel like, in a sense, black women have it even harder,” Hutchins said. “So much of who you are and what you do is undervalued because not only are you a minority, but you’re also a woman, so you have to battle with both fighting against you. What do you do? Do you succumb to the oppression or do you try to rise above it? That’s also what Sarah is working through in the play.”
Historical figures, including Queen Victoria, Jesus and Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, all make appearances in the play as different manifestations of Sarah’s identity as she grapples with her self-fragmentation. The historical figures present in the play are representative of people in Sarah’s own life but also serve as larger symbols for European colonialism or other forces that have shaped how racism is internalized.
To depict Sarah’s internal struggles, the stage acts as Sarah’s bedroom as well as the interior of her own mind. Hutchins and stage manager Vincent Meredith ’18 played with the lighting and the set design of the stage to achieve the effect of distinctly different worlds existing in the same space as Kennedy intended. “You see the transitions happen there aren’t a lot of blackouts in the show but you watch the characters as they go through all these different worlds […] You see them move and you see Sarah’s mind working itself,” Hutchins says.
Hutchins described the challenge of taking on the play’s substantial subject matter. “This play is so complex. My advisor told me that my actors had to know what they were talking about and that they understood the significance behind this work, so I sat with all my actors on a one-on-one basis to get a feel for their nervousness and to make sure they were comfortable.”
Funnyhouse of a Negro will premiere tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Shoolroy Theatre. The play will also be staged tomorrow evening at the same time. While tickets must be reserved in advance as seating is limited, admission is free to students.