Adrienne Kennedy's brief (under an hour), powerful, and hallucinogenic 1964 play Funnyhouse of a Negro springs to life in director Billie Allen's marvelously lucid production.
At the center of the play is Sarah, an African-American poet struggling with her family's history and her own self-loathing. As Suzette Azariah Gunn delivers Sarah's monologues -- by turns coolly articulate and wildly out of control -- figures flow through her room (an eerie, gothic representation by set designer Troy Hourie). The white marble statue of Queen Victoria that she treats as a kind of altar to her aspirations comes to life (Trish McCall, chillingly grave both speaking and silent). Another figure representing Sarah's aspirations -- the Duchess of Hapsburg (Monica Stith) -- also makes grand, ranting appearances wearing one of costume designer Kimberly Glennon's many ghoulish costumes.
Even as Sarah aspires to everything these women represent, she tries to come to terms with her father's death (perhaps by suicide, perhaps by a murder she committed), her mother's breakdown and institutionalization (perhaps because of a rape that led to Sarah's conception), and the disparity in her parents' skin colors (he is "the darkest of them all"; she "looked like a white woman"). Kellie E. McCants makes the mother's appearances appropriately haunting, while Willie E. Teacher commands, almost frighteningly, as the father figure.
Funnyhouse of a Negro delves even more deeply into Sarah's psyche when she must confront her fear that she may not be accepted by a traditional white Christ (played with cool distance by Lincoln Brown) and with the appearances of Sarah's landlady and white boyfriend, who mock from the sidelines (Alice Spivak and Danny Camiel render terrifically ominous caricatures).
Aaron Black's atmospheric lighting design and Michael Messer's bombastic sound design are the final two components of this production, which will leave audiences shaken and deeply appreciative of this groundbreaking work.
Presented by the Classical Theatre of Harlem
at the Harlem School of the Arts Theatre, 645 St. Nicholas Ave., NYC.
Jan. 11-Feb. 12. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.