Her Tormented Selves

The Classical Theater of Harlem has faithfully mounted Adrienne Kennedy's 1964 Obie Award winner, Funnyhouse of a Negro. Directed by Billie Allen, who starred in the original Off-Broadway version, the current production unearths the stark racial torment characteristic of the 60's civil rights era. There is immense value in this kind of artistic faithfulness; by witnessing Negro Sarah's descent into madness, we are jolted by the depiction of her barefaced self-hatred and mental torment. She is a light-skinned black woman who feels betrayed by her complexion, tainted because she is almost light enough to be considered a member of the majority race. Almost, but not quite.

One could argue that if Sarah had been wholly and unmistakably black, she would have at least been afforded membership in a community that gathered strength and pride in the civil rights struggle. Sarah goes mad because she exists in the non-space between mutually antagonist races at a historical moment when that antagonism comes to a head.

In the one-hour play, which is like a tension-filled snapshot of madness, Negro Sarah is tormented by "herselves," whiteface black ghosts of a crucified Christ (Lincoln Brown), the Duchess of Hapsburg (Monica Stith), Queen Victoria Regina (Trish McCall), and the martyred African nationalist Patrice Lumumba (Willie E. Teacher).

That we cannot completely trust the stories Sarah tells—she is mad, after all—only intensifies the play's sense of distress. Sarah raves that she was violently conceived when her father raped her mother in a moment of rage. Her confusing and confounding narrative speaks to the inheritance of madness: after the rape her mother went mad and her hair began to fall out, while Sarah's father was troubled because he could not live up to his own mother's expectation that he would save the black race.

At several points during the play, Sarah refers to a complexion-based value system that has her struggling between opposite poles. "My mother," she coos, "looked like a white woman, hair as straight as any white woman's. I am yellow, but he is black, the darkest one of us all." The Duchess of Hapsburg and Queen Victoria Regina are the two herselves who represent Sarah's self-loathing the most. They are porcelain images of royalty and femininity who play out the young woman's visions of sexual desire.

Suzette Azariah Gunn is an exceptional Negro Sarah because she believably and admirably maintains what must be an exhausting level of anxiety throughout the play. She allows that anxiety to color the other emotions Sarah displays, including a kind of fraught anger at Patrice Lumumba and a worshipful deference toward Queen Victoria Regina. The actors playing herselves complement Gunn's performance with an automaton otherworldliness, especially Monica Stith as the Duchess of Hapsburg.

In keeping well within the visual and narrative boundaries established by Kennedy's script, the current production does not deconstruct or comment upon the original play but re-presents it like a thing unearthed from a time capsule. The fight for civil rights feels a bit different compared with 40 years ago; we've survived identity politics and are experiencing a shift from race- to class-based struggles for equality. I wonder if there is room for this play to recreate itself and, in so doing, speak to the nuanced versions of himselves and herselves that lurk about in the minds of the distressed today.

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