Adrienne Kennedy’s “Funnyhouse of a Negro” — an expressionistic gem from 1964 that stages the fractured psyche of an African-American woman who hates her own ethnicity — has unfortunately become a play more often studied than seen. Righting that wrong for at least four weeks, Classical Theater of Harlem is mounting an enthralling production that announces the unwavering force of Kennedy’s insight into what happens when we’re taught to hate ourselves.
The production’s greatest boon is director Billie Allen, who starred in the play’s original production. She evinces a deep understanding of the material, crafting its symbolic plot into a stage narrative that can be easily followed without sacrificing its lyricism.
We know quickly that we are in a non-literal world, since the stage reveals a bedroom that holds not only a bed but also a massive throne for Queen Victoria (Trish McCall), a black woman in whiteface who wears a decrepit gown and imperiously stares at Sarah (Suzette Azariah Gunn), the distraught young woman who lives in the room.
Allen’s stage pictures help us understand that every other character — the Queen, the bawdy Duchess (Monica Stith), even the blood-stained body of African revolutionary Patrice Lumumba (Willie E. Teacher) — is actually one of Sarah’s images of herself. As she writes in her diary, the others obviously speak Sarah’s thoughts. When the Duchess gropes Raymond (Danny Camiel), the white man she loves, Sarah thrashes on her bed in imagined ecstasy.
The great reward of Allen’s clarity — coupled with Gunn’s emotionally raw perf — is how well it illuminates Kennedy’s vision. Every stark visual or surprising line delivery adds another layer to the playwright’s bizarre yet emotionally honest portrait of self-denigration.
Despite the horror and loathing, though, Sarah’s mind is still a funnyhouse. To that end, the cast and designers expertly control their tone, overdoing things just enough to make them ridiculously amusing. Take the love scene between the Duchess (also in whiteface) and Raymond: As Stith coos like a sappy film star and Camiel wears a circus juggler’s costume, their affair turns quickly into camp.
Michael Messer’s sound design is invaluable to the scene, since his calliope music gaily opposes comments like, “My father was a wild black beast who raped my mother.” Throughout the production, in fact, his work is at fascinating odds with the text, so that every moment argues with itself. Meaning becomes just as splintered as Sarah’s thoughts.
Gunn’s work also captures that vibrant contradiction. Watching the scenes enacted by “herselves,” her face reflects both suffering and a desperation to become these grotesque white creatures.
The girl’s ideal is undoubtedly white. In a smart addition to Kennedy’s script, Allen opens the play by putting spotlights on Camiel and Alice Spivak, playing Sarah’s Caucasian landlady. The two characters literally get the first and last laugh in this production, and they flank the stage for the entire show. By keeping them visible, Allen insists that even in her own mind, Sarah is ultimately controlled by images of whiteness.
As they play such grand emotional stakes, the actors occasionally sacrifice enunciation for intensity. Garbled speech particularly muddies the final moments, when Sarah’s various selves circle her bed and mock her blackness. Their jeers would be much more devastating if they could be better understood.
But a few swallowed lines can’t blunt this production, which leaves Kennedy’s vision admirably served.