Revisiting Funnyhouse: An Interview with Billie Allen
Kolin, Philip C., African American Review
Billie Allen has been intimately associated with one of the most significant plays in African American literature, Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro. In 1964, she created the lead role of Sarah the Negro in the Off-Broadway premiere of Funnyhouse, directed by Michael Kahn, for which Kennedy received her first Obie. In 1984, Allen directed a spirited student production of Funnyhouse at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Then in 2006 she was invited by the Classical Theatre of Harlem (CTH), co-founded in 1999 by Christopher McElroen and Alfred Preisser, to direct a major revival of Funnyhouse, which ran to full houses from January 11 through February 12 (see Fig. 1). The production starred Suzette Azariah Gunn as Sarah, Trish McCall as Queen Victoria, Monica Stitch as the Duchess of Hapsburg, Lincoln Brown as Jesus, and Willie Teacher as Patrice Lumumba. From her unique perspective as a member of the original cast and as a director, Allen's insights about the origins and continuing importance of Funnyhouse form a valuable chapter in the history of African American literature and culture. Not surprisingly, she was nominated for the Lucille Lortel award for outstanding director for her production of the play.
Funnyhouse was a profoundly provocative work in 1964 and has become a highly influential one today. Scott Mendelsohn, who reviewed Allen's 2006 Funnyhouse for nytheatre.com (19 Jan. 2006), declared: "Rarely have I felt the complexities of racial identity so compellingly articulated as by Funnyhouse of a Negro." Though Funnyhouse is read and taught at numerous universities around the world, it is, unfortunately, seldom performed. One reason is that Kennedy's highly experimental play radically departs from traditional, sequential plots and realistic characterization, disturbingly transporting audiences into the surrealistic, nightmarish world of the protagonist's subconscious. Sarah desperately tries to escape her own blackness by projecting various selves from both the white world--Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg--and her African one as well--Patrice Lumumba. Kennedy's play is a challenging work to study, to teach, to perform.
But Allen's CTH production opened new ways of reading, staging, and interpreting Funnyhouse. According to a review in Off Offline Review, Allen's Funnyhouse "unearths the stark racial torment characteristic of the '60s, civil rights era." In my interview with her, conducted in March and in May 2006, Allen explained why she chose to direct Funnyhouse and also how she interpreted Kennedy's haunting script for the CTH. As a significant part of "Revisiting Funnyhouse," Allen perceptively describes how Kennedy's play has changed over the decades; she contrasts audiences' and critics' responses to it in 1964 with those elicited by the play today. Focusing on individual and collective identities, Allen also revealingly discusses how and why Funnyhouse reflects her own racial heritage. Her interpretation of Kennedy's imagery, characters, and sets gives us a fresh contribution to Funnyhouse criticism.
Allen's passionate, long-standing involvement with Funnyhouse should be seen as a vital part of her distinguished career as an actress, director, and producer. Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1925, Allen attended public schools before attending Hampton University. In 1947, she went to New York to begin her professional career in the theatre. As a dancer classically trained at the American School of Ballet, she performed in many concerts at the YWCA and at dozens of events and fundraisers with various dance groups, which lead her to her first Broadway musical and a national tour of On the Town with Jerome Robbins. After Allen had performed in several musicals, Elia Kazan saw her dance and auditioned her for the role of Esmeralda in Tennessee Williams's Camino Real (1953). He became interested in her work and arranged a scholarship with Lee Strasberg. …