"The Interplay of Film and Theatre in Adrienne Kennedy’s A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White" by Gabriella Tóth
Gabriella Tóth is a doctoral student in the English and American Literatures and Cultures PhD Program at the University of Szeged, Hungary. Her research interests include contemporary African American and American feminist drama. Email:
and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty,
and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen.
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
In my paper, I focus on Adrienne Kennedy’s A Movie Star has to Star in Black and White (1967). This one-act play takes its settings from a number of famous Hollywood movies of the era including Now, Voyager (1942), A Place in the Sun (1951) and Viva Zapata! (1952), three classic films from the golden age of Hollywood and exemplifies the “double consciousness” (Du Bois) of an African American woman watching movies in which the characters are all white. The protagonist of the play is constructing her character first by identifying with the characters from Hollywood films, and then, by subverting this identification resulting in a new subject, a new identity.
Kennedy’s A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White was first presented at the New York Shakespeare Festival, in 1976, as “a work in progress” (2001, 63). The play revolves around Clara, a young Black intellectual woman struggling with an identity crisis in which her subjective ontological apocalypse is linked with the images conveyed by contemporary Hollywood representations of women. Clara is in a catatonic state of mind: first, she identifies with great white cinema stars; secondly, she criticizes the very hegemonic white power she has identified with previously. An alterego of Adrienne Kennedy, this character defines herself as a figure deriving from the above-mentioned film productions. As the play progresses, however, she becomes more critical of the movie productions and the roles they imply for her: she can accept her position in society unquestionably or she can take a critical attitude to the position assigned to African American women by protesting against racial overtones and prejudiced tendencies.
The 1960s and 1970s were a period of rich creative presence and many groups which had previously been marginalized now claimed their voice and space in the artistic arena of several art forms. The representations of the American theater also changed: psychological realism, which dominated the American stage, was followed by works which employed a multiplicity of voices from the margins. As Matthew Roudané writes, “American drama since 1960 emerges as a dizzying amalgam of many voices, many peoples, and few resolutions” (6) in which the struggle for an honest portrayal of the African American experience was of paramount importance. As a result, the theatrical and filmic representations of Black identity aimed to (re)shape the African American presence both in literary works as well as on their stage and filmic representations.
Earlier, W. E. B. Du Bois and Malcolm X argued for the need of a real cultural revolution in Black communities. This demand appeared also in terms of the African American theatre movement within American histrionic arts. Theatre, with its capacity to form a community through shared experience, provided and still provides a platform for the self-definition of the individual, group, and nation. African American playwrights – especially in the first two decades of the twentieth century – responded to Du Bois’ call in which he declared that the Black community needs a specific drama for and by the members of this community. He said that
[T]he plays of a real Negro theatre must be: One: About us. That is, they must have plots which reveal Negro life as it is. Two: By us. That is, they must be written by Negro authors who understand from birth and continual association just what it means to be a Negro today. Three: For us. That is, the theatre must cater primarily to Negro audiences and be supported and sustained by their entertainment and approval. Fourth: Near us. The theatre must be in a Negro neighborhood near the mass of ordinary Negro people. Only in this way can a real folk play movement of American Negroes be built up. (Du Bois qtd. in Bean 94)
Here Du Bois outlined the main goals and characteristics of a ‘real’ “negro” theatre. Later on, Malcolm X emphasized the community-based nature of this art by African Americans. He envisioned a revolution in culture that would aid the political activism of this group by launching
a cultural revolution to unbrainwash an entire people. Our cultural revolution must be the means of bringing us closer to our African brothers and sisters. It must begin in the community and be based on community participation. Afro-Americans will be free to create only when they can depend on the Afro-American community for support and Afro-American artists must realize that they depend on the Afro-American for inspiration (Malcom X qtd. in Leitch 335)
The African American community needed African American playwrights, dealing with topics concerning the life of the community, in an environment in which the performances could reach their target audience. Thus, the theatre became one of the primary arenas of the Black Liberation movement. There was, however, an important debate over what characteristics African American theater should have. The major goal of the movement was to instill political awareness. Therefore, theatre was to be highly politicized, which meant that the “correct political understanding and action” (Leitch 39) needed to be achieved through special plays. As Vincent B. Leitch writes, the most important task of African American artists was “to assault mainstream (white) images and promote Black images as a means of fostering autonomous Black consciousness, nationhood, and culture” (339). A result of this “assault,” African American theatre started and remained a controversial arena regarding the images of Black identity. According to Errol Hill, this controversy is the “recognition of the theater’s potential for changing, healing, and restoring/a return, as it were, to the pristine function of the communal, ritual drama” (1). Hill questions the primal objective of Black theatre and wonders whether its content should define the “overriding concern for Black liberation” by various means tackling the expression of Black identity (ibid).
Kennedy’s oeuvre exemplifies the way postmodern African American drama (re)theatricalizes African American plays by subverting traditional representations of colored people. Kennedy, along with other African American playwrights, aimed at establishing a “Black aesthetics” (Bollobás 2005, 760) movement which featured prominent playwrights of the Black Theatre Movement, such as James Baldwin (Amen Corner and Blues for Mr. Charley), Ed Bullins (How Do You Do? and Clara’s Ole Man), and August Wilson (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), who all wrote in a realistic manner. Their dramas represent issues of racial segregation, the abuse of African American workers, and the mendacities of The Catholic Church.
Instead of staging racial issues according to the rules of stage realism, Kennedy poeticizes the struggle for the Black identity by dramatizing the social performance of subject formation and, at the same time, by deconstructing the very notion of a dramatic character. This strategy places her characters into a new histrionic discourse. A Movie Star has to Star in Black and White deconstructs the harmonious relationship of former theatrical units and hence it can be read as a meta-drama of subject formation.
The performance of subject formation refers to the social phenomenon through which the subject is created by learning certain socially and culturally prescribed acts. This phenomenon includes normativizing strategies, such as learning the gender rules of a given community. There is a difference, however, between the subject’s creation through performance and its construction through performativity. According to Enikő Bollobás, the subject comes into being through these two acts: performance and performativity. These notions derive from Austin’s Speech Act Theory, but in performance theory the concept of performativity is a more expanded and more abstract phenomenon, underlying both social and linguistic discourses. Performance is a “particular mode of performativity, characterized by a mimetic replaying of norms and the replaying of ruling ideologies when constructing the subject” (Bollobás 2010, 21), whereas “performative acts allow people to construct themselves” (2010, 10). Bollobás argues that “subjects are created performatively in the speaking and the doing” (ibid); in this case, the passive subject formation (achieved through normativizing strategies) is overwritten. At the same time, “performatives have ontological force, because they create new discourses which allow for new subjectivities” (ibid).
The performance and the performativity thus represent two procedures through which the subject comes into being. In the first case, the subject is created to be an inactive entity obediently acting out the socially prescribed roles that are assigned to his or her subject position, while in the second case, the subject constructs itself to become an “active agent” (Bollobás 2010, 21). Kennedy’s protagonists seem to progress on the scale of performativity: readers encounter them in a catachrestic state of mind, in personal ontological and epistemological crises. This mental existence means that the characters perform roles that go beyond normativized gender, race or class that is generally ascribed to a given person in a given society. In Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro and A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White, female characters write themselves into new subjects by various modes of performativity.
In Kennedy’s works the search for the Black identity merges with feminist aesthetics. Her dramas go against the classical tradition in the sense that her plays do not follow the strict conflict—climax—resolution model, which is regarded as a “masculine” plot by some critics. Nancy Reinhardt argues that the “structure of traditional Western drama” as “an ‘imitation of action,’ is linear, leading through conflict and tension to a major climax and resolution” and has an “aggressive build-up, sudden big climax, and cathartic resolution” which “suggests specifically the male sexual response” (qtd. in Schroeder 71, emphasis added). In this regard, Kennedy’s plays can be considered feminist: they are kaleidoscopic, lacking the typical dramatic plot structure.
Along with other Black feminist writers like Jessie Fauset and Toni Morrison, Kennedy questions the representation of African Americans through the theme of the cinema. Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, and Kennedy’s play, A Movie Star, are the representatives of the criticism these writers cast on the marginalizing ideology that was (and is still) affecting the life of many African Americans. The narrator in Morrison’s novel says:
She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen. (123)
This passage describes an African American woman, Pauline Breedlove, a marginalized character. Throughout her entire youth, she created a dream world based on the Hollywood movies she watched. She learned ‘reality’ from the Hollywood movies. Despite the glamour of the dream world she watched, her life, however, was so miserable that she ‘escaped’ to another world, wanting to act like the actress(es) from the movies.
The thirty-three-year-old Clara in A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White lives in a society that put around her a double bind of rules and expectations. She is expected to fulfill the role of an angelic woman within her domestic as well as public world. She is a professional writer valued by her mother (and family) – according to her actual performance of motherhood:
CLARA: I’m not unhappy mother.
MOTHER: Yes you are.
CLARA: I’m not unhappy. I’m very happy. I just want to be a writer. Please don’t think I’m unhappy.
MOTHER: Your family’s not together and you don’t seem happy.
CLARA: I’m very happy mother. Very. I’ve just won an award and I’m going to have a play produced. I’m very happy.
MOTHER: When you grow up in boarding school like I did, the thing you dream of most is to see your children together with their families. (Kennedy 2001, 71)
According to her socially prescribed role, she should become a housewife and support her husband’s university career. Nevertheless, she envies him for an opportunity that was, at the same time, denied from her. After her confession concerning their marriage in ruins, the character impersonating Bette Davis tells Clara’s doubts. She says: “I get very jealous of you Eddie. You’re doing something with your life” (Kennedy 2001, 69).
Another bind in Clara’s life is related to her race: whereas for Eddie, her husband, it is obvious to have a teaching job at Columbia, for an African American woman, however, this seems out of the ordinary. The protagonist becomes a person of letters by writing since her dream was to be, one day, an acclaimed author. She says:
CLARA. (From boat:) Ever since I was twelve I have secretly dreamed of being a writer. Everyone says it’s unrealistic for a Negro to want to write. Eddie says I’ve become shy and secretive and I can’t accept the passage of time, and that my diaries consume me and that my diaries make me a spectator watching my life like watching a Black and white movie. (Kennedy 2001, 75)
Clara’s short monologue exemplifies this societal double bind, which also intrudes in her personal sphere. She experiences normativizing processes on the part of her immediate environment as well as of her extended context through her family expectations and through the media she watches and which helps her find her identity. In a catachrestic state of mind, she is alienated from herself and from her environment, too; at the beginning she fails to achieve a cohesive self. In this condition, she gives up her efforts to maintain any balanced relationships and starts to reconstruct herself (and implicitly her subject position) through the act of writing in which her femininity is defined through the menstrual blood that becomes her écriture féminine while her creative output appears symbolized as pregnancy. Clara is a playwright who is writing her own drama on the basis of her filmic experiences; thus she takes the first step to gain a voice of her own and thus, she becomes performative. In The Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar showed that the author “is a progenitor, a procreator, an aesthetic patriarch whose pen is an instrument of generative power like his penis” (6). Although it is debatable whether female writing can be defined in terms of such biological essentialism, Gilbert and Gubar ask if “the pen is a metaphorical penis, from what organ can females generate texts?” (7) The logical answer to this question is the womb but the woman-authored text then, the écriture feminine, in this context, emerges from the body as milk and blood. In A Movie Star has to Star in Black and White, the heroine is pregnant, bleeds and writes at the same time. This way her milk and blood turn into a metaphorical ink with which she writes her body, her self.
The comparison between Kennedy’s A Movie Star and Morrison’s The Bluest Eye provides a view at two basic attitudes that African American women have regarding their identity position, mainly ascribed to them through an unspoken ideology that comes mostly through the media, especially Hollywood films. The first kind of attitude is embraced by Pauline Breedlove and her daughter Pecola, who turn to “the silver screen” to find the object of their identification. In this case, the filmic canvas works like a mirror in the Lacanian sense. As Lacan wrote,
[T]he mirror phase occurs at a time when the child’s physical ambitions outstrip his motor capacity, with the result that his recognition of himself is joyous in that he imagines his mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than he experiences his own body. Recognition is thus overlaid with mis-recognition: the image recognized is conceived as the reflected body of the self, but its misrecognition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ideal ego, the alienated subject, which, re-introjected as an ego ideal, gives rise to the future generation of identification with others. (Lacan qtd. in Geis 174)
A similar identification process takes place in Adrienne Kennedy’s plays. Kennedy – similarly to her protagonist in A Movie Star – was fascinated by Hollywood movies in general and by Bette Davis in particular. In her biographical book entitled People, Who Led to My Plays, Kennedy wrote that she “daydreamed herself” in a “dream of transformation” as that character, which
was plain. She was troubled. She was controlled by her mother and then one day she took a trip on an ocean liner and total fulfillment came to her because of this trip on the ocean. She became beautiful and loved. One day I’m going to take a trip on an ocean liner, I thought, and all of my dark thoughts and feelings, all my feelings that I don’t belong anywhere, will go away. (Kennedy 1987, 91)
Deborah R. Geis argues that both Kennedy and her alterego, Clara, turn to the symbolic realm of the movies to find a mirror, but instead see the reminder of their Otherness (173). Accordingly, at the emotional climax of the drama, the protagonist wonders “with what or with whom can she co-exist in a true union?” (Kennedy, 2001, 65) For Geis, Clara is an alienated subject, who “speaks to re-inscribe herself as an ego ideal, but who can only do so at the imperfect level of identity with an object” (174). The “true union” – as Geis puts it – “is as unlikely as the possibility that she could become her Bette Davis persona” (175). Here, Clara’s position resembles that of Pauline Breedlove and her daughter; their aim was to identify with the naïve images of another white cinema star, Shirley Temple.
Clara admires Hollywood movies and actors, and takes the latter as her role models. Accordingly, the settings of the drama are close to the movie sets Clara admires: in Scene 1 the set is “The Hospital lobby and Now, Voyager,” in Scene 2 it is her “Brother’s room and Viva Zapata!,” whereas in Scene 3 it is Clara’s old room and A Place in the Sun. While the protagonist appears rarely on stage and remains mostly in the background as an onlooker (or, better a spectator of her own life-film) the movie characters speak for her. Clara, nonetheless, defines her own position and reconfigures the roles of her beloved film stars (such as femme fatale, romantic heroine and revolutionary woman) by casting these stars into the roles of her African American family members.
Kennedy’s play has a multilayered structure; it presents Clara’s life through the filmic and theatrical realm. Employing this strategy, the author takes a critical position towards mainstream Hollywood filmic representations. Each scene of A Movies Star begins with a mimed film scene in which leading roles are played by actors who embody Bette Davis, Jean Peters, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters. The “real characters,” who are people from Clara’s life – her father, mother, husband and brother – appear only as “Supporting Roles” while Clara actually plays only “a bit role” (Kennedy 2001, 63). By having white actors play the lives of Clara and her family, Kennedy critiques Hollywood’s mainstream American Dream fantasy with its visible exclusion of African American actors.
In Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey writes that this type of visual representation in the mainstream narrative cinema manipulates “our sense of visual pleasure through the coercive act of cod[ing] the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal structure” (qtd. in Geis 173). The powerful impact of the cinema does not influence only female spectatorship. Race can also be a factor in the manipulation of the spectator’s sense of visual pleasure: for example, African American filmgoers face similar difficulties in finding their object of identification when they watch movies with exclusively white actors. The identification process in Clara’s life comes from idealized movie images that meet with her emotional attitudes towards her family members, which cause her catachrestic state. Clara and her mother, at first, try to identify unconditionally with the prevailing Hollywood imagery, believing that a change in their social status through this identification makes them less unmarked, or even racially invisible in mainstream society. Luckily, their attempt is not entirely successful. The Hollywood movies the play employs offer a limited set of positions with which women filmgoers can identify, such as the figure of the well disciplined, obedient Charlotte Vale acted by Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and the femme fatale played by Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun.
Nonetheless, these stars – in the roles they play – can be interpreted, on the basis of Bollobás’ criterion of performance/performativity as women acting out performances which lead them towards becoming performative subjects. For example, Bette Davis, speaking for Clara, says: “I’ve always felt sad that I couldn’t have been an angel of mercy to my father and mother and saved them from their torment” (Kennedy 2001, 64). Women in this play blame themselves for their unsuccessful family life. Clara and even her mother try to fulfill their expected roles of wives and mothers, so that they could be considered proper family women. By the end of the play, despite her mimetic efforts, Clara fails in her performance but, instead, succeeds in becoming a new, performative subject.
The three films Kennedy uses in her drama have a common topic: reproduction. “Throughout her dramas,” and especially in this play, “Kennedy presents pregnancy and motherhood not as traditional symbols of life and growth, but as signs of madness and death” (Barnett 142). This topic also involves issues of childbirth and consequent parent-child relationships. In Now, Voyager, for example, Charlotte has a problematic relationship with her mother. Clara is pregnant and about to finish writing her first play (with a hint of reference to Kennedy’s other play, The Owl Answers) when she considers leaving her husband. Her mother strongly objects because she wants to believe that Clara can be happy in her family life by giving birth to children. But there is a discrepancy between Clara’s expected social role and her career as a playwright. She is afraid of turning into a river of blood at the time of delivery – a symbolic scene echoing her childhood memory of her mother’s miscarriage and also a scene from Viva Zapata!, in which Jean Peters bleeds and Marlon Brando changes sheets for her. The troubling imagery of the mother-child relationship in Now, Voyager and in A Place in the Sun couples with the fear of reproduction. According to Barnett, Clara writes a drama but her “play production cannot compare in value to her reproduction” (143). Therefore, the protagonist chooses her artistic career over her family. She does not go back to her husband: instead, she writes meticulously each day a page and witnesses the birth of her play together with the birth of her new subjectivity. Clara confesses that
Eddie comes every evening right before dark. He wants to know if I’ll go back to him for the sake of our son. […] Before I left New York I got my typewriter from the pawnshop. I’m terribly tired, trying to do a page a day, yet my play is coming together. (Kennedy 2001, 63)
Clara’s performance thus turns into a performative act in which she becomes an agent through artistic creation.
The films in Kennedy’s play function as cultural intertexts providing a platform for subverting both Black and white cultural stereotypes. In a broad understanding, these films present a way to finding one’s new subjectivity. Now, Voyager displays a young well-to-do girl, Charlotte Vale, who lives in the shadow of her despotic mother and has a very low self-esteem. She is on the brink of a nervous breakdown when her psychologist suggests she should go on a trip because, as he argues, the change of climate and environment would certainly do her good. Charlotte goes on a voyage, where she starts to blossom and learns to value her life: even if she does not get everything she finds herself in the context outside her domestic realm. Charlotte in Now, Voyager and Clara in A Movie Star try to perform their gender-, race-, and class-bound roles. Clara is in an unhappy marriage, but she sticks to her husband in order to please her family. Similarly, Charlotte obeys her mother. They nevertheless both end up in constructing their new subjectivities: Charlotte leaves for a voyage and Clara becomes a writer.
Viva Zapata! presents Mexicans striving against the injustice and corrupt regime of Porfirio Diaz with Zapata (played by Marlon Brando) as an incorruptible leader, who is ultimately killed in an ambush. According to Kennedy, Marlon Brando’s role conveys the theme of “a person” that “has to fight and lead” (1987, 87). The author alludes to this movie in A Movie Star on an abstract level: the theme recalls the African American political leaders in the twentieth-century (W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King), who struggled for equality and rights in America and points to the necessity of individual struggles.
The third movie which appears in Kennedy’s drama, A Place in the Sun, portrays George Eastman (played by Montgomery Clift), the nephew of a wealthy factory owner, who gets the lowest job possible in his uncle’s factory and is excluded from the upper society of other Eastmans. As he works his way up, he dates a factory co-worker, Shelley Winters (played by Alice Tripp), who gets pregnant. However, George is in love with Mr. Eastman’s daughter and finds himself trapped between the two women. The pregnant girl insists on marriage but becomes the victim of a deadly accident. George is arrested and sentenced to death being accused of murder. Although the girl’s death was truly an accident, George feels guilty because he planned the circumstances and did not attempt to save the girl’s life. In this movie, Shelley Winters embodies “the essence of longing” while Montgomery Clift “a yearning to belong” (Kennedy 1987, 97). Their attributes become Clara’s paramount features in the sense that in her isolation she is longing to become a writer, but she is also yearning to belong to somewhere or to somebody. She wonders “with what or with whom” can she “co-exist in a true union?” (Kennedy 2001, 69) and expresses her wish to become a new person.
Kennedy takes the play’s settings and character traits from these films in a mimetic way. The stars of this play are embodied by diverse actors, looking exactly like the protagonists of the films. They tell Clara’s story in a performance of white identity, while the diary of the protagonist is an intra-textual reference to the author’s other play, A Lesson in Dead Language. Kennedy’s play thus fulfills two missions in one: on the one hand, she criticizes these Hollywood movies for their exclusion of African Americans (or their subsequent misrepresentation); on the other hand, Kennedy highlights the lack of authentic objects of identification for African Americans.
The play would nevertheless lose its subverting nature if it had not been for Clara’s complex character. After a performance-type of attempt to identify with her film stars, she (re)constructs their (new) subjectivity/identity by becoming a writer, who is able to subvert and recreate herself in new social discourses. Clara’s ambition of becoming a writer shows the performative nature of her figure: she does not take up stereotype roles but pursues her creative drive thus gaining an authorial voice. This drama exemplifies a turn in the African American theatrical tradition by deliberately avoiding the realistic and naturalistic modes of theatrical representation; it rather floats on filmic fantasies that poeticize but it also creatively questions the contemporary dramatic representation of African American identity.
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Author’s note: Special thanks to Réka M. Cristian for her generous professional help and to Alex Reczkowski, a true friend, who read and commented the text with the eyes of a critical reader.