‘The Owl Answers’ Flourishes With Help of Playwright’s Grandson

In Adrienne Kennedy’s play, “The Owl Answers,” the audience members are on the stage of Farkas Hall rather than in the theater’s seats, yet a wall obstructs their view. Once around the wall, they stand by graffiti of an owl on one side and a massive tower-like structure on the other. They sit on low benches around the tower, from which a chandelier, a cage, and an owl hang.

A spiral staircase wraps around the outside of the tower. Frozen in action along this staircase are actors playing Shakespeare, Chaucer, William the Conqueror, and Anne Boleyn. At the top, a woman in a white avian dress and an owl mask wildly flaps her arms, twists her head, and stares down audience members. Her male compatriot dances on the floor, wildly eyeing the arriving guests.

One female actress’ anachronistic clothing and unsteady presence make her particularly eye-catching. This woman, Clara, is the protagonist of the show, and once she enters the tower, the drama begins, mere inches from seated audience members.

The production is purposefully confusing, with constant light changes and sudden sound effects. Actors deliver certain lines of dialogue multiple times with variable intonation, and scenes often repeat, each time with an aspect changed. The play intentionally disorients through its non-linear plot and unconventional dialogue choices, evoking a sense of confusion as Clara, the illegitimate daughter of a white man and a black woman in the American South, struggles to define herself.

Due to its modern production and timely subject matter, it may be surprising that “The Owl Answers” first premiered in 1965 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. Director of Production David R. Gammons ’92 has a close personal relationship with Kennedy that began at Harvard College. “Ever since I had first read her plays and studied with her, I wanted to direct her plays,” said Gammons. “Her work though is highly experimental, and though it is also highly acclaimed and important, there are not a lot of professional theater companies that will agree to do her plays. When TDM approached me last year and asked me if I’d like to come back to Harvard and be a guest artist, I said I think I want to do ‘The Owl Answers.’”

Through the production of “The Owl Answers,” Gammons said that he sought to do justice to Kennedy’s work and message while simultaneously taking into account his own identity in relation to the play’s subject matter. “I am a white man, and that gave me a lot of pause to proceed with this project. I’m deeply grateful to my cast to be so generous with their own experiences,” said Gammons.

Because of her friendship with Gammons, Kennedy was intimately involved in TDM’s production of her play, partially through the help of her grandson Jacob Kennedy. “My role in the production of ‘The Owl Answers’ was initially to observe for my own benefit, but in talking to David Gammons, the director, he influenced me to become directly involved, and from then on I was providing notes to the actors, suggestions and edits to the performance itself, and just any general advice,” said Jacob Kennedy.

Assistant Dramaturge Landy Erlick ’19, who is the literary editor, noted the unique position she occupied by interacting with Adrienne Kennedy so intimately. “It was such a remarkable experience to oscillate between reading scholarly articles on Kennedy’s work and reading emails from Kennedy herself directed to our team. For me, knowing that Ms. Kennedy was involved in the production spoke to the idea that ‘The Owl Answers’ is in constant communication with time periods, cultural movements, and its own past productions,” said Erlick.

American Repertory Theater graduate student Me’Lisa Sellers feels a great connection to the material she performed. “The truths she’s speaking about what it’s like to be African in America, then, before her, and now hold a relevance. I’ve never been a part of something I’ve felt such pride in doing, and such passion and fervor about. I’m touched by this piece,” she said.

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