In the summer of 2011, three months before her eightieth birthday, the playwright Adrienne Kennedy reflected on her life in the unpublished essay “Almost Eighty.” Now, nearly a decade later, with Kennedy’s ninetieth birthday right around the corner, the piece has finally been published in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box and Other Plays, which Theatre Communications Group released in November. The essay appears in full below.
At almost eighty, I wondered if I could find reasons to live.
I kept begging my son to print out pages of my mother’s scrapbook, which was on his computer. Why?
All I knew was my eightieth birthday was in three months, and I was extremely sad. I had been at his family house in Virginia for a month, the month of June. For the first time I could not see how I was going to financially maintain my apartment in Manhattan, my beloved apartment on West Eighty-Ninth Street, an apartment I’d had for twenty-nine years, despite commuting to California and Boston, my precious home near the Hudson.
I seemed to lack energy, purpose. Dreams.
“Please print out mother’s scrapbook,” I begged. He was busy. The scrapbook was in the middle of other documents.
I didn’t know why but I kept begging. I wanted to see that scrapbook, started in 1926. I wanted to see all the glued-on photographs and programs that filled the pages until 1928. And from 1928 to 1954 all the photographs and newspaper articles that were stuck inside the pages of the scrapbook.
I’d already decided if I can’t find reasons to live, then what’s the point?
What can I embark on at eighty?
What could I possibly embark on?
“Embarking” had always been one of my mental mainstays.
Finally, Adam printed out my mother’s scrapbook that she started when she was a student at Atlanta University, 1926–1928. I felt it was my compass. My beautiful compass.
The Crimson Cover
The crimson cover with a border of green-and-pink flowers started a long line of my love of books with red covers. Today I possess a small red library. As a child the sight of this red cover made my heart beat faster. I remember the twelve-year-old girl in Cleveland, Ohio, who held the book with the red cover in her lap and dreamed of life to come, dreamed of the future. I still needed to dream of the future.
The Red Book, 1943
Lying on the top of the book had been a long photograph of the graduation, 1928, from AU. The two-year normal school education made it possible for women to teach. My mother’s first teaching job was in Florida, a white wooden-frame schoolhouse with about twenty children.
Then as I looked at my mother’s fellow graduates, I thought of these Black women starting out on their teaching careers. A common thought was that the “race” had to be educated. Education was the only way for a Black person to compete in American Society. Could I still educate?
At the beginning of the scrapbook, stuck inside a page, was the 1928 commencement program.
Commencement was a word I’d always liked.
What commencement would I join? I didn’t know. How can you begin when you’re eighty? My father died at seventy, my mother at ninety-two, my brother at thirty-eight.
My father’s Morehouse program was next to my mother’s. Morehouse College, 1928, he majored in social work. Perhaps I could still look forward to thinking of that young social worker who left Atlanta for Dayton, Ohio, and then to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he worked for the K Clubs for boys, clubs formed to help youth in their goals, their problems, in overcoming the poverty they faced in 1929. The Clubs emphasized fellowship.
In 1929, fellowship was valued. I realized I could still look forward to thinking of these Negro boys in smoky Pittsburgh and my father and his young idealistic colleagues setting out to save the race. They sang at meetings:
Leaning on the
Leaning on the
At seventy-nine, I still have the Everlasting Vine to lean on, and always will.
The original paper of the scrapbook is a pale beige heavy paper with a border of green leaves, green leaves to frame your thoughts. There is a forest of green leaves that surround this Virginia house that my son lives in with his family. I realize I can smell the soil, see different shades of green hedges along the stone path leading to the front entrance. Green leaves on this summer morning make me think of the green mint bushes we had in our backyard in Ohio and the taste of them in my mother’s iced tea.
Green leaves make me think of the maple tree my father planted on the tree lawn of our house.
There is always a commencement of green leaves.
Lakes, Rivers, Streams
There is a photograph (1928) of my father in a lake sitting in a rowboat. He is wearing a white shirt and is somber. He is about twenty-four years old. He appears to be in the middle of a lake in Georgia.
Lakes. Lakes. How I love lakes. In Cleveland, we lived close to Lake Erie, the part of the lake that flowed between the shores of Cleveland to the shores of Canada. When I was thirteen, my neighbor took me on a cruise across Lake Erie to Canada. It was on a white boat, and my friend Rachel, her aunt, and I ate sandwiches and drank Coca-Cola. It was my first boat journey.
I had been on the lake in Aurora, Ohio, at camp. I had been in a rowboat on a lake with water lilies. Lakes. Rivers … The Hudson River, which I have loved since I first saw it in 1955 and have lived near since. My son’s family lives near the James River.
Lakes, rivers, the streams that bordered the Faculty Club in Berkeley, California, where I lived often during the eighties …
Even if I am almost eighty, I can still see Rivers. I can still quote Langston Hughes: “I’ve Known Rivers.”
The Great Lakes
It made me happy that as a child I lived on the Great Lakes. Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie. I can still be inspired by the sound of the words and the pride I felt at being amid the Great Lakes. In Manhattan I can still walk to the Hudson, and in Virginia I can still walk along the banks of the James River in the sun.
In the Scrapbook
The words are written in Blue Ink.
I have a love for all three, there is a joy in looking at handwritten words in blue ink. We read blue ink, from ink jars in inkwells once upon a time. You filled your fountain pen with blue ink. I still have one fountain pen. A gift from Signature Theatre Company.
Rena Dickerson. She wasn’t really my father’s aunt but a woman in Atlanta who lived near Morehouse in the twenties. She and her husband let Morehouse boys board at their house, and my father said she gave him and other students free meals, especially on Sundays.
I didn’t meet her until I was twenty-two. She had long since left Atlanta, been widowed, and lived in New York in a brownstone with her cousins. However, she lived in Brooklyn only on her days off. Her regular job was as a cook on an estate in Greenwich, Connecticut. My husband, Joe, our son, Joseph Jr., and I once in 1955 on a Sunday afternoon went to visit her in Greenwich. (At that time we lived at Columbia University in Bancroft for married students.) On that Sunday in 1955, Aunt Rena was buoyant, fashionable, and filled with information about New York City. She told me the only store I should shop at was Bloomingdale’s.
But I first met Aunt Rena in 1954, a year earlier. That year, a new baby, back living at home in Cleveland with my parents. Joe was in Korea. Aunt Rena came to Cleveland to the World Series.
She got up at four o’clock in the morning to go down to the stadium to get in line for tickets. She practically ran along our sidewalk to me—amazing because I saw her as old. “How old is Aunt Rena?” I asked my mother …
Aunt Rena was so thrilled, energetic, and happy, had traveled from New York City to Cleveland. And the night before had made a gigantic pot of chicken and noodles.
“Rena’s way up there,” my mother said. “Rena’s in her late seventies.”
My parents in Atlanta when they were sweethearts.
They are standing near the steps of a brick home, she in a print silk dress with a pleated skirt. He has on a college sweater with an M (that I still have), knickers, and a baseball cap.
Silk dresses, prints with pleated skirts. When I was an adolescent in the forties, my mother picked out dresses for me with pleated skirts. She continued. The dress I wore for going away after my wedding was a shantung dress (she picked out) with a pleated skirt. She had continued.
Continuing (The Box Camera)
Until the sixties when it vanished, my mother had a box camera that she had owned since the thirties. She photographed rare events like visitors from Detroit or old friends from Akron, Ohio. These were people from their early days in Georgia, there was cousin Edith from Chicago. These people: cousin Hattie from Detroit, the Humberts from Akron, were born around 1900, came North to pursue tirelessly, relentlessly, and continually education, professions, racial equality.
Embarking on a journey was a theme that permeated my parents’ and their friends’ conversations. We’ve come a long way. We still have a long way to go. But we’ve come a long way.
They’d say: “I remember just four years ago we couldn’t eat at Schrafft’s in Downtown Cleveland. Before the War it was unheard of that Negroes would be living out here in Glenville.”
Did I still have a long way to go? Maybe a long way to learn how to continue.
The red scrapbook led to my own love of scrapbooks, love of photographs, passion for writing on pages in blue ink, writing thoughts on pages in blue ink about the days, events, the significance of a day.
I must continue to remember the significance of a day.
I think of: Morehouse College/History/War Against _______
Martin Luther King Jr. and his father, Daddy King, went to Morehouse College. Daddy King and my father were there at the same time. Martin Luther King Jr., along with Nelson Mandela, are leaders I admire beyond words … Purpose, fighting wars, struggle.
I must still be a part of the struggle. Perhaps history still needs me, so those before me won’t be forgotten, obliterated.
I had published stories, plays, taught at UC Berkeley and Harvard; of course I had two sons by my only marriage and five grandchildren. But I could not see any future, a future with verve, hope, excitement that I’d once had.
I still wondered why I had begged Adam to print out the scrapbook. Why had I always pored over the pages, constantly gazed and imagined, curiously?
I realized poring curiously over pages was a trait I still possessed. I was still in possession of my curiosity.
It’s now clear to me that in her scrapbook my mother was gluing together a society, joining, adhering meaning.
Gazing and Imagining
1943 was the time at age twelve I climbed the steps of the attic in our house to sit on the floor, after I’d taken the red scrapbook out of the old dresser drawer. The attic smelled of furniture polish, old wallpaper, the old wardrobe trunk with drawers pulled out still with ancient gloves or a hat. There were broken dishes on an old chest of drawers. A small window faced the maple trees along the street. The floors were polished. The former family’s grandmother had lived on this floor. I’d sit often in summer, gaze at the pages, and imagine ATLANTA.
At the same time, I started my own movie star scrapbook. In my movie star scrapbook, one of the pictures I studied again and again was a picture of Elizabeth Taylor in Life magazine. She was sitting in her bedroom in Hollywood. We were the same age, and I longed to be and to look like the little girl she played in Jane Eyre. Her name was Helen. When the cruel headmaster punished Jane Eyre, it was Helen who cried out in her defense, and it was Helen who was made to walk in the cold rainy courtyard of the Yorkshire, England, school with a weighted board on her shoulders. She died later that night. She had shown devotion and courage.
2011, this spring, I took out my scrapbook and gazed at the Life magazine photograph. I thought: I could still show devotion and courage. I could. I can. My family needs my devotion and courage, and for me to imagine a future with them.
On the back of the Life magazine pages were pictures of World War II in France. One of the great historical world struggles.
Gluing a Vision
I see one of the reasons I begged Adam to print out the scrapbook. I longed for the vision contained in the songs, the poems.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole …
… the romantic images, these two Atlanta students, young Negroes going North. The romantic girl who pasted programs, napkins, tickets, wrote: “I saw my sweetheart today.”
She Glued Together: A Concrete Vision of a Wonderful World
Nearer My God to Thee
She Walks in Beauty
Jesus is my friend
He walks with me and He talks with me and He tells me I am His own
I shall pass this Way but once
Heaven on Earth
The song “Throw Out the Lifeline”
Gluing a Story
The red book glued together a story, a vision of beauty, romance, friendship with the language of a nineteen-year-old girl.
… the romantic couple on the grass would one day quarrel, part, and fight bitterly over the questions surrounding the death of my brother, their only son.
In 1943. Climbing the steps of the attic I was seeking answers. I must still seek … “Vespers,” “Eventide,” “She Walks in Beauty.” I must still seek “Throw Out the Lifeline.”
Alongside the red book, rolled up in the drawer, was my mother’s diploma, from Fort Valley Boarding School.
Before Atlanta University, my mother had gone to boarding school. Her father sent her to the school.
Her mother was dead. She lived with her grandmother who worked away at Warm Springs, Georgia. And who my mother said was mean to her. My grandfather, a white landowner, sent my mother to Fort Valley. On holidays the headmaster of the school invited her to his family’s house. She told me she was lonely and sought refuge in books. Fort Valley School imitated English boarding schools in the content of lessons and, as well as they could, in the decoration of the interior of the school. Many or most of the books and furnishings were given to the school by wealthy whites, the population of the girls school was, of course, all “Negro.”
My father was from the same Georgia town, Montezuma. My parents had known each other since they were children. He had been at Morehouse Academy since he was twelve. My grandmother, a servant, dreamed of him being “somebody.” His father, who sold fruits and peanuts on incoming trains, had disappointed her. My father always had jobs at Morehouse, and my grandmother and her sister, also a servant in the same household (owners of a canning factory), sent my father clothes, dollars, food. People in the town said, “C. W. was going places.” After the Academy he went on to Morehouse College. He was popular, played baseball, and wanted to “lift his race up.” He majored in social work. Summers, Morehouse sent him to the tobacco fields in Connecticut to earn money, and he spent one summer at the New York School for Social Work in Manhattan. They were together a young teacher and a young social worker seeking the perfect and equal American Life. “Helping the Race was primary.”
I see I can still seek the perfect life. They also sought God. I can still seek God.
After 1928, the photographs and newspaper clippings, mementos, continued, folded inside the red book. She continued recording wonders, parties, banquets, church events, school events, napkins from her bridge club meetings, poems from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and I must continue.
Adrienne Kennedy has been a force in American theater since the early sixties. She is a three-time Obie Award winner for Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), June and Jean in Concert (1996), and Sleep Deprivation Chamber (1996), and she is the recipient of an Obie Award for Lifetime Achievement. Kennedy was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 2018.
“Almost Eighty” appears in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box and Other Plays, by Adrienne Kennedy, published by Theatre Communications Group.