Sarah and Her Battle for “Purity” In Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse

By Gavin Hosto

I was assigned to observe Sarah for my collegiate thesis on the many ways dreams are a direct reflection of the workings in one’s consciousness. Admitted in as recently as October 1964, Sarah has been plagued with awful visions and manifestations of her internal turmoil that have begun to affect her external self. From the scant information about her before meeting, I was told of her self-hatred and of her obsession with the color black and white. These colors have a lot of meaning in dreams, purity for white and evil for black. Even Sarah herself said, “Black is evil and has been from the beginning.” (10)

I was given a briefing right before our first session where the staff have told me that I will have no problem with getting her to talk. She has a particular warmness to my pale skin. Staff members who were African American are stationed far away from her cell as she would have a fit of rage, resulting in either self-harm or direct violence towards the orderlies. She had shaved her head to rid herself of what she calls “frizzy hair, unmistakably Negro kinky hair,” expressing sorrow for not having the straight hair of a white woman (11).

She flashed a bright smile at me when I entered her cell. The fluorescent lights gave everything an unnatural brightness. I had no shadow and I noted that there is no bed frame in her cell as that would cast a shadow. She wore white mitts as a preventative measure to her practice of self-harm. The mitts were fastened onto her forearm similar to how straitjackets are secured. I explained my reasoning for being here and she seemed to comply with the study. All I asked of her was to recount the dreams, or a more apt term would be nightmares, so I could help her.

Personal & Social Effects

She is a mixed girl who was at an Atlanta College with an English major which her mother was also an English major. She graduated and worked in various libraries. She has an obsessive quality about being liked, no, adored by her white peers. The fear of darker skinned I already knew but she was stressed about how white people will see her and judge her. She explained to me that all educated black folks “out of life and death essential – I find it necessary to maintain a stark fortress against recognition of myself.” (11)  She has crafted a narrative similar to the ways anti-black propaganda films and newspapers have done. She dreamt of owning European antiques, hanging picture of Roman ruins on her apartment wall and having a white glass table to eat at. “I will visit my friends’ apartments which will contain books, photographs of Roman ruins, pianos and oriental carpets. My friends will be white.” (11)  The incident that had her admitted was a meltdown. The pressures of trying to be the best for her white peers and her own troubled past led to this. The Landlady heard screams of “the Beast” attacking Sarah and called the police.

From our sessions, I could tell that she was a one point very religious which might have come from her father as he was a deeply devout man. Her obsession with white could be related to angelic connotations of purity and spiritual cleanliness. In spite of that, she has a less than favorable view of Christianity in the present. For example, Jesus is a reoccurring character in her dreams but He is a hunchback that’s deformed and sickly. Almost described as a ghoul of some sorts. My hypothesis is that her father plays a role into why she feels this way about religion and I will explain later in this study.


Repetition is a key aspect of Sarah’s madness. In the different iterations of herselves in the dreamscape, repetition is a part of their speech and how they move within the quandaries of the dream. For example, a character named Raymond or Funnyman, always laughs while he talks and he opens and closes the blinds. She said that the blinds open to mirrors which I think is an important thing to note. The dream version of her Landlady laughs when speaking as well. This could be interpreted as her mocking the pain she’s been through as they’re usually talking about Sarah’s personal tragedies and insecurities. Environmental repetition such as the knocking comes into play and might hint at certain events that may have transpired in her adolescence. This repetition could point to her mosaic emotions or as if she is trying to find something deep within her subconsciousness.

Dissonance, paranoia and memory gaps/loss is another unfortunate symptom to her illness. She said her father was a social worker but her dream self as Funnyman Raymond said that he was a doctor. She says her father raped her innocent, white mother, that he’s a beast who hunts in the night, haunting her conception. There is a symbol of the ebony mask in her dreams that she often talks about it when describing how she killed him. Could be her wishing to kill the black side of her mixed identity. She spends a lot of her dreams centered around this figure in her life. Nothing is 100% certain of what he did to make her believe that he is a rabid animal other than being born with dark skin.

In all our sessions, she never sat down longer than two minutes before getting up and pacing around the cell. She will sometimes repeat the actions of the characters like the opening and closing of the blinds, though there are no blinds in the ward. In some of her dreams, she can recite the same speech identically save for a few certain portions that relate to her father. Patrice Lumumba is a figure in her dreamscape and is seen as a reflection of her. A fascinating detail about this is that Lumumba was a huge proponent to decolonizing the Democratic Republic of Congo from the Belgian colonial powers which could indicate that she wishes to get rid of the hurtful thoughts of being mixed but like Lumumba, is shot down for trying to change it. “My friends will be white. I need them as an embankment to keep me from reflecting too much upon the fact that I am Patrice Lumumba who haunted my mother’s conception.” (17) He, as a version of Sarah, repeats her speech but with harsher terms for describing himself like vile and using racial slurs. The most bewildering change is where Patrice said that his mother and father both social work majors when Sarah said that it was her mother and her that shared an English major while the father was a social work major. It comes across as though conflicting memories and thoughts of what her life was like and what truly happened and what was imagined intersect, leading to a loss of reality.


From compiling all my notes, the history of her affliction is still a bit blurry. In both retellings, the father was a social worker, but the mother is still a mystery. We are given little insight in what became of the mother. Sarah’s mother was sent to an asylum and had a bald head which baldness is another repeating motif of her dreams. It could explain her baldness as well. Not only to get rid of her self-described “wild, kinky” hair, the marker for her blackness, but to be more akin to her white mother. There is a dream where there is this faceless man, carrying a mask, and explaining how his “mother” was losing hair and crying on the bed. The mother was admitted to a hospital, and she says, “Black diseases, Sarah, she says. Black diseases.” and “I never should have let a black man put his hands on me.” (16)

Religion incorporates itself into the father’s role and how she perceives herself. For the father, the role of religion plays into his social work where he wants to go to Africa and decolonize it, similar to Moses freeing the Jewish slaves from the pharaohs. The white mother even pushes for him to do it, which conflicts with Sarah’s understanding of her white and black identity. Whites shouldn’t let black people free as they are beasts and will harm the young, innocent white girls. Sarah told me, though this account’s validity seems to be iffy, her father told her, “Sarah, Sarah, he would say to me, the soldiers are coming and a cross that are placing high on the tree and are dragging me through the grass and nailing me on the cross.” (19) But what makes this interesting is the fact that Christianity was a means of colonizing Africa. Her black father is using the religion that put his people into bondage as a way to free them as well. Another character that reflects Sarah is Jesus but here, He is a yellow-skinned, hunchback dwarf wearing nothing but white rags and sandals. Her religious mania has made her think that she’s being punished similarly to Jesus. I see the yellow skin being covered by the white rags as Sarah’s attempt to fit in with the educated white people at her university, hiding her mixed heritage for she and others will see it as ghastly and hideous. She is a dwarf because of how she feels about her place in life with her father killing himself and being, most likely, the only mixed girl on campus. Her back is hunched from the weight of expectations she put on herself, to be the model mixed girl, to please her white peers and professors. It is a cross that she bears and has left her distorted and deformed.

The death of the father had an obvious effect on her though we do not know exactly how he died. I tried to access records but I do not have proper authorization to see death certificates of people unrelated to me so we can only estimate from the sessions on what happened. My theory is that her father killed himself given the symbol of the bloodied noose around Sarah’s neck and the repeated knocking throughout most of her dreams. She did say that “he tried to hang himself once” (19) which may suggest that her father was suicidal in her childhood. Sarah might have been the one knocking at her father’s door, asking him to cook for her or to play with her. Sarah keeps knocking and knocking with no answer. Upset by the lack of attention, she opens the door to find her father, suspended in the air with the noose around his neck. She never fully says this but connecting certain details have led me to that conclusion. However, when she does explicitly talk about her father’s death, she said that she killed him by bludgeoning him with the ebony mask. There is a lot to glean from this: she feels guilty about her father dying and may feel as though she was the cause, she kills him because of the anger she feels about him leaving her and her mother like that and that she hates him for giving her the “undesirable” characteristics that all African Americans have. And yet, there’s conflicting accounts of his death where Funnyman Raymond at the end of one dream told the Landlady, “Her father never hung himself in a Harlem hotel when Patrice Lumumba was murdered.” (26) From the evidence Sarah has given me, the father died which led to a breakdown for the mother and was institutionalized for it, leaving Sarah alone and for her to try and learn about the world from racist perspectives.


What I have gathered here from my time working with Sarah, the image of oneself is never concrete. New revelations, new perspectives and other inventions play a role in how the subconscious deals with your identity. For Sarah, she has these dueling perspectives, these conflicting self-concepts, that cannot be resolved in a neat and organized way. Societal influences creates her worldview of identity and how she needs to be so many things and to turn away from other aspects of her personhood. “You can’t be mixed; you have to choose white to please the masses and bestialize the black.” Laws, entertainment and academia favors white people so she has to become a model citizen to distract her from how she will never be fully accepted for her being half-black and to be unlike her mother and father. Religion is what possibly killed her father and yet can still find common ground with the figure of Jesus, being tortured and weighed down by internal and external influences. These mounting burdens of the propaganda that dehumanized black people for centuries, the trauma of losing her parents, religion no longer being a place of sanctuary and the people pleasing that puts herself down is what drives her madness. Funnyman Raymond in the dreams opens and closes the blinds, revealing mirrors. It is as if she is so close to realizing the futility of this effort to not be fully herself and that there’s a way to live more truthfully but she quickly dashes away any chances of this dream to be reality.

Work Cited

Kennedy, Adrienne. Funnyhouse of a Negro. Samuel French Acting Edition by Concord Theatricals, 1997. Retrieved April 13, 2022.