The surreal and symbolic play Funnyhouse of a Negro delves into issues of race and identity. Sarah, the main character, is young black student in New York City. Her fractured identity is made up of several other characters including Queen Victoria, Jesus, Patrice Lumumba and the Duchess of Hapsburg. Throughout the one act play, Sarah struggles to accept or reject herself. Two of her identities are white women, while the other are men. None of the identities she creates for herself reflect who she really is.
The play begins with a dreamlike sequence of a woman in a white nightgown with long, dark hair crossing the stage. The woman (who we later learn is Sarah's mother) carries a bald head in her hands as a white curtain opens, revealing Sarah's bedroom. The entire play takes place in Sarah's mind. Sarah's room acts a symbol for her idolization of whiteness. The enormous, white statue of Queen Victoria is the prime example of this. The first scene is between Queen Victoria and the Duchess of Hapsburg, with the room acting as the Queen's chambers. This gives us an immediate glimpse into the permeability of the set—it constantly takes on new forms for its various inhabitants. The two women primarily discuss whiteness, as Queen Victoria states, "My mother was the light. She was the lightest one. She looked like a white woman.".
These women's words are not their own; they are the words of Sarah. The Queen and Duchess completely embody Anglo-American culture, and they therefore act as an extreme manifestation of Sarah's white self. Their conversation is interrupted by the woman from the opening sequence's incessant knocking, yelling about how she should have never let a black man touch her. This is how we first learn of Sarah's hatred towards her black father. The scene then shifts into one of Sarah's monologues, and ends with a comment from the Landlady: one of the only characters who exists outside of Sarah's imagination, and therefore one of the only manifestations of reality in the play. The Landlady helps the audience understand Sarah's situation, explaining how her father killed himself when Patrice Lumumba was killed. She says that Sarah hasn't left her room since her father's death, and that Sarah claims her father did not actually hang himself, but rather, she "bludgeoned his head with an ebony skull that he carries about with him. Wherever he goes, he carries black masks and heads.". The scene ends with the Landlady's remarks about how Sarah's hair has fallen out from her anxiety, and how she always knew she wanted to be someone else. This first scene introduces us to the motif of hair throughout the play.
There is also a persistent knocking sound in the background for the rest of the play, which represents the father's attempts to get back into Sarah's life. The following scene is between the Duchess and Raymond, the funnyman of the Funnyhouse. The two characters discuss the Duchess' 'father,' who is actually Sarah's father, as the Duchess is an extension of Sarah's self. They call the father a "wild beast" who raped Sarah's mother, and compare his darkness to the mother's whiteness. Finally, the Duchess reveals that the mother is currently in an asylum, completely bald. This explains the significance of the opening sequence of the play, in which the mother walks across the stage holding her bald head. In this scene between the Duchess and Raymond, we also learn that the Duchess' hair is falling out in chunks. This means that Sarah's hair is falling out, as well, because her white self cannot coexist with her black self.
The next scene simply contains a speech by Patrice Lumumba, a manifestation of Sarah's black self. His character is unknown to the audience, and he holds a mask in his hands. The speech discusses how Sarah is haunted by her bald mother in her sleep, blaming Sarah's father for her plight into insanity, saying, "Black man, black man, my mother says, I never should have let a black man put his hands on me."
The next scene begins with a movement sequence between The Duchess and Queen Victoria, in which they discover that the Queen's hair has fallen out on her pillow, and the Duchess tries to place hair on her head. As they continue to pantomime, Patrice Lumumba's character returns for another monologue, in which he gives more information about Sarah's life. We learn that Sarah is a student at a city college in New York, and how she dreams of being surrounded by European antiques and have white friends. He also explains that her father was given mixed messages from his parents: his mother wanted him to go to Africa and save the race, while his father told him " the race was no damn good." This internal racial conflict deeply influences Sarah. The speech ends with the claim that the father 'tried' to hang himself in a Harlem hotel, but leaves a certain ambiguity as to whether or not his suicide actually occurred.
The next scene is between the Duchess and Jesus in the Duchess' palace. They are both bald and express their fear surrounding the loss of hair. The following scene begins with a movement sequence between the Duchess and Jesus, similar to that of The Duchess and Queen Victoria, in which the two characters sit on a bench, attempting to brush the shreds of hair left on their heads. When they finally speak, they discuss how the father won't leave them alone. The Landlady enters and tells a story about how Sarah's father asked her for forgiveness for being black, and she would not give it. The scene ends with Jesus telling the Duchess how he plans on going to Africa to kill Patrice Lumumba.
The next scene takes place in a jungle, taking over the entire stage. Sarah's bedroom is still in the background, though. Jesus appears, surrounded by the rest of the characters, all with nimbuses on their heads, " in a manner to suggest that they are saviors". The group speaks in unison about how they believed their father to be God, but he is black. They speak of how his darkness killed the lightness (Sarah's mother), and haunted Sarah's conception. Finally, they say that they are bound to the father unless he dies. They all rush to the grass in unison and repeat their chants, as the mother enters. They enact a conversation between Sarah and her father, in which he seeks forgiveness for being black, and Sarah asks him why he raped her mother, and then states how she wants to "bludgeon him with an ebony head." All of the characters run around the stage laughing and screaming, out of victory, until the blackout.
As the final scene begins, a new wall drops onto the stage. A white statue of Queen Victoria acts as the representation of Sarah's room. Sarah appears in the light, "standing perfectly still, we hear the KNOCKING, the LIGHTS come on quickly, her FATHER'S black figure with bludgeoned hands rushes upon her, the LIGHT GOES BLACK and we see her hanging in the room." The Landlady and Raymond enter, noticing Sarah's hanging body. The Landlady remarks on the sadness of Sarah's situation, when Raymond suddenly says, "she was a funny little liar." He then says that her father never actually hanged himself, but rather, he is a doctor and married to a white woman, living the life that Sarah's always dreamed of having.