He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, by Adrienne Kennedy. Featuring Juliana Canfield and Tom Pecinka. Director: Evan Yionoulis; Set Designer: Christopher Barreca; Costume Designer: Montana Levi Blanco; Lighting Designer: Donald Holder; Composer/Sound Designer: Justin Ellington; Video Designer: Austin Switser, Dramaturg: Jonathan Kalb. Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, New York. Opening performance: January 30, 2018.
Compact and courageous, the autobiographical He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box could be considered both a culmination of and introduction to the work of prolific 86-year-old playwright Adrienne Kennedy. Box, her first new work in a decade, is firmly homed in her historical oeuvre, yet timely and pertinent to the United States’ current violent racial narrative. Directed by Evan Yionoulis, the world premiere at the Theatre for a New Audience (Brooklyn, New York) tempers painful generational trauma with a semblance of optimism and love.
In an interview with playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Kennedy reflects, “I tend to think about the same things I’ve thought about all my life, and I always try to unravel those things.” Onstage, Box is more of an unspooling, and the methodical process begins before the house lights dim. Consider the title of the play. Much like the play itself, it is both declarative yet mysterious, challenging us to take it in, but how? What do we make of this information, this assertion? Who is “he”? Whose heart? Back from where? Is it macabre, metaphorical? The title, like other elements of cinema and literature embedded in the play, functions as a signifier to what follows: a one-act narrative that engages the audience multi-sensorially, exploring our notion of time, sense of place, reliance on memory and comfort with conflict. Swift and sweeping, Box challenges what it means to be human while being stripped of humanity.
The play’s two characters come of age in 1941: 17 years old and mutually smitten, Chris (Tom Pecinka) meets Kay (Juliana Canfield). His “handsome, white” and her “biracial, pretty, fragile, pale” identities are at dangerous odds in the segregated town of Jim Crow-era Montefiore, Georgia. Kay attends a segregated boarding school; Chris works in his father’s storeroom but longs to be an actor in New York. It is apparent when they meet that they know each other (not surprising in a town of 600 people). Both “come from money”—Kay is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy white man; her mother is deceased. Chris is the son of a town patriarch who is rich and responsible for masterminding the town’s segregation; his mother is also deceased. Young, in love, covert and committed—we’ve seen this before . . . but we’ve never seen it like THIS before.
In Kennedy’s vivid dreamscape, young love aloft is grounded early by inescapable mature matters: institutional racism, generational trauma, family secrets, shame, and the mercurial narrative surrounding the mysterious death of Kay’s mother at the age of 15. It is apparent why the couple courts cautiously: overt flirting could have tragic consequences; boundaries are not to be transgressed. Chris remembers: “I still years later see bodies of the baptized floating down the river, shot because they had the ceremony too close to the land of Crackel Farm. The colored bodies . . . floating . . . only minutes before baptized in Jesus’ name.” As he speaks, a projection of a flowing river consumes the stage. Mercy gives way to undammed waters; we are all awash in complicity.
Chris longs to break the racist patriarchal cycle, telling Kay “I’m going to leave for New York tomorrow Kay. I’m never coming back. I want to go on the stage. I came here because I wanted to see you; I want to write to you, I want to marry you. We could run away and live in Paris after the War.” She accepts his proposal, and they begin sorting through their individual histories, sharing bits of emotional and historical ephemera. In one haunting moment, Chris acts as a sort of puppeteer, manipulating the movements of a primitive white mannequin on stage representing his father. The clothed figure remains seated onstage, a skeleton not in the closet, but in full view.
The racial and social divide between Chris and Kay is informed by their situation and reflected by their communication. In the production, it materializes on the thrust stage (empty except for six school chairs delineating the perimeter) that seems to spill over with warm light, overlapping shadows and large-scale cinematic projections. The three-level stage draws our attention down to the schoolhouse cellar where Chris works, up to street level, and further up to New York and beyond.
A stark, open, fully visible staircase leads upstage, flanked halfway up with perpendicular platforms. This forms a 25-step “cross” that both characters ascend and descend, sometimes apart, sometime together. After their initial meeting, the relationship between Chris and Kay seesaws between heartache and hope, attraction and opposition, between needing to be seen and needing to be invisible to be safe. This tension of being the Other in obscurity is familiar to Kay, personally and generationally: “My great aunt said at my mother’s funeral she saw my father hiding amid the Cedar Trees. She heard him singing, ‘I Come to the Garden.’”
Box time hops through both recall and repetition. While Kay rides in the Jim Crow car on a train, Chris writes from New York. They connect to each other (and indirectly to their forebears) by reading letters aloud. This epistolary approach exposes us to their individual oral histories: parallel narratives tainted by structural racism. They are both shackled by their past as they explore their desire for a future together.
Along the way, song by song, letter by letter, image by image, Kennedy adds cultural texture via excerpts from works such as Christopher Marlowe’s play Massacre at Paris (1593) and Noël Coward’s 1940 romantic movie Bitter Sweet. Being intimately familiar with these artifacts or their themes is not mandatory or even necessary. They help evoke a sense of time and place, and also function as cultural touchstones with limited access within a divided culture: people of color could see the same movie as their white neighbors—as long as they entered the theatre from the back and sat on wooden benches, not in theatre seats.
Barriers and boundaries permeate Kennedy’s works; Box is no exception. In “Forget,” the poem that is included in the Perspectives section of the TFANA Playbill, Kennedy writes:
we went to his house.
his white wife wanted us to go in the back
but he insisted we come into the front.
full of contradictions,
he sent my mother and her half-sister to college,
bought them beautiful things
but still maintained the distance. They called him
by his surname and he never shared a meal with them.
“Like the South itself,” Kennedy continues, “he was an unfathomable mixture of complexities.” Throughout the play, Chris and Kay attempt to reconcile these mixed messages: acceptance with refusal, financial support minus love, needs met without wants realized.
Some may balk at the expanse of historical and emotional topography that Kennedy traverses in under 45 minutes. The TFANA production brings the heart of Kennedy’s work back with a seamless and fearless fusion of visual and aural surprises. Like a peek into a zoetrope, blurred scenes smudged with racial oppression gain momentum, disappearing before we have a chance to fully absorb their impact. Yet, we sense that something hasn’t just transpired; it has shifted.
*Derek McCracken (M.S., M.A.) teaches Narrative Medicine pedagogy at Columbia University in New York, where he also supervises practicum students, coordinates the alumni/student continuing education program, and facilitates narrative medicine workshops. He is interested in how illness and disability are represented in contemporary theater. He worked at Hallmark Cards as a creative director, and has published articles in American Theater and Emerging Science & Technology magazines.