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Theatre in Review: He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box (Theatre for a New Audience)

Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

After a silence of ten years, Adrienne Kennedy has returned with this brief, elliptical, haunting play, a romance that opens a window on a complex and treacherous past. Actually, "play" is something of a misnomer: He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is a fragment of a drama, or, better yet, a radio signal from the distant past, reaching across the decades to remind us that race relations in this country have deep, tangled, Faulknerian roots. It is dreamlike, yet disturbing; simultaneously memorable and evanescent; a wisp of a text with unsettling, revelatory undercurrents. It is, in equal parts, stunning and unsatisfying, and anyone interested in this writer's career will not want to miss it.

The spine of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is a conversation, mostly through letters, between Chris, a young white man, and Kay, a young black woman. The setting (mostly) is Montefiore, a town in Georgia, in 1941. Chris, a scion of the local landed gentry, leaves for New York to be an actor. Kay is still in school. They are in love and plan to marry. As their plans progress, and as Kay boards a train to New York, the couple's intertwined histories are laid bare. Kennedy's chilling intentions are signaled in the opening moments, in which we hear a group of black students, in an offstage classroom, reciting dialogue from The Massacre at Paris, Christopher Marlowe's drama of a Renaissance France riven by sectarian religious passions that led to the notorious Huguenot massacre. (The script notes that the students don't understand the play, but the image of a country torn in two is, in this context, hard to miss.) Chris, looking into the room, says, "There are my father's nigra children, the three on the end." Kay, a student at the school, adds, "I know he comes to see them once or twice a year. They go down to Headmaster Roseboro's office to see him. He never walks on the grounds with them. But everyone knows Mr. Harrison Aherne is their father." Chris adds, with a touch of pride, that his father, one of the town's main founders, "built the Aherne Garden Center for the colored, for their mothers. He bought them tombstones. They are the only nigra women in Montefiore to have tombstones on their graves."

These lines lay out, in a way that we almost never see in American plays, how in the pre-civil rights American South the stark divisions between blacks and whites obscured a far darker and more complex reality -- how so many white men of position and power availed themselves of black women's sexual services, leaving behind a trail of biracial children and labyrinthine social connections. As Kennedy makes blazingly clear, this arrangement was so embedded in the culture as to be an open secret. (The situation in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box appears to be derived from the author's family history, as expressed in the 2016 poem "Forget.") As described here, the hypocrisy is staggering: Even as whites fiercely resisted the slightest moves toward racial equality -- often raising the specter of "miscegenation" as destructive to society -- white men freely treated black women as objects for their personal pleasure. In the play's most scalding passages, we see how a man like Harrison was understood to be a model of charity for providing such basic amenities as tombstones with names for the women who were, in effect, his sex slaves. Such was the twisted morality of a de facto apartheid state.

To be sure, Kennedy's vision of life in Montefiore is not entirely savage; there are touches of nostalgia and warmth mixed in with the deep undercurrent of rage. And each new passage seems to disclose another irony. The Noël Coward operetta Bitter Sweet, made into a film starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, is cited more than once. "I saw you a while back at the movie house sitting up in the colored section," Chris tells Kay; later, when he proposes that, after the war is over, they move to Paris, she replies, "Just like in Bitter Sweet." Thus, their romantic fantasies are fueled by Coward, one of the twentieth century's greatest entertainers yet also a proponent of colonialism whose works are sometimes tinged with racism. (In the most startling entry of his diaries, he cheers the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, adding that it didn't happen a moment too soon. I also defy you to listen to his song "Half Caste Woman" without cringing.) And there are Chris' memories of traveling with his father to Germany and staying on the Wannsee Lake, which, Chris frets, might cause his father to be seen as less than patriotic, as that is where, a year after the events of the play, Nazi officials would meet to plan the Final Solution. Chris recalls a set of visitors from Germany telling him, "Brilliant the way your grandfather divided this town; the placement of the White, Colored signs. He knew coloreds should not have paved roads, should not have tombstones, and should have to go to the post office to pick up their mail. Should be forbidden to try on clothing at Smith's Department Store."

Closer to home, we learn that Kay's father, Charles, was a white man, a close friend of Harrison's; this relationship ruined the life of Kay's mother, Mary, who either killed herself or was found dead, depending on who is talking. As Kay's grandmother reminds her, "Your father would look away, but his mother would look at you like she was going to kill you right there on Main Street." (It is the relationship between Charles and Mary that is alluded to in the play's title.) Charles was a writer of perhaps dubious success. When he died young, one of his books was installed in the town library -- a comment that prompts Chris to recall how, on their trip to Germany, "they discussed the library on Main Street many times and how colored were strictly forbidden to enter." Also, the Aherne family mansion, built in the 1860s, has devolved into a ruin with one remaining usable room, "and now [Harrison] lets colored live there," Chris notes.

With these and dozens of additional details, Kennedy painstakingly creates a landscape of inequality and oppression over which has been applied a veneer of civility and manners. Black and white, past and present, good and evil are tied together, inextricably, like strands of DNA. Taken individually, each of the play's passages haunts, but one should be prepared for the fact that the piece has virtually no narrative motor, and, at a running time of forty-five minutes, it's over almost before it begins. The only events, such as they are, are Kay's train ride, which, later on, is joined by Harrison -- a fact that may or may not have anything to do with the play's abrupt, violent finale. In many ways, the play is a theatricalized piece of prose, an expansion of the poem "Forget." If you go into it knowing this, you stand a better chance of not being blindsided by Kennedy's singular dramatic approach.

Evan Yionoulis' direction maintains an almost spectral tone and she gets strong performances from newcomer Juliana Canfield as Kay and Tom Pecinka as Chris. (The moment when Pecinka quietly approaches Canfield and silently takes her hand leaves the theatre in a hush; one understands exactly how transgressive the gesture is, and one holds one's breath for fear of what will come of it.) At times, however, the staging could do more to clarify the text, which remains stubbornly elusive, even confusing at times. At one point, Pecinka takes on the additional role of Harrison, manipulating a life-size puppet, a device that isn't immediately evident. Austin Switser's video design floods the set with imagery, but not always in the service of clarity. A set of images establishes that Kay and Harrison are on a train, but it's not instantly obvious that she is in the train's Jim Crow section (although one might infer that). Other images are so crowded and projected so fleetingly that they are hard to make out. After a while, they become distracting. The accurate-feeling period costumes, by Montana Levi Blanco; the sensitively rendered lighting, by Donald Holder; and the music and sound design (including news broadcasts, period songs like "Moonlight Serenade," and gunshots), by Justin Ellington, are all beautifully done -- but I wonder if Christopher Barreca's set, a multilevel affair with a towering staircase in the center, might not be simply too much for a play as intimate as this.

Nevertheless, Kennedy remains one of the American theatre's true originals and nobody else has explored this dramatic terrain so boldly. It's possible to leave Theatre for a New Audience these nights feeling a little unfulfilled -- but don't be surprised if, days later, you're still thinking about Kennedy's cryptic, wounding vision of blacks and whites inhabiting the same crumbling social structure, of a body politic infected with a racial virus it cannot shake off. Seeing He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box makes clear why it is little wonder that we are where we are in this country today. Faulkner's famous comment -- "The past is never dead. It's not even past" -- has rarely seemed so apt. -- David Barbour

(5 February 2018)

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