PRINT April 2018



Adrienne Kennedy, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, 2018. Performance view, Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, New York, January 17, 2018. Kay (Juliana Canfield) and Chris (Tom Pecinka). Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

IN HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX, Adrienne Kennedy’s first new play in a decade, the titular heart is a gruesome rumor—one that holds a truth too unwieldy, too excruciating, to be simply received as fact. As one of the most important experimentalists in American theater, the eighty-six-year-old playwright has written twenty-odd works at once cerebral and unhinged, phantasmagoric and lucid, all of which make vivid the brutalities visited by racism on the mind and body of a woman of color. Throughout her work, it is a condition that leaves madness and monsters in its wake.The mind fractures under its duress; selfhood is reduced to hearsay.Her characters are often begotten, and ill-begotten, of characters in the stories they’re told, as well as in those they tell: In Kennedy’s debut, the Obie Award-winning Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964), a girl called Negro-Sarah finds herself shattered into four famous figures: Patrice Lumumba, Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Hapsburg, and Jesus. In A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White (1976), the inner life of Clara, a pregnant black woman who yearns to be a writer and find true love, is played out as imaginary scenes from films starring Bette Davis, Marlon Brando, Shelley Winters, and Montgomery Clift. Suzanne Alexander, the writer at the center of She Talks to Beethoven (1989), converses with the composer while she anxiously awaits news of her disappeared husband.

In Kennedy’s latest, which had its world premiere in January with Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, she tells the terrible tale of Chris and Kay (played with great delicacy and warmth by Tom Pecinka and Juliana Canfield, respectively), star-crossed seventeen-year-olds whose fate the playwright foreshadows in a character description that falls like an ax: “He is white. She is not.” The year is 1941, and the place is their hometown, Montefiore, Georgia. At play’s open, the sweethearts meet and talk to each other for the first time, and decide to marry. Just as quickly, Kay leaves for Atlanta University, and Chris for New York, where he pursues a life in theater. Theirs is an epistolary romance, the lovers largely communicating to each other in letters delivered as monologue after monologue. The form quarantines them from each other, separates them in time and space.

Hearsay, rumor, old wives’ tales: These are the destabilizing forms that express unspeakable loss, reckoning the unknowable with the unthinkable.

Kay and Chris aren’t finely wrought characters; they’re ciphers, burnished urns for memories the playwright’s mother shared with her. (Kennedy’s works have always been principally autobiographical.) In their letters, they reveal almost nothing of their present lives, sharing instead their family histories—horrific tales of segregation, violence, murder. Under the astute direction of Evan Yionoulis, and buoyed by both Christopher Barreca’s grand set and Austin Switser’s stunning video designs, they speak to each other in the singsong Southern drawl of classic Hollywood, which glazes the sinister facts of their lives with dissonant saccharine. Chris genteelly recalls the words spoken to him by a mysterious German man who came to visit when Chris was a boy: “‘Brilliant the way your grandfather divided this town; the placement of the White, Colored signs. . . . He understands history. He understands the devastation of the human spirit.’”

Performance view of Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, 2018. Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, New York, January 17, 2018. Chris (Tom Pecinka). Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

The men in his family dealt in the devastation of bodies, too. In Kennedy’s tale, women of color are tender prey for the Southern gentleman-predator; she who gives birth to a child by a white man inevitably ends up dead. Chris’s father, Harrison Aherne, built a special cemetery in which to bury the mothers of his “colored children.” “They are the only Nigra women in Montefiore to have tombstones on their graves,” Chris says, though this fact, pitched as proof of papa’s noble heart, instead makes the elder sound like a serial killer collecting souvenirs. Kay’s father is white; her mother, who was not, died at the age of fifteen, either having been murdered or having committed suicide, after abandoning her infant daughter and fleeing Georgia for Ohio. Racism being the terminal illness of the American character, the death of Kay’s mother—whether by her own hand or by the hand of another—may be understood as a lynching.“I believe my daughter’s heart was in a box he had,” Kay remembers her grandmother telling the girl about her father. “I believe he killed her and he might kill you.”

Hearsay, rumor, old wives’ tales: These are the destabilizing forms that express unspeakable loss, reckoning the unknowable with the unthinkable. This play, like so much of Kennedy’s writing, takes stock of stories as both birthright and burden, as weight and warning for an unsettled future. Inheritance is also one of the threads spiraling through the playwright’s stately, brilliant memoir, People Who Led to My Plays (1987), which writer and critic Margo Jefferson has described as “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman Whom the Culture Did Not Consider a Potential Artist.” The book is an “Encyclopedia of Myself” of sorts, collecting and arranging shards of memories to trace Kennedy’s path from childhood to the dawning of her career. Those figures and figments who’d once helped to define her—family, teachers, friends, music idols, literary heroes, movie stars, and more—are now in their turn defined, narrated, by her:

My mother: Her china cabinets and hatboxes. There is beauty in order.

Chekhov, Dante, Virgil and the Bible: Over and over I copied passages from them, studying the language and the rhythms.

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (after seeing their movies): Gracefulness must be sought. It’s possible the sublime could exist in your daily life.

Writing on Beethoven and Hatshepsut:

I’d often stare at the statue of Beethoven I kept on the left-hand side of my desk. I felt it contained a “secret.” I’d do the same with the photograph of Queen Hatshepsut that was on the wall. I did not then understand that I felt torn between these forces of my ancestry . . . European and African . . . a fact that would one day explode in my work.

Performance view of Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, 2018. Theatre for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Brooklyn, New York, January 17, 2018. Chris (Tom Pecinka) and Kay (Juliana Canfield). Photo: Gerry Goodstein.

For Kennedy, descending from two traditions gives a woman of color two wells from which to draw her vitality, her spirits, but these waters—acidified by racial hatred—can also carve deep chasms around and within her. Torn between these forces of her ancestry, she will still aspire to be part of a culture bent toward her erasure. She will still find ego ideals in the cinema and literature created by those who did not imagine a place for women of color that was not one of servitude, of humiliation.

Despite all horrors pointing to the contrary, Kay believes that she and Chris will marry and live happily ever after. “Just like in Bitter Sweet,” she softly exclaims to him, referring to the Noël Coward operetta in which he’s acting in a small New York theater. Later in the play, she sings one of its syrupy songs while sitting in the Jim Crow car on a train.

We’ll have a sweet little café
In a neat little square
We’ll find our fortune
And our happiness there

In a tragedy, love will always be a death sentence. Although Kennedy does not give her characters a happy ending, she does let them believe that they are writing a new fate for themselves until they breathe their last. Perhaps it never mattered whether or not their story would come true. Perhaps what mattered was that it gave them something to hold on to while the world spun out around them.

Jennifer Krasinski is a senior editor of Artforum.