Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Adrienne Kennedy's He Brought Her Heart Back In a Box

Adrienne Kennedy's (1931-) published plays, all of them, unfold according to the logic of dreams. Striking imagery and language, juxtaposition and jump-cuts in time, associative connections between characters, scenarios, moments, actions, and uncanny instances of personae and scenes split into multiples, or recombined in unexpected ways appear in various forms in her work, from her brilliant debut, Funnyhouse of a Negro (1960), to her most recent play, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box (2018). Avant-garde from the beginning, Kennedy's plays nevertheless are anything but formalist or art-for-art's sake; her source material, evident in all of them, is her life experiences, and those of her relatives and friends, as well as the social, political and cultural histories in which those experiences have played out, transmuted into art via her profound interior vision. The result has been dramatic works that are deeply unsettling and unforgettable, like vivid nightmares.

Her newest play, which is making its debut at the Theater for a New Audience, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, is no slouch in this regard. He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is the 86-year-old Kennedy's first new play in 10 years, and the product of her move, roughly half a dozen years ago, to the Williamsburg, Virginia area, to live with her son, Adam Kennedy, a sometime-collaborator with her, and other family members, as she confided to reporter Alexis Soloski in a recent New York Times report. Though she purportedly detests the sleepy atmosphere and the town's insistent Southern historical pageantry, especially after decades of living in New York City, she penned the play in only six weeks, in a fit of rage, and includes in her inserted program notes the following acknowledgement:
"This play. Could not
have been written
without the room
Facing the trees and the
iPad given to me by my
son Adam Kennedy
And his wife Renee in
their house on the lane.
Kennedy's play is brief as full of life as a budding seed. It officially runs 45 minutes, but gave me the feeling, when I saw it, of being both far briefer and yet, because of the style, form and language, of being longer. He Brought Back Her Heart in a Box is loosely based on the author's mother's accounts of family lore, and takes place primarily in June 1941 in fictional Montefiore, Georgia, and New York. Kennedy's white grandfather owned peach orchards near Montezuma, Georgia, and the play transforms him into the town's white patriarch, Harrison Aherne. Actor Tom Pecinka, who makes his TFNA debut with this play, convincingly inhabits both Aherne, physically represented by a seated manikin whose stiff and ghostly presence looms over all the proceedings, and Harrison's grandson and heir, Chris Aherne, who develops affection for mixed race Kay, based in part on Kennedy's maternal grandmother, a 15-year-old girl who worked in the orchard, and died young, under unclear circumstances.

The conflicting stories about Kay's mother's death up north in Cincinnati are one thread. Was she killed by her white father or did she commit suicide?  Another spools out from Harrison, whom the audience learns had fathered numerous children by several Black women and even created a separate cemetery for the deceased among them, to the dismay of his white relatives. The fraught context of segregated Georgia, with its own codes for racial mixing, and a larger world descending into fascism and war, envelope everything. Kay, played expertly by recent Julliard graduate Juliana Canfield, making her professional stage debut, is a student at a boarding school African American students. When the play opens, the students are performing Christopher Marlowe's The Massacre at Paris, a bizarre request by the school's white founder. Soon enough, Chris, who has been helping out the bookkeeper, is drawn to Kay, and their shared love of literature and songs from Noel Coward's operetta Bitter Sweet, binds them together. The Marlowe play and Coward operetta, however, are not idle choices; both tell stories of ruin; slaughtered Huguenots in the former, failed love in the latter. If the viewer did not already guess that this interracial duo's fate would turn out badly, the references offer a subtle but decisive nudge.

The play proceeds not by intimate scenes between the two, but via their intercutting monologues, which represent their inner desires being vocalized, as well as the stories they have heard from relatives and the letters they exchange being read aloud, the contents offering clues to Harrison's ethos and the thrall he holds the community in, the town's history, including Kay's own white father, like Chris's father and grandfather a member of a prominent family; Chris's desire for escape to the north and plans for a life with Kay; the strange circumstances surrounding Kay's mother's pregnancy, illness and untimely passing; and Chris and Kay's own dreams for their future, which includes settling in Paris, where, they imagine, they will truly be free. Director Evan Yionoulis keeps the pacing swift, while also allowing for those moments where Kennedy's poetry, or Chris's singing, or President Roosevelt on the radio, needs the space and time to root and beguile.

In Kennedy's singular memoir, People Who Led to My Plays (1987), the reader learns of the veil of silence Kennedy's beautiful, mysterious mother drew around her own mother, as well as the well of melancholy and sadness that sat at the center of her heart. While He Brought Her Heart Home in a Box does not resolve the enigmas the memoir raises, it does dramatize the racial, gendered and class power dynamics and the resulting traumas that early 20th century South inflicted on its black residents, and its white ones. The local racism and racial domination, Kennedy suggests, parallels the Nazi regime in  Germany and Austria. What the play also underscores is how power marks everything. The limits Kay, as a young black woman, faces are quite different from Chris's, as is his awareness and intermittent acknowledgement of his considerable privilege, but the desire for each other and a less constrained future is one they both share. That they do not speak or sing, as each does at various points, directly to each other for most of the play is the material correlative to the social and racial divide between them, and yet they do reach each other. Determined to halt anything that contravenes local white custom and his own control of this world, Harrison Aherne finally takes the most violent step possible, in a concluding moment that erupts as only a staged work can, ending with the two main characters walking slowly backwards down a high staircase, as if a vintage, sepia 16 mm film were being run in reverse. To call it a breathtaking finale hardly does it justice.

The set, designed by Christopher Barreca, consists of two levels, one the main stage and above it, at one end, a balcony, below a wall, split by that high staircase, which leads up to a door that could be the exit from the train tracks below or a portal out of this particular hell. The wall becomes a space for projections: the black children's choir, a gun, and more. On the main stage, four chairs rim the periphery, evoking both a train station and the isolated rooms in which Kay and Chris find themselves. The high stairwell and walls doubles as a film screen, with racing train tracks filling it at various points, again signifying the distances between Kay and Chris, as well as Chris's move to New York City, and ultimately Paris. Yet the dummy version of Harrison is always hovering nearby, including at the end, preventing any real escape or changes to the landscape he has long presided over. His silent patriarchal shadow, which has menaced every word uttered, rises, by pulleys, and, devastatingly for the characters and audience, demonstrates that patriarchy, then as now, intends to have the final say.

One unexpected but curious component of the play was a beautiful scale model version of the town of Montefiore, as Chris's father would have constructed it, which sat in a hallway a level up from the main stage. I almost wished there had been a way to project images of this, in holographic form, above the play before it began and after it had concluded. (I thought I took pictures of the model, but I unaccountably forgot to.) Many thanks to my former student Darise, who alerted me to the play's run, and to my other former students Aarthi and Angela, three very talented writers whom I attended the play with. I now want to read the play in print form, and see it again. Adrienne Kennedy did not attend, so I hope TFNA taped it, and will allow it to run on TV or the internet, soon. You can find much more information about Adrienne Kennedy, including an interview with brilliant young playwright Branden Jenkins-Jacobs; critic Alicia Solomon's reading of the play; and more, here.

 The play runs through February 11, so if you are in New York, do not miss it!

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