Wednesday, January 31, 2018

150 (2017-2018): HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX (seen January 29, 2018)

"Writing Outside the Box"

The much-honored, Cleveland-raised Adrienne Kennedy, biracial author of such structurally challenging, quasi-autobiographical, racially sensitive plays as Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) and A Rat’s Mass (1970), once declared: “My plays are meant to be states of mind.”
Tom Pecinka, Juliana Canfield. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Audiences at the 86-year-old Kennedy’s latest work, He Brought Her Heart Back in Box, now in production by Theatre for a New Audience at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, should, therefore, be prepared to experience various states of mind. Some will be poetic, elegiac, dreamlike, and reminiscent. Others, though, will be lethargic, monotonous, confused, and cloudy.
Julian Canfield, Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
As in other Kennedy works, this 45-minute one-act set in the Jim Crow era—and given a visually striking staging by Evan Yionoulis—concerns issues of racial identity, segregation, male sexual malfeasance, the children born of such behavior, the obstacles to biracial romantic relationships, and violence. These topics are embedded in a mostly undramatic, disjointed narrative—reflective of Kennedy’s mother’s experiences—performed by two fine, young actors, Juliana Canfield and Tom Pecinka.
Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Canfield plays Kay, the light-skinned offspring of a white southerner and black mother, only 15 when she became pregnant. Kay’s a student at the town’s school for “colored” children, founded by Harrison Aherne, the white, wealthy, peach-growing father of the handsome Chris Aherne, played by Pecinka. Jim Crow, of course, prevents these youngsters from pursuing their mutual affection. 

Several of the school’s children are Harrison’s own mixed-race children by black women who work for him. The elder Aherne is represented by a white, articulated, life-sized puppet, dressed in a suit and sitting lifelessly until manipulated and voiced by Pecinka.
Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
The principal locale is the fictional, peach-growing town of Montefiore, Georgia—Kennedy has family roots in Montezuma, Georgia—whose layout we view in the form of a highly detailed group of model buildings and streets laid out for the entering audience to examine before taking its seats.
Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Christopher Barreca’s impressive set places us in the basement of the aforementioned school in June 1941. Several chairs sit on the open space of the basement floor, at the upstage end of which are two brick towers separated by an extensive stairway of at least 30 steps running to a very high set of stained glass-paneled doors. A horizontal bridgeway forms a landing midway up where several scenes transpire.
Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Donald Holder provides exquisite lighting, Montana Levi Blanco has designed lovely period garments, Austin Switser offers extensive video images, and Justin Ellington creates moodily effective background music and sound. It’s hard not to feel, though, that seldom has so much been done in the service of so little.
Juliana Canfield. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
While Montefiore remains the scenic anchor, the play, set on the eve of American involvement in World War II, also includes moments at Atlanta University, from whence Kay writes to Chris, and New York, where Chis has gone to become an actor. While it’s unclear if this is also in 1941, we see him in Noël Coward’s romantic operetta Bitter Sweet, singing in an old-fashioned tenor the score’s now mostly forgotten “Dear Little Café.” 

On the other hand, this may be fantasy, as the script’s references to Bitter Sweet are to the 1940 film version, which both Chris and Kay mention seeing, she from the balcony seats reserved for colored people. (Note: Bitter Sweet, about a woman’s ill-fated marital choice, moved to Broadway from London in 1929 and was seen again only in a brief 1934 revival; it introduced the now standard “Ziguneur” and “I’ll See You Again,” which Chris will also sing.)
Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Also coursing through the play on their own trajectory are speeches from Christopher Marlowe’s barely-known, 1593, Elizabethan tragedy The Massacre at Paris (called Paris Massacre by Kennedy). That play, about the bloody antagonism of the Catholics and Huguenots in 16th-century France, was chosen by Harrison Aherne to be performed by the schoolchildren for “reasons unknown,” according to a stage direction.
Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
For all its vagueness, the play’s speeches—a good number of them epistolary and thus spoken to the air—are less densely packed with obscure imagery than earlier Kennedy writing; a relatively straightforward, if fragmented, narrative informs much of its body. The content generally refers to family matters—including exposition regarding Kay’s mother, the bloody circumstances of whose death are left fuzzy but supply the play’s evocative title.

Jim Crow conditions are alluded to, of course, but nothing especially illuminating about them is expressed. The actors' cool, even-toned delivery of the lines prevents them from ripping deeply into the emotions these experiences might normally provoke, thus leaving the audience to respond intellectually but not on a gut level. 

These conditions are also related to Chris’s father’s involvement with a trip to Berlin in 1934 that suggests Nazi interest in Harrison’s segregationist practices. Added to these incompletely explored elements is a final moment that occurs right after Pearl Harbor; while theatrically powerful, it only opens another can of worms for the intrepid academics who will henceforth attempt to explicate it.
Juliana Canfield, Tom Pecinka. Photo: Gerry Goodstein.
Adrienne Kennedy’s plays are an acquired taste, which is why they’re more often discussed in college classrooms than produced on professional stages. However, this production does as much as any to make the heart of her work accessible, even if that heart is defiantly outside the box.


Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn, NY
Through February 11