REVIEW: “He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box”

REVIEW: “He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box”

Adrienne Kennedy might just be the most famous and important African American playwright you’ve never heard of—that’s because her work is more often studied than performed.  An Obie Award winner for 1964’s “Funnyhouse of a Negro”,  now 86, Ms. Kennedy’s first new play in a decade opened Tuesday night in a world premiere at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn.

He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” features an evocative title to match an equally evocative text about the horrific inescapability of history, tragedy of interracial love, and contradictions of life in the Jim Crow South; clocking in at just 45 minutes, this two-hander is a memory play, mostly consisting of letters—evidence—read aloud between two lovers in 1941 Georgia and New York. 

Chris (Tom Peckina*) is the white son of the owner of the county’s largest peach tree plantation, Harrison Aherne, who orchestrated the literal architecture of its segregated society despite fathering multiple children with black women.  Optimistic and confident, Chris has the sweets for Kay (Juliana Canfield), a poor school girl of mixed race who is haunted by the mysterious death of her mother—was it suicide or murder?  When Chris goes to New York to become an actor—vignettes of Mr. Pecinka singing light ditties of the era offer lovely and poignant moments of escapism—the two exchange letters of reminiscence before being reunited in the play’s memorable and gasp-inducing climax (no spoilers here).

For those unfamiliar (me included), density is a trademark of Ms. Kennedy’s work.  Audiences are wont to search for threads of realism or to intellectualize, struggling to make sure they don’t “miss it” or to be sure that they “understand it”.  We are to be forgiven for these habits, for more often than not, we live amidst realistic content.  Ms. Kennedy, instead, sees her plays at states of mind, packed with cultural and historical references, and brimming with music and imagery that form connections across non-linear stories easily violating the time and space continuum.  Her plays are to be experienced as much as understood, but also contain a minefield of big and provocative ideas, tinged with both rage and sentimentality.

There is little to no exposition in “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box”, only the mysterious unfolding of a decidedly dense and rich text that is a deft dialectic with historical fact and contradiction.  It is easy to understand why Ms. Kennedy’s work is so often studied by students of drama.  At a time when African American playwrights were confined to the realism of a kitchen table drama, Ms. Kennedy eschewed convention and blazed a trail through her experimental writing that often boldly addresses black female trauma.

Among the starkest kernels of thought embedded throughout “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” is the historical fact of how Nazi Germany studied the American South for lessons on how to segregate a society in a search for racial purity, and how the fictional Aherne family played a role in facilitating that pernicious exchange.  This stain on our history tragically haunts the play and the relationship of its characters.

Mr. Pecinka and Ms. Canfield, recent graduates of the Yale School of Drama, give intense and polished performances under the hand of director Evan Yionoulis, whose use of space (set design by Christopher Barreca), sound (by Justin Ellington), and video projection (by Austin Switser) combine to bring Ms. Kennedy’s text to life in surprising and powerful ways.  Though brief, this play is one likely to occupy your mind for days after seeing it.

Bottom Line: Trailblazing experimental African American playwright Adrienne Kennedy’s powerful new play, “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box”, pieces together an anatomy of interracial young love amidst 1940s Georgia, stewing in the horrific inescapability of history, the tragedy of racism, and contradictions of life in the Jim Crow South.  Dense, quick, sentimental, angry, and mysterious, this is one new work from a legend worth checking out.

*I went to high school with Mr. Pecinka, and we acted in several plays together.
He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box
Theatre for a New Audience
Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place
Brooklyn, NY 11217

Running Time: 45 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: January 30, 2018
Final Performance: February 11, 2018

tl;dr for February 5th

NOTES: “Heart and Soul” with the New York Pops

NOTES: “Heart and Soul” with the New York Pops