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It’s June 1941, a dark, terrifying time in world history. Soon Hitler will abruptly break the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, sending Nazi troops to attack the USSR. Less than six months later, on December 7, Japan, nominally at peace with the U.S., will bombard and destroy the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor. Meantime, in the quiet backwater of Montefiore, Georgia, the students of a colored-only boarding school are performing, at the inexplicable behest of the school’s white founder, Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, a rarely produced 1593 work that enshrines another historic betrayal: the slaughter of France’s Huguenots by the Catholic monarchy’s troops, urged on by the Machiavellian Duke of Guise. But wait: This is not the main substance of Adrienne Kennedy’s new play, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, but merely a few bare strands from the thickly knotted web of its background. When these motifs are introduced, the play — small, brief (45 minutes), gnomic, and darkly mysterious — has hardly started its astonishing journey.
Welcome to the mind of Adrienne Kennedy, the poet who refracts all of world history and its attendant cultural artifacts through the prism of the American shame, racism, and the personal agonies it has visited on generations of individuals. Winston Churchill — who is cited in the script as knowing friends of one of Montefiore’s leading citizens — said that winning the war against Hitler would demand “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” Every line of Kennedy’s piece, now being premiered by Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, is drenched in blood and tears, and toil and sweat are never far from its surface. But unlike Churchill’s war, Kennedy’s unremitting battle against the outrages of the racist past has no happy outcome. The evil persists; human betrayal and destructiveness are irrevocably bound up with human love.
Culture brings at least temporary surcease. In other Kennedy plays, her heroines converse with Queen Victoria or with Beethoven; they seek romantic advice from Anne Boleyn or hear Bette Davis voicing their innermost thoughts. The young lovers of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Kay (Juliana Canfield) and Chris (Tom Pecinka), share a fondness for poetry and for the sweet romantic songs of Noel Coward’s 1930 operetta, Bitter Sweet, MGM’s soupy film version of which, starring Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, was one of the big hits of 1940. But culture’s respites are only temporary. It shouldn’t escape notice that Bitter Sweet is a story of doomed love — as is, for that matter, The Massacre at Paris.
The doom that hangs over Kay and Chris, and seemingly over all of Montefiore, goes back generations. The town, much of which was built by Chris’s father, an architect, and grandfather, is sharply divided between white and black. But it is also the kind of small Southern town in which the groups are closely interrelated, and everybody knows who was the father or grandfather of whom. Kay is of mixed race; her father, like Chris’s parents, belonged to one of the town’s leading white families. “Your father and Harrison Aherne [Chris’s father] did just as they pleased with colored women,” Kay’s maternal grandmother has told her. “People were afraid of them.”
We don’t meet the earlier generations — apart from Aherne himself, somewhat awkwardly represented in Evan Yionoulis’s production by a life-size puppet. Instead, we hear fragments of their conversation, recollected by Kay or Chris, sometimes at two or three removes (for example, Kay’s grandmother remembering things she had been told Kay’s father’s mother had said). Convoluted and disjointed, the story hides deep within the dialogue. At times, it seems to embody the whole history of the post-slavery South, with its weird combination of insisting on the races’ irrevocable separateness while openly admitting their closeness, accepting the contradiction as a divinely ordained, unchanging law. Chris’s father, who planned the town’s segregated layout, has also personally built and landscaped a cemetery for its nonwhite population, providing burial plots for the mothers of Chris’s mixed-race half-siblings. “He bought them tombstones,” Chris reminds Kay. “They are the only Nigra women in Montefiore to have tombstones on their graves.”
Kay’s mother has not been so generously treated. Spurned by her white sexual partner and his family, and maltreated by her mother, she fled to start a new life up north in Cincinnati a few days after Kay’s birth, and shortly afterward ended up dead. The play’s title refers to the rumor that Kay’s father tracked her down and murdered her; an alternative story asserts that she shot herself. Kay will never get the chance to learn the truth. She and Chris elect to meet in New York and marry, but their dream of settling cosily in Paris after the war (embodied in Bitter Sweet’s song “Dear Little Café”) remains, like that of Bitter Sweet’s lovers, tragically unfulfilled, as the brief evening’s violent ending makes clear.
Perhaps the phrase “makes clear” is misleading. Kennedy’s text, thickly packed and fascinating, is extremely hard to decipher, jittering its way from one event to another as it veers through various modes of writing: simple dialogue, personal reflection, recollected storytelling, exchanges of letters. Floods of imagery, embodied at TFANA in video projections by Austin Switser, track through its stage directions, evoking the era and the place in poetic free association. In addition to its multilayered emotional history, the play is piled high with cultural referents — from Aeneas encountering Dido’s ghost in the underworld to Frank Sinatra singing “I’ll Never Smile Again.” The effect is unnerving and dizzying, guaranteed — as Kennedy’s plays are always guaranteed — to trouble the mind for weeks on end.
Whether Yionoulis has made the best selection from the crowded bazaar of images that Kennedy’s text offers is hard to say. The gigantic staircase at the center of Christopher Barreca’s set, inspired by a repeated stage direction in the script, sometimes proves an obstacle to the fluidity this dreamlike, nightmarish piece seems to require. Canfield and Pecinka acquit themselves touchingly (and he sings the Coward songs with good style), but the staging often keeps them apart not just physically, as the text demands, but emotionally, widening a gap that we should feel their love bridging. Still, to disagree with Yionoulis’s choices is not to say that anyone else could easily have found better ones. This simple 45-minute play is one of the most challenging texts I’ve ever encountered. Whatever one thinks of the production, or ultimately of the play itself, to have put it onstage in a way that makes its power graspable by audiences is in itself a very large achievement. It will probably arouse a fair amount of querulousness, puzzlement, and complaint from people who like their theatrical events facile, snappy, and untroubling. But He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box offers more, in its brevity, than most of the rather empty “full evenings” that our theaters generally supply.