[article as originally published in The Clyde Fitch Report, January 30, 2018.]
Memories of her white grandfather animate the 86-year-old legend’s first play in a decade.
Details of her own rich biography are fodder for Adrienne Kennedy’s new, poetic theatrical work, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, running at Theatre for a New Audience. Kennedy’s birth to an uneasy blend of white and Black relatives, in Pittsburgh in 1931, provides her with images and experiences that animate her first play in a decade. Inspired by America’s foundational story of race relations, there are segregated movie theaters and segregated train stations and segregated lives. Kennedy combines this with recollections of her white maternal grandfather, who had children by various Black women, and who was at once generous in funding their educations and personally distant.
It is 1941 in a tiny Georgia town, and we meet our characters, teenagers Chris (Tom Pecinka) and Kay (Juliana Canfield), at a Black boarding school founded by Harrison, Chris’ wealthy father, portrayed by a white-faced life-sized puppet voiced by Pecinka. Without embarrassment, Chris notes the number of “my father’s Nigra children” in attendance when he’s on the school grounds. The daughter of a domestic, Kay is not only a student at the school, she also the daughter of a white man. In her playscript, Kennedy indicates this couple in love: “He is white. She is not.” Simple absolutes define the town. It is, after all, 1941 in Georgia. Chris and Kay must leave to live their love together.
A miniature version of their town, designed as if by model train enthusiasts, is on view in the theater as the audience members enter. It subtly theatricalizes the idea of a patriarch’s plaything — that patriarch, of course, being Harrison. Live camera work is projected in the theater throughout the play, taking us further into a world of segregated waiting rooms and restrooms and water fountains. The model of the town, appearing in closeups, illuminates the romance of rail travel as well. Trains transport Kay’s mother, Mary, to a distant cousin and a mysterious death (her heart was carried back home in a green box by her married white lover). Trains take Chris to his future as a performer in New York.