Both a doomed love story from our nation’s past and a devastating metaphoric look into the darkest soul of its present, Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box occupies the still-bleeding, still-gaping edges of the rift that is America’s racial history. The play, directed with a steely clarity by Evan Yionoulis, is elegiac and retrospective, yet eerily, heartbreakingly prescient as well. Set in the small Georgia town of Montefiore in 1941, under the shadow of a world war that is just about to engulf America, He Brought Her Heart shows the fumbling, naive love of two seventeen-year-olds. Kay (Juliana Canfield), illegitimate daughter of a white man and a black woman, is a student at a country boarding school for black children. Chris (Tom Pecinka), white son of one of the town elders, is doing some work for his father in the school storeroom; he’s watched Kay from afar for some time, and takes this opportunity to press his suit.
But their respective family legacies press down on them; their memories and histories don’t just doom their relationship, but stand between them, casting an immutable shadow over any genuine personal connection they could forge–which the play doesn’t even try to build; their romance is a gossamer construction, built out of inchoate yearning more than any solid emotion. There is no escaping their individual or collective past, and their naive plans to run away together to New York, where Chris will pursue an acting career and Kay will finish school and they will marry, and move to Paris when the war is over, can only be viewed through the lens of all the weight and freight of the past.
Chris’s father, Harrison Aherne, has three acknowledged black children, with three different mothers, all dead, all buried in the colored cemetery that bears his family name–the Aherne Garden. He was also the architect or urban planner of the segregated town of Montefiore–where mail is only delivered on the white side of town, where the idea that language can be used to humiliate is baked into the geography. Chris’s mother could never comprehend her husband’s attraction to, or affection for, the black women with whom he bore children, nor stand his good treatment of those children (to her endless chagrin and mortification, he buys them clothes “almost as nice as” the ones he buys his legitimate son; the play is full of these small, telling details that limn the oppressiveness of the day-to-day Jim Crow South). Kay’s mother, Mary, only fifteen years old, fled north hoping to marry and bring Kay to Ohio, but was dead in a matter of months, with contradictory stories swirling around the manner of her death. Kay’s never-quite-acknowledged white father, Charles, hated her so much he couldn’t stand to see her around town.
And as much as they dream of making a life together, even as Kay rides a long lonely train north to marry and Chris makes his way on the stage, they speak of the past more than the future. How did Mary really die? Why did Harrison have admiring visitors from Germany in the years before the war, and take his son to Germany on vacation? How much did Charles have to do with Mary’s death? (The title of the play comes from a gruesome story circulating in Montefiore about Charles.)
Unlike most of Kennedy’s work, He Brought Her Heart is mostly linear, mostly concerned with a single narrative and unitary characters–but like most of her work, it’s preoccupied with the circularity of time, with the impossibility of disentangling the present from the past and the stories we tell from the core of our identity. And in that way, it speaks powerfully to the present: to the legacy of Jim Crow and simmering racial hatred; to the impossibility of escaping the actions of our forebears; to the fragility of hope for a better, more just life for Montefiore’s, and America’s, black citizens and the heartbreak of seeing those dreams dashed over and over. Presided over by a (deeply unsettling) mannequin of Harrison Aherne, whose role grows from silent onlooker to integral participant, the play is poignant but also filled with frustration and grief. Kay and Chris are people who have almost nothing in common, nothing to say to each other, no real relationship other than their shared but unequal history; they act out the same tragedy that their forebears have, hoping for happier results. It’s equally unsatisfying to say their love is possible or impossible; they can’t be together and the play’s strength is the clarity with which it looks that truth in the eye.
Both actors smartly lean in to the period aspects of the piece, giving both a sort of mannered diction that evokes the films of the period to which the play alludes (Noel Coward’s Bitter Sweet in particular) and a kind of generic American history that underscores the historical setting.
Yionoulis and set designer Christopher Barreca (with video designer Austin Switser) make really smart, interesting use of the vertical space inside the Polonsky Shakespeare Center; the central scenic element, where much of the action occurs, is a three-story staircase bisected by a railingless balcony. The balcony marks one of the only times Kay and Chris are actually together–when they speak for the first time in the wings of the school play (a piece by Christopher Marlowe that recurs later). For most of the piece, they’re engaged to be married but physically separated, telling the stories from their different locales that will destine and also foreclose on their being together. And for much of the piece, too, Chris is on the stairs or balcony with Kay on the floor below, reenacting the geography of status that they can’t escape. It’s no wonder that when they’re finally reunited, they run all the way to the top of the staircase.
There isn’t really any emotional anchor to Chris and Kay’s relationship, yet the sweetness of their yearning is the most hopeful thing in the play–they want to live in the world where their relationship is possible. So do we all, and yet what Kennedy manages to illuminate most clearly is how impossible that still feels. The specter of Harrison Aherne, of Jim Crow, of Nazi Germany, of hatred and despair–all of this feels as present and relevant as it possibly could. And the inequality baked into even the respective family tragedies of Chris and Kay shows how great the gulf between them, and how difficult it is to look past our past. Chris is puzzled and hurt by his father’s affection for the “colored” women who bore his children; his family lost some money in the Depression and their ancestral family home is falling to ruin and lived in by the relatives of his illegitimate siblings. Kay is an orphan whose mother was possibly murdered, she was deliberately humiliated and treated as inhuman her entire life, her father’s family loathes her, and Chris’s family built the town to enshrine inequality. How can they ever have an honest conversation, let alone a true relationship?
The literal structures and laws that segregated America may have been overturned, but in Kennedy’s searing vision, we see psychic, narrative, and metaphorical wounds far from healed. The real tragedy of the play is how urgent it feels.
He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box runs to February 11, 2018. More production info can be found here.