Playwright Adrienne Kennedy emerged from a decade of professional silence in 2018 with He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box. That work opens a month-long digital festival devoted to her artistic legacy, coproduced by Princeton, New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre Center and Bethesda, Maryland’s Round House Theatre.
Echoes of Grimm
An influential pillar of the Black Arts Movement, Kennedy often blends surrealism and poetry with social commentary, resulting in brief, elliptical plays. He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box—which takes its title from a Grimm fairy tale and features allusions to Noël Coward and Christopher Marlowe alike—is no exception. Although it lasts a mere half hour, Kennedy packs plenty of beauty and horror into this story of an interracial love affair in the segregated South.
Nicole A. Watson’s production, filmed on Round House Theatre’s mostly bare stage, uses slick digital elements and simple, forthright acting to evoke a world both bygone and familiar. Chris (Michael Sweeney Hammond), who is white, and Kay (Maya Jackson), who is Black, have spent their whole lives in Montefiore, Georgia, where Chris’s father is responsible for creating a Jim Crow system so sweeping it earns the admiration of Nazi Germany. (Kennedy sets the play in 1941.) Although divided by racial and socioeconomic status, Chris and Kay dream of escaping to a place where they can live openly as a married couple.
Lyrical and brutal
Don’t expect a romantic comedy to emerge from this premise. Kennedy doesn’t sugarcoat racist attitudes or ignore the persistence of inequity within mixed-race relationships. Chris’s father, we learn, has sired multiple Black children, on whom he lavishes attention and presents that infuriate his white wife; he still makes them live in rundown accommodations and forbids them to enter the town’s ornate public library. Kay herself was conceived in a rape, and the meaning of Kennedy’s title becomes strikingly clear as a metaphor for the persistent commodification of Black bodies at the hands of white men.
Amid this backdrop, Chris and Kay imagine a future that Kennedy presents with equal amounts of lyricism and brutality. Her writing builds a foreboding tension that penetrates even the most tender moments, as when Kay, a co-ed at an historically Black college, writes to Chris about her school colors and the football team’s fight song. Chris, who spirits away to New York City to become an actor, writes excitedly that a minister in Harlem will perform their wedding ceremony. Life in France—where Black American entertainers like Josephine Baker and Sidney Bechet found acceptance and renown—beckons after World War II.
Kennedy never lets her audience lose sight of the pipe-dream aspect of this plan. Hammond also embodies Chris’s father, a sinister figure who haunts the periphery of the play, looming in the background over Kay’s shoulder as she rides a segregated train toward the North. And even though Chris professes his love, his language also betrays the undeniable marks of white privilege, the unconscious assurance that his status as a wealthy white scion is unassailable.
Living in Montefiore
Watson and her fine design team—cinematographer Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, editor Joshua Land, visual effects designer Kelly Colburn, and lighting designer Sherrice Mojgani—craft a production that draws the viewer into Kennedy’s painstakingly detailed Montefiore, a fictional yet universal place. Jennifer Cockerham has created miniature set pieces that the actors hold close to the camera in their hands, that reinforce the claustrophobia of small-town life. Darron L. West’s soundscape evokes the music and melody of the era, interspersed with unsettling noises that speak to the barely hidden violent subtext.
Hammond and Jackson convincingly convey the multilayered reality of their characters’ long, complicated association. In particular, Jackson effectively juxtaposes the hope and fear Kay feels when making the decision to join her fate with Chris. She does not elide the knowledge that Kay might share in the same fate as her mother, whose mysterious death still haunts the community with unanswered questions. Agyeiwaa Asante reads Kennedy’s florid stage directions with authority.
A fine line
Introducing the performance, Tony-nominated playwright Jeremy O. Harris sums up Kennedy’s style: “Adrienne takes the darkest parts of her history and looks at them not just through the prism of her dreams, but through the prism of her nightmares. She presents them for us without any judgment or fear.” This unsettling, unforgettable play certainly walks a fine line between dream and nightmare, taking power from that ambiguity
Image description: A photo from a performance of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box. A Black woman in the foreground (actor Maya Jackson) turns her head toward white actor Michael Sweeney Hammond. He smiles wistfully at her, but we can’t see her expression. He wears a white button-down shirt.
Image description: A photo from a performance of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box. A tiny model of a brick building with a black shingled roof, about six inches long, is cradled in a pair of white hands. The model building has two doors, one labeled “colored” and one labeled “white."
What, When, Where
He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box. By Adrienne Kennedy. Directed by Nicole A. Watson. The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration & Influence. Co-production of McCarter Theatre Center and Round House Theatre. Streaming through February 21, 2021. For more information, visit mccarter.org or roundhousetheatre.org.
He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is closed-captioned.