Adrienne Kennedy’s New Play of Love, Race and Puppets

Memories of her white grandfather animate the 86-year-old legend's first play in a decade.

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Juliana Canfield as Kay and Tom Pecinka as Chris in "He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box." Photos: Gerry Goldstein.

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.

Juliana Canfield as Kay.

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.

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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.

Puppet Harrison Aherne and Tom Pecinka.

Omnipresent as a life-sized mannequin, Harrison evokes the (laughable) dead body hoisted high above the stage of the Palace Theatre in the recent revival of Sunset Boulevard. But the puppet soon earns its place on stage as a living creature, for all is not laughter and light in this shadowy world. Harrison designed the residential plots, the negro cemetery, the curriculum of the school he funds, the dramatic offering that we hear recited by schoolchildren as the play begins. We learn that Harrison and members of his family traveled to Nazi Germany in the 1930s, perhaps to study race-purification laws. Chris can’t confirm this detail, but he attempts to make sense of his family legacy.

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Interestingly, Kennedy’s script doesn’t specify the use of puppetry and shadow play — these are the magnificent revelations of the design team. Christopher Barreca’s spare set, Montana Levi Blanco’s layered costumes, Donald Holder’s exquisite lighting, Justin Ellington’s evocative sound and music compositions, and Austin Switser’s video design are all guided by Evan Yionoulis’s steady directorial hand.

The direness of this distinctly American story is sweetened by the choice of numbers from Noël Coward’s operetta (and 1940 film) Bitter Sweet, from which Chris performs various numbers. The plot of Bitter Sweet centers on a young woman eloping with her music teacher; in He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, the music is an intriguing and consistent reference. As he begins his career in amateur theater in NYC and awaits the arrival of his love, Chris sings “Dear Little Café.” Another Coward tune fits Kennedy’s play thematically:

I believe the more you love a man,
The more you give your trust,
The more you’re bound to lose.
Although when shadows fall
I think if only
Somebody splendid really needed me
Someone affectionate and dear
Cares would be ended if I knew that he
Wanted to have me near.

Kennedy’s world in the hands of this director, these designers and this pair of delicate performers is mysterious and poetic — soft edges in a sad story of social engineering.