In 1941, outside a “Boarding School for Colored” in Montefiore, Georgia, Kay (Juliana Canfield) watches as the students recite from The Paris Massacre, a play that has little relevance to their lives and was chosen by their white benefactor, Harrison Aherne. Harrison’s son, Chris (Tom Pecinka), walks up beside her. He calls her “Kay,” she calls him “Mr. Chris,” but, according to the stage directions, “There is no doubt that they are quite drawn to each other.” Kay’s mother abandoned her as a child and moved north; her body was found in a freight elevator, a victim of either murder or suicide. Chris’ father, who had a series of children with Black mistresses and then built their mothers a graveyard—“They are the only Nigra women in Montefiore to have tombstones on their graves”—may have had a hand in the death. In any case, this doesn’t deter the young lovers, who soon find themselves engaged and then separated: while Chris goes off to pursue a career on the New York stage, Kay attends Atlanta University. He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Adrienne Kennedy’s first play in ten years, mostly comprises their letters to one another. In these letters, the pair pore through their shared past—both grew up in Montefiore, a town of fewer than six hundred people—and there is a sense that the fate of this relationship has some bearing on the fate of the country as a whole. (The play ends with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.)
Those already familiar with Ms. Kennedy’s work will not expect linearity or a traditional narrative. He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is an elegiac, dream-like play, appropriately porous considering these characters will never themselves have a complete picture of the past. But Mr. Pecinka and Ms. Canfield have little chemistry, and when Chris begins telling Kay how he watches her—“I saw you a while back at the movie house … I used to see you all the time sitting under the weeping willow”—the tone is menacing rather than sweet. His father, after all, coerced Black women into his bed, and in this context, the unreturned white gaze strikes me less as the precursor to a rape rather than a loving relationship.
None of which is helped by the fact that Ms. Kennedy’s text is too unfocused. It’s all right that details are lost on the audience, but not that we get little sense of these characters as people. The Greek-tragic frame overshadows the personal here, the focus is on the broad implications rather than the granular details. So while He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box may tell us something about American then and now, it ultimately tells us little about Chris and Kaye and their ill-fated love.
He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box runs through February 11th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 45 minutes. No intermission.