November 18, 2020

McCarter Presents Online Festival of “The Work of Adrienne Kennedy”; Round House Theatre’s “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” Begins Series

“HE BROUGHT HER HEART BACK IN A BOX”: Round House Theatre, in association with McCarter Theatre Center, is presenting a prerecorded video of Adrienne Kennedy’s “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box.” Directed by Nicole A. Watson, the video will be available online through February 28, 2021. Above, Kay (Maya Jackson, left) and Chris (Michael Sweeney Hammond) exchange letters that reveal disturbing family histories. (Video still courtesy of Round House Theatre)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter is partnering with the Round House Theatre (which is in Bethesda, Maryland) to present an online festival, The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence. The four-part series debuted Saturday, with Kennedy’s one-act play He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box.

In a press release, McCarter’s Artistic Director Sarah Rasmussen praises Kennedy as “an African American woman … who broke convention in the face of traditional barriers that prevented a much-deserved spotlight.” Round House Theatre’s Artistic Director Ryan Rilette adds that Kennedy’s plays are “beautiful, poetic conversations on race and power that are just as necessary now as they were fifty years ago.”

Kennedy has won multiple Obie Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement (2008). She has been commissioned by companies such as the Public Theater and the Mark Taper Forum. In 2018 she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. McCarter’s press release notes that her plays are “taught in colleges throughout the country, in Europe, India, and Africa.”

He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box depicts a young couple separated by disparate racial backgrounds, as well as distinct physical locations. Dual train rides become journeys in which each discovers the other’s troublesome past.

The play had its world premiere at Theater for a New Audience in 2018. Round House Theatre’s 2020 video production is staged by Nicole A. Watson; the director of photography is Maboud Ebrahimzadeh.

Watson’s direction gives the production the look of a staged reading. The characters, Kay and Chris, are on a bare stage, placed behind music stands. Round House Artistic Assistant Agyeiwaa Asante reads the stage directions, which establish the setting: “Montefiore, Georgia. June 1941.” The play begins in a “boarding school for colored.” A pair of hands is seen holding a model of the school building.

Kay is a 17-year-old student at the school. She is portrayed by Maya Jackson, whose performance blends a sweet earnestness with quiet but probing intensity. As the play opens, Kay is watching the school play, Christopher Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris, from the top of a stairwell.

Asante continues to read the stage directions. “The door of the storeroom opens, revealing the interior: clusters of panoramic photos … as well as piles of old books, large ‘white/colored’ signs, old desks, a radio, and two train cars: one designed for white people, one a Jim Crow car.”

Visual effects designer Kelly Coburn deftly compiles these images into a rapidly flickering collage, which has the look of a vintage film. Darron L. West’s sound design blends foreboding original music with period recordings.

“Barely visible is … a replica of Montefliore, Georgia,” Asante adds. “Emphasized on the far left of the replica is the red brick train station.” Kay holds a toy train car in her hands, while Chris holds a model of the station.

Kennedy’s script is layered and intricate. Watson’s staging reflects this, aided by Coburn’s effects. Maps and pages of books are superimposed over the characters. This is an astute visual exploration of one of the play’s themes: the extent to which the words and schemes of our ancestors become an indelible part of our existence.

When Kay is not in school she lives with her grandmother, in a house that has been bought for them by the family for whom the grandmother works as a servant. Kay’s father was a white author. Her mother, who was African American, reportedly shot herself in the head when Kay was a baby.

Chris, who is the same age as Kay, works in a building next to the school’s storeroom. We learn that his mother has just died. He also reveals that he wants to be an actor, and he is about to leave for New York. He is given a role in Noel Coward’s operetta Bitter Sweet; he already is somewhat familiar with the show, as he and Kay happen to have attended the same screening of the film version, though their seats were segregated.

Michael Sweeney Hammond’s portrayal of Chris infuses the character with a sturdy, debonair demeanor. Hammond’s performance mixes haunted introspection with an inescapable air of superiority befitting Chris’s privileged background. Hammond is haughty and slightly menacing in his dual role as Harrison.

The script states that Kay and Chris “have known each other all their lives.” Before Chris departs for New York, and Kay leaves for Atlanta University, Chris proposes; Kay accepts. Chris promises to write to her. A plot element from Bitter Sweet influences their plans, as they dream of moving to Paris.

Chris and Kay write to each other, but their letters are scarcely romantic. Instead, both characters disseminate details of their disturbing family history. What emerges is a fraught duet containing parallel monologues. We learn that when Chris was a boy he accompanied his father on a trip to Berlin, where the Germans admired America’s methods of segregation. We also catch hints that Kay’s mother’s death may have been a murder rather than a suicide.

It is this latter revelation that gives the play its title (which echoes a plot point in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Kay writes about a rumor that her father returned from a trip to Cincinnati with her mother’s heart in a box.

This is another theme that is astutely developed by the staging. As we hear Kay’s dialogue, we remember the image of the model train in her hand, and realize that the trains are boxes that, metaphorically, encase the characters’ hearts.

Kay and Chris are drawn to each other, but they are separated — both by the trains taking them to their respective physical locations, and by the culture of their time and place. We sense that their world — the American South of the 1940s, which (as a radio broadcast reveals) soon will be immersed in World War II — will not permit them to be together. This is confirmed by the play’s abrupt, violent ending.

Societal interference with Chris and Kay’s relationship is foreshadowed by the plays that Kennedy mentions and quotes. Bitter Sweet’s protagonist is a lady who is torn between her place in society (which includes a rich fiancé), and her love for a poor musician. In The Massacre at Paris, whose pithy dialogue Harrison quotes at length, there is an unlikely marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant.

Forced separation, of course, is a theme that carries heightened resonance during the pandemic. Theater companies are unable to present material for live audiences, so they are continuing to seek ways to offer material online. Watson’s production of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box is filmed as a stage presentation, but takes advantage of elements that video has to offer. A filmed production of a play, whose characters inhabit disparate cultural backgrounds, combines two distinct avenues of performance.

The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence will continue on November 21 with Sleep Deprivation Chamber (co-written with Kennedy’s son, Adam P. Kennedy); Ohio State Murders (December 5); and the world premiere of Etta and Ella on the Upper West Side (December 12).

Round House Theatre’s production of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box will be available to view online through February 28, 2021, as will the three other plays that are being presented as part of The Work of Adrienne Kennedy: Inspiration and Influence. For tickets, festival passes, and further information visit