Thursday, February 8, 2018

He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box - The Many Shades of Racial History

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Shadows of the past run long and deep, and breaking free to find your own way is not as easy as it may seem. A point Adrienne Kennedy makes clear in her absolutely brilliant new one-act work, He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, now at Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

In June of 1941, in the small town of Montefiore, Georgia, seventeen year-old Chris Aherne (Tom Pecinka), is making plans to leave his home and heritage forever. A heritage inexorably tied to racial inequality and the Jim Crow laws. His father Harrison (Pecinka), and grandfather, both successful businessmen, implemented the segregation system for the town – from the placement of “White” and “Colored” signs, to determining by skin color which group of people should live where. Chris however, plans to leave all this behind. Having just buried his mother, he’s about to head to New York to fulfill his dream of acting on the stage. But first he has come to the local Boarding School for Coloreds, founded by his father, to pledge his love to Kay (Juliana Canfield), a girl his own age that he has known all his life. Born of mixed-race parentage – her father was white – and having deep feelings for Chris, Kay accepts his proposal.

While these two young people would like nothing more than a beautiful future together, Chris in particular dreaming of living in Paris after the war in Europe concludes, both face constant personal reminders of the racism that permeates their society. Harrison for example, sired several children of color over the years. He often treating them, in the eyes of Chris’ late mother, better than his legal wife and son. As for Kay, she was born when her mother was only 15. She depositing Kay with relatives soon after the delivery and departing for Cincinnati, where she died under mysterious circumstances shortly thereafter.

He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box is not simply a linear story, nor does it center only around Kay and Chris. Kennedy came up with the concept from notes and clippings in her mother’s scrapbook, and her mom’s own racial experiences while growing up. These memories, and the images they evoke are brilliantly laid bare on stage, as the work opens a window to a time where Whites and Blacks rode in separate train cars, sat in different sections on buses, and drank from different water fountains. Images and memories coming alive to haunt the two would-be-lovers who dare to believe things will be different for them.

At one point it’s noted that both Kay and Chris’ fathers thought they could do whatever they wanted to in regards to colored women. They both being so powerful, people were afraid to do anything. Both men’s legal wives carrying a great deal of bitterness towards their philandering husbands, the women with whom they had relations, and the children born as a result.

As Kennedy and the entire technical team clearly understand, the best way to make a point is not to hit your audience over the head with a message time and again; but rather introduce it slowly and subtly until it envelopes those watching almost without their knowing it. The story weaving together references to past tragedies and actions, with the few attempts at showing something perhaps softer, such as Harrison’s half-hearted attempts to play a role in his illegitimate family’s life, not met with understanding by Chris or acknowledged by Kay. In one of the play’s more backhanded compliments, Chris notes that not only did his dad found the town’s colored cemetery, but he also ordered tombstones for the mothers of his Negro children. Chris pointing out that those women are the only people in that particular graveyard to have tombstones. It’s also interesting to note that, for all the love he has for Kay, Chris seems to have no particular problem with the racial situation as it currently exists in Montefiore. He wanting to leave town for his own personal reasons, not because he is rebelling against segregation as it currently exists there.

Pecinka and Canfield do a great job in their respective roles. Pecinka making Chris, if not a truly likeable character, at least one completely understandable. A boy trying to be his own man, but far too accepting in what has come before. A habit he would probably continue to follow as time goes on, simply because it’s easier. Canfield is excellent as she switches from a young woman about to start a new life with the man she loves, to someone nearly crushed by familial memories. From start to finish, the atmosphere is thick with an ominous feeling of dread. Further stacking the deck in this regard are references to the dramatic Bitter Sweet and Paris Massacre (the latter also known as The Massacre at Paris), both of which depict events which do not end happily.

Even the lighting effects (an excellent job by Donald Holder), do more to call attention to the overall gloom, rather than dispel it. Evan Yionoulis’s direction is nothing short of superlative here, taking all the various elements - including the strong sound design work by Justin Ellington - and making them come together in a quiet clash of power. Lording over the entire story is Christopher Barreca’s muted set of staircases and doors that help to accentuate the bleakness that permeates the story from the first moment to the last.

Brilliantly presented on every level, He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box offers a sobering reminder of a period in our nation’s history where many people preferred to either continue the status quo, or make only a token resistance to it. Rather than strive for anything resembling real or lasting change.

Featuring: Juliana Canfield (Kay), Tom Pecinka (Chris/Harrison Ahern).

He Brought Her Heart Back In A Box

Written by Adrienne Kennedy
Scenic Designer: Christopher Barreca
Costume Designer: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting Designer: Donald Holder
Composer/Sound Designer: Justin Ellington
Video Designer: Austin Switser
Hair & Makeup Designer: Cookie Jordan
Properties Supervision: Noah Mease
Voice & Dialect Coach: Beth McGuire
Dramaturg: Jonathan Kalb
Production Stage Manager: Cole Bonenberger
Assistant Stage Manager: Shane Schnetzler
Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth
Casting: Jack Doulin + Sharky
General Manager: Michael Page
Press Representative: Blake Zidell & Associates
Directed by Evan Yionoulis

Presented by Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Tickets: 866-811-4111 or
Running time: 50 minutes, no intermission
Closes: February 11, 2018

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