The September print issue of American Theatre contains the entire playscript of He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, Adrienne Kennedy’s lyrical, elliptical play about an interracial courtship in 1940s Georgia. In December 2017, as rehearsals began for the play’s premiere at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins spoke by phone with Kennedy from her home in Virginia.
BRANDEN JACOBS-JENKINS: First, I want to tell you how honored I am to be doing this with you. Your work has been so important to me since I first discovered it as a college student, so I feel a little bit star-struck just speaking to you right now. And when I saw the announcement that Theatre for a New Audience was doing this play, I nearly jumped out of my seat. It felt like manna from the heavens—that and the very fact you were still writing even. How long’s it been since your last production of a new play?
ADRIENNE KENNEDY: According to a couple of people, I haven’t had an original play since Mom, How Did You Meet the Beatles? That was at the Public Theater about 10 years ago.
I’d lived in Manhattan, basically, since 1950, and lived in my apartment on 89th Street for 30 years. And then I could no longer get up the steps, and the rent kept going up and up…so I came to visit my son, here in Virginia, and I never left. There’s just so many trees here.
I wasn’t expecting to write a play. Not in the least bit. I write loads and loads of journals, but somehow this play just emerged. Because I got angry—I was angry at my grandson’s high school in Virginia. It so reminded me of Ohio State in the ’50s, and that made me very angry. And—because I do keep all these notebooks, and I have loads of photographs—this play just kind of emerged.
What was going on with your grandson’s high school?
Well, there were few Black kids, and they seemed to stand out, in an uncomfortable way that I remember. I just couldn’t believe that they were going through the same thing, basically, that I went through at Ohio State. They felt very isolated.
I love stories about plays that just sort of “show up.” That’s happened to me only once maybe, but I think it’s what every writer is always praying for: the bolt of inspiration out of the blue, right? So, when you sat down and started this, was it something that emerged out of that journaling practice, or did it arrive fully formed as a play?
The room in my son’s house faces all these trees, and I’m just staring at all these trees—and I have loads of photographs. My mother kept all these photographs, and I was always working on the scrapbook that she kept when she went to University. I actually did something with that at the Hutchins Center [for African and African American Research, at Harvard] last year. I was always working on a scrapbook, I was always working on my movie stars. I tend to be, amazingly, like I was when I was 8 years old.
So I was working with all these photographs, and I found a photograph of my mother’s boarding school, at a place called Fort Valley, Ga. She talked about that boarding school constantly. It’s a very Victorian-looking boarding school. It reminded me of the Brontës. So that was a big inspiration. And I spent six summers in Georgia when I was a kid. We lived in Cleveland, but I spent six summers in Georgia, visiting my grandmother. And I’ve never been able to unravel that town, and all those relationships.
What amazes me, Branden, is that I tend to think about the same things I’ve thought about all my life, and I always try to unravel those things.
I love that. It’s very Proustian, somehow.
I just had another go at trying to unravel that town, and those six summers, and that’s really what it is.
I think that all of the plays you’ve written since Ohio State Murders have been wrestling very beautifully with this idea of remembrance—or you’re finding a new way to stage the importance or power of memory. And I especially love the kind of Gothic qualities of this new play: There are stories within stories, and images within images. Is memory a thing that you think a lot about?
Oh, I do. I do. I do think about the past a lot. I don’t know why, but I’ve been compelled to work with my mother’s scrapbook. It’s the first book I read, when I was 3 years old, and I still keep working with it. There’s no doubt that I still think a lot about that town.
Because my parents were born in that town. My grandparents were born in that town. I spent six hot summers there. So I tend to think about that Georgia town a lot.
I think about my parents a lot, because my parents—I realized how unusual they were. My father was a social worker, he was a Y secretary. My mother was a schoolteacher, she taught fifth grade science. I think you have to get older before you realize—they put so much energy into me. And they were so concerned about me. So I think about that, a lot.
Are the characters in this piece based on anyone from your life, or are they all fiction? Or are they kind of an amalgam? I hate that question, but I’m always curious.
They’re fiction. You mean the main characters?
Yeah. The kinds of stories that are haunting them—the stories they’re telling—feel so vivid.
Oh, the stories—those are an amalgam. I don’t think she would’ve defined herself like that, but my mother was a great storyteller. She always held me captive. She smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes, and she’d always say, “Adrienne, I wanna tell you something.” She is just all over my whole writing career. And my father, because he gave speeches. Really, everything I write is a kind of mixture of his speeches, and her telling me all these stories about Georgia.
I have a similar thing. My mother’s family is from Camden, Arkansas, and I spent basically every summer of my childhood there, with my grandparents, until they both passed. I’m always jealous of writers who have a kind of internal sense of place or write with a sense of place. Like, I have colleagues who write about Vermont, or Idaho, or Detroit, but I’ve never had that kind of thing in me. The space that lives most creatively inside of me is a place I never actually called “home,” so it always feels slightly like an imaginary place. Maybe that’s the same for you.
What was the name of that town?
Camden, Ark. It was a mill town.
A mill town? Oh my God! And you spent summers, there?
Yeah. I’ve basically set two plays near or around there. I somehow can access it when I’m writing more easily than I can access New York, where I’ve been living now for almost the entirety of my adult life. It’s just interesting, the way that certain places creep into your imaginative space, you know?
Do you think it’s all childhood?
I wonder. I grew up in Washington, D.C., but D.C. doesn’t live that way for me. Maybe it’s because the South—the senses are just activated in a different way. I still remember the specific natural details of my grandparents’ properties. But I don’t remember Washington, D.C., beyond my front porch.
It’s very funny, because those train rides—my brother and I took them together, those train rides from Cleveland, down to Montezuma, Ga. Of course, in Atlanta you got in the Jim Crow car. Those train rides, and those hot summers, they’re very vivid. I think I was about 6 to 12. And of course, all those relationships were so tangled. The whole Black-white thing.
Oh my gosh, yes. All over my family tree there are these interesting full stops, usually a relative with a white parent who was abandoned and left on some colored woman’s doorstep in town. That’s my great grandfather’s story. The minute you start to look into these things, you realize these entire towns—half of them were family in some way. Especially after Reconstruction.
It’s so wild, it’s totally wild. It’s interesting that you say you’re always writing about your parents. I think every writer, probably, in some way, is doing that. Trying to unravel the mystery of your immediate origins. My mother’s generation, she and all her brothers left Arkansas and went to different places across the country.
Your play, in some funny way, reminded me of her because yours is the story of someone who gets out. Kay gets out of Montefiore, Ga.—the play’s version of Montezuma. They both get out, and through their letters, it feels like they’re trying to actively process the cruelty that they grew up with. You know what I mean?
Oh, wonderful. Oh, I love the way you—you’re right, you’re so right.
Do you feel close to your characters’ generation?
Well, my father is born in 1904. My mother is born in 1907, and they were born right down the road from each other. They went to Morehouse, and Atlanta University, around 1930.
To me, they’re the greatest generation. My parents and their friends, to me, have qualities that I don’t have, my children don’t have. They’re very imaginative, hardworking people. They created so much. My mother could teach all day, and then she could come home and cook a perfect dinner, and her house always looked perfect. They had qualities, I think, that are just so admirable.
I often try to wrap my head around my grandmother and her life. She put herself through teachers’ college, the first person in our family to get a degree. She would survive off of one cabbage a week. And she would split the year—half in Little Rock, in school, the other in Camden, teaching school. She did this back and forth for so long. Then she raised three children but also held down a teaching job the whole time. There’s something about the endurance, or the stamina—
—of that generation, that feels almost foreign.
That’s exactly it, endurance and stamina. Is she still alive?
No, she’s not. She passed in ’93.
She went to teachers’ college?
Yes. So my family’s been college-educated, technically, for three generations, which is fairly unheard of among a lot of Black families in the South.
That’s amazing. I read online, your dad’s a dentist?
He was a dentist. He was a prison dentist, actually.
A prison dentist?
Yeah, he worked in prisons for 36 years.
No, no, he pulled the teeth of convicts. That was his bread and butter. That side of my family is pretty much a case study in Black migration. The Jenkinses were slaves-then-sharecroppers in the Carolinas. My grandfather and grandmother moved up from the tobacco fields to Baltimore, where he started working at Bethlehem Steel, so my father grew up in the city. Then he wound up going to dental school, almost on a whim, and he retired as a government employee. It’s almost classic.
I love those words. Endurance, and stamina. See, I don’t quite have that. I have endurance, stamina, about half as much as my mother did.
Oh, get out of here! I feel like your gift to the world is about your stamina for introspection. Your work burrows in very deeply, and illuminates a kind of psychology of suffering. I believe that’s important work.
Well, when I grew up in Cleveland, it was an immigrant neighborhood—immigrant and Black. It was an Italian and Black school. Of course, all of the teachers were white. There was only one Black schoolteacher in the Cleveland public school system in the ’30s and early ’40s. So it’s really the British writers that I was influenced by: Charles Dickens, the Brontës. When we were in junior high school, we read all those people. Wordsworth, Shelley. For better or for worse, those are the people that I saw as writers.
Those were your first encounters with literature?
Most definitely. Even though my father was always reading me Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, European literature was what was taught at Ohio State. There was only one black writer that we even looked at, and that was Richard Wright. I think the British writers…Hamlet is my favorite play. Jane Eyre is my favorite novel. It’s those childhood things. It’s childhood.
That’s what I meant, about the Gothic-ness in this play. It sort of reminds me of the Brontës. Like Wuthering Heights, which is one of my favorite novels ever. And in your play, the children are burdened with their parents’ tragedy. They’re trying to reconstruct it, illuminate it somehow, in order to save themselves but then they’re sort of swept up in the tempest of it by its very telling.
Again, it’s my mother with her Lucky Strike cigarette, sitting there. She would just tell me stories about all of those people in that town. Her stories to me are very much like the monologues in all my plays.
What has the theatre meant to you? What does it mean to you now?
I fell in love with the theatre when I was 16 and I saw The Glass Menagerie. Tennessee Williams still remains very, very important to me. Lorca is my favorite playwright, really—Poet in New York. My husband was a grad student, and we came to New York in 1955. I love the theatre of the ’50s, the musicals of the ’50s.
I haven’t been to the theatre in years. And I don’t consider myself a playwright, because I haven’t had very many pleasant experiences when I’ve had my plays put on. I feel the best about scholars—the academic world. They Xeroxed my plays and kept them alive. But I don’t really like the theatre that much, from my experiences when I’ve had plays put on.
I see myself, Branden, as a writer. I’m a scribbler, I really am. I’ve been scribbling since I was 6 years old. I’ve written a lot of things that I’ve thrown away; I’ve written lots of things that will never see the light of day. Occasionally I’ve had these plays up. But I owe almost everything to the academic world. Because I taught for so long, I understand that. I would always teach Amiri Baraka’s Dutchman, I would always teach The Seagull. I understand the love of plays, the love of literature. That’s really what I love.
Maybe the better version of the question is: What does it mean to you to write plays?
I see, I know what you’re saying. I think I still owe it to The Glass Menagerie. Because when I saw that—we seemed to be an ideal family, but my parents had loads and loads of problems, and subsequently got a divorce. And when I saw The Glass Menagerie, and I saw those people—even today, right this very morning, if I saw The Glass Menagerie, I would start weeping, weeping. It’s those people, living in their living room, with all their problems…That inspired me so much. Death of a Salesman, also.
And, I just…I love New York. To me, New York is the greatest city in the world, and when I came to New York with my husband in 1955, I wanted to be a part of something. I’d already been taking writing courses, and people said I had a talent for writing scenes—“Oh, you write scenes so well.” So, in a way, what was left for me was to be a part of New York. Do you know what I mean?
I didn’t want to just go to parties, and have people say, how’s the baby, how’s your husband, and all that. I wanted to be a part of it. I might owe something to my Ohio State drama teacher, who gave me an A—the only A I ever got at Ohio State, practically. Because she said, you really understand plays. So I was reaching for what people had said.
All through my 20s, I wrote constantly. I went to the New School, I went to the American Theater Wing. I’ve written about this in People Who Led to My Plays: when I went on a trip to Africa, we were out of the country 13 months, and that’s when I wrote Funnyhouse of a Negro. And the monologues that I had written in Ghana, and the monologues that I wrote in Rome—I realized that they had something. I thought my earlier writing was okay, but I realized I had something.
It was the landscape: the landscape of Ghana, the landscape of West Africa, and the landscape of Rome.
What is it about a landscape that speaks to you in that way? That feels very Brontë-esque, too. Their whole thing was the moors, the moors, the moors…
I think I’m still trying to imitate that! I really do. I’ve been to several writers’ houses. I’ve been to O’Neill’s house, and to the Brontë cottage…I ran upon the heather. I mean, I was old, I was in my 60s!
Oddly enough, I always saw Cleveland as barren. I used to upset my mother so much. I’d say, I hate it here! She’d almost start crying! Because she loved it so much. She loved that world that they’d discovered, and she loved all their parties, and their teas, and their lunches, and their clubs. She loved all that so much.
Do you know the novelist Patrick White? He once talked about how you stop reading when you turn 30, because if you’re a writer, you have to spend the rest of your life trying to get down everything you need to say. Have you stopped reading, or do you still read quite a bit?
I will always be interested in people—what they did, how they traversed the universe. I’m not attracted to fiction anymore, but I watch a lot of documentaries. And I do read a lot of stuff online.
I love to find out how people got started, and then what obstacles they met. I watch, again and again, the Roosevelts. I’m kind of obsessed with the Windsors. I’ve watched many documentaries on the Windsors, starting with Queen Victoria. But the last fiction book I read was Joyce Carol Oates, Blonde.
Oh, the Marilyn Monroe book. That’s funny—it’s kind of a documentary.
Exactly. I would love to be able to write a book like that.
I do want to say, of course—and I’m sure it’s true with you—I love pen and paper. The typewriter. I love writers. I’m very in awe of writers. That has never gone away. And I like pop culture—music, pop songs. I’m a kid of the radio, you know? And I still have my radio.
I love that. You don’t happen to watch Netflix, do you?
I do watch Netflix.
There’s something similar to Netflix that I watch, which just has tons and tons of old movies. One of my students turned me on to it, and I think about you often when I’m watching it, because A Movie Star Has to Star in Black and White is one of my favorite plays. It’s this incredible repository. Right now, I’m watching Laura, by Otto Preminger.
Uh-oh, do you know that movie?
Of course I’ve seen Laura! I’ve seen all those movies 100 times. Those people—Bette Davis, Hitchcock, all those people—I probably will always underestimate what I’ve learned from them.
Even in this new play—there’s a kind of thriller aspect to it, right? There’s this simmering dread throughout the whole thing, that does kind of remind me a bit of Hitchcock.
Hitchcock is very important to me. Vertigo, of course, is my favorite, but I like the others also. Strangers on a Train…
Rear Window’s one of my top three of all time. And I love Notorious and North by Northwest.
I learned so much from those movies. Because when you’re really young—you’re like 11, 12—you’re really like an empty palette. And these things are so powerful. I can remember seeing Gaslight when I was 12 years old. I tried to make my hands do that. I think every evening or formal dress I bought for many years was an imitation of the dress she wore to the concert.
As a kid growing up in a place like Cleveland—this is so far removed from you—we did go to the movies every Saturday. It was five cents, and it was something that the white kids—the Italian kids—did with the Black kids. That was the only thing we ever really did together. We went to see the movies for five cents, and of course, it was a double feature.
The place where the two characters in your play meet is the movie theatre, right? He says, “I saw you at Bitter Sweet.” I love that.
That’s a real place. The movie theatre in Montezuma, which is the real name of that town, was so dramatic. It was this tiny movie theatre, with a whites-only section of regular movie seats. My grandmother would only take me once, because she despised it so. The Blacks had to walk up the back stairwell, and there were four or five benches where Blacks sat. That movie theatre was so important. The only one in the town, of course.
And Blacks had to pay the same amount as whites?
Yes, and you walked up a back stairwell. I went there from ’36 to ’43, something like that. I have a photograph of that movie theatre. But all those movies, like The Letter, Dark Victory—Bette Davis movies are very important to me. Very important, because Bette Davis was a person who had violent feelings. And I was—everybody said I was such a sweet little kid, clinging to my mother’s dress. But I couldn’t understand why I felt like I did, and Bette Davis was a release of all these violent feelings that were going on inside me.
Now, Voyager is one of my favorite movies of all time. And Mildred Pierce. Those movies, they gave me hope. I felt I could be an interesting person, I didn’t have to be—all my mother’s friends were elementary school teachers, and I was expected to be an elementary school teacher. So those people were a great inspiration to me.
Pop culture becomes the way out for so many people, the space where you can imagine something other than your life. Which is the first step to changing it, I guess.
I like that. A way out. That’s exactly what it was.
Is there anything else you want to talk about—about the play or anything—before we end? It’s very haunting. I’ve been thinking about it since I read it, kind of non-stop.
I think the play is, to me, a victory. Because it is, on paper, things that I can’t stop thinking about.
This interview, which has been edited and condensed, originally appeared in an issue of Theatre for a New Audience’s 360° Viewfinder pertaining to the world premiere of Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box, which ran Jan. 18-Feb. 11, 2018 at Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, NY. It is reprinted with permission from Theatre for a New Audience and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. This Giving Season, please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!