She is a small woman from a long line of small women and a writer whose dense, fragmented works obey the merciless logic of nightmares. Her first play, the anguished and surreal “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” won an Obie award in 1964; so did the misty “June and Jean in Concert” and the hallucinatory “Sleep Deprivation Chamber,” written with Adam Kennedy, which debuted as part of the Signature Theater’s yearlong exploration of her work in 1996.
Daphne Brooks, a professor of theater and African-American studies at Yale University, sees Ms. Kennedy’s wide influence, from the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to the TV big wheel Shonda Rhimes. “Adrienne Kennedy brought to life the depths of black female interiority and the aching humanity of black womanhood,” Ms. Brooks wrote in an email.
Late style often suggests a softening, a mellowing, a philosophical remove. That doesn’t describe “He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box,” a tender and violent love story set in the Jim Crow South and wrung from the memories of her mother and grandmothers. And it doesn’t describe Ms. Kennedy. Her voice is thin; her hair is wispy. Her mind is switchblade sharp.
“You told. Me on the phone. Once.
You. Liked. Stanwyck.”
Ms. Kennedy had brought other photos, too, all intimately connected to “Heart.” One showed the boarding school her mother attended. Another, the train station in Montezuma, Ga., where she spent weeks every summer. A third, a segregated movie theater. A fourth, the house where her white maternal grandfather lived. “I went there three times,” she said. “His wife wanted us to go in the back door.”
That grandfather was the owner of a peach orchard. Her maternal grandmother was a 15-year-old African-American girl who worked it. “She died very young,” said Ms. Kennedy. “She married and died young and my mother would never talk about her.”
“She told me everything else,” Ms. Kennedy said. “ The monologues in my plays are really my mother smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes and saying, ‘I remember when, I remember when, I remember when.’”
Those monologues have haunted Ms. Kennedy during her time in Virginia, as she lives with people she loves — the household includes her son, his wife, several grandchildren and, more recently, Ms. Kennedy’s former husband, Joseph C. Kennedy, and his wife — in a place she hates.
Colonial Williamsburg does not impress her. “They seem to glorify slavery,” she said tartly as she looked around the hotel lounge. “They have all these pageants. They really do seem to glorify that time.”
However she is grateful for the iPad her son and his wife provided, and the bedroom that looks out onto trees. In that room Ms. Kennedy began to fool around with her mother’s scrapbook, “because there’s nothing to do in Virginia,” she said. (Ms. Kennedy later confessed that one of her treasured dreams is to “die on the Upper West Side.”)
Sifting through the scrapbook’s photographs gave her the poem “Forget,” which she published in the Harvard Review, and the short book “What a Writer Is.”
“Heart” came from the scrapbook, too, but also from the stories that her grandchildren told her. Classmates at their local high school would ask them, “Are you black or are you white? I saw your father when he came to pick you up, why is he black?” Ms. Kennedy said. “They tormented my grandchildren.”
The stories reminded her of the racism she had encountered as an undergraduate at Ohio State University and of her mother’s being taunted as a “little yellow bastard.”
These memories fed “Heart,” as did a gruesome illustration from her childhood book of fairy tales, a few scenes from Christopher Marlowe’s play “The Massacre at Paris” and the Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald movie romance “Bitter Sweet.”
Ms. Kennedy won’t reveal how she settled on these particular fragments. “That I don’t like to say,” she said.
She began to write, for several hours every day, usually beginning around 3 or 4 in the morning. (Ms. Kennedy is a longtime insomniac.) Six weeks after she began tapping on her iPad, the play was finished.
“I wrote it quickly,” Ms. Kennedy said. “I was angry.” That has been her process for the last 50 years. “Things are just boiling inside me. I keep a lot of notes and then suddenly it emerges. Every word.”
Another 86-year-old might have arranged those words more hopefully, with a concluding scene promising a better and fairer future for her grandchildren. But in Ms. Kennedy’s worlds, no one lives happily ever after.
This play “ends tragically because I think very strongly that the plight still of American blacks is a tragic plight,” she said. “Because whites won’t release us. That’s my comment on how things are.”
She sent the play to Arin Arbus, the resident director of Theater for a New Audience, who sent it in turn to Evan Yionoulis, who had directed a chilling production of Ms. Kennedy’s “Ohio State Murders” in 2007. Ms. Yionoulis presided over a weeklong workshop in 2015 and knew she wanted to stage it. This play, like its predecessors, “keeps circling around these questions of identity and contradiction and racial hatred,” she said.
“He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box” is arguably less abstract than Ms. Kennedy’s early works, but hardly a work of realism. Barring some juvenilia, Ms. Kennedy has never been a realistic writer, which may explain why her plays are so often read on college campuses, but only rarely performed, a sore point. “My plays get taught more than anything else,” Ms. Kennedy said.
Lila Neugebauer, who directed “Funnyhouse of a Negro” at the Signature last year, said that in Ms. Kennedy’s work, images, histories and fantasies “are interlaced and interlaid in this fantastically intricate and incredibly theatrical way.” Each of her plays, Ms. Neugebauer said, “is a kind of code to crack.”
Even the most straightforward scenes in the new play have a dreamlike quality. Some of the stage directions sound like speeches, a few of the speeches sound like stage directions. It’s up to the director to sort it all out, a process Ms. Yionoulis described as “challenging and fun.”
Ms. Kennedy, who mentioned “Hamlet,” “The Seagull” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” as her favorite plays, has never been able to make herself write more plainly.
Her concerns are “the political, the unexpected, the landscape,” she said. She doesn’t know how to write a play “where they’re all sitting and someone gets up.” Her lone effort at a naturalistic play, “Pale Blue Flowers,” is archived at the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, alongside other unproduced plays; she said that a director is welcome to take it on, though “it totally lacks vigor.”
In the early years of her career, Ms. Kennedy used to sit next to the directors Michael Kahn and Joseph Chaikin while they rehearsed her work, confirming every choice they made. But while she and Ms. Yionoulis speak often, Ms. Kennedy doesn’t attend rehearsal and she doesn’t think that she’ll see “Heart” performed.
“I love being a writer,” she said. “But getting the play on and all that anxiety that’s built around it, it makes you very nervous.” (The interview and the portrait photograph? They also made her nervous.) Still, she is, she said, “extremely happy that people are paying attention to me.”
“I am 86 years old. It never once occurred to me that I would live to be 86,” she said. “It certainly never occurred to me that people would still be paying me any attention.”