By Ron Cohen
The House that Will Not Stand, Marcus Gardley delves into one of the
many perverse chapters in the insidious annals of slavery: the sale by France
of the Louisiana Territory to the United States in the early 19th
Century. It meant that the African-Americans living in New Orleans and
elsewhere in the territory as free people were suddenly faced with the prospect
of slavery. It makes for a stunning piece of theater.
program for the terrific New York Theatre Workshop production tells us that
Gardley was inspired by the stories told him by his great-grandmothers about New
Orleans and Creole culture. His play centers on the custom of plaçage where black women in New Orleans
and other French and Spanish slave colonies in the Caribbean, while not
recognized as wives, could be contractually recognized as concubines of white
men and hold property and have other rights of free citizens. It was a custom
ripped apart by the Louisiana Purchase.
writing pulsates with affection for these women, but what’s more astounding is
the deep understanding he shows of their predicament, where, as his leading
character, Beatrice, says, she can lead a life of physical comfort “just as
long as I opened my legs and kept my mouth shut.”
inspired by The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca, Gardley
borrows plot points from that masterwork of Spanish drama. Lorca’s play is
primarily a study of female yearning and suppression with its tale of a
tyrannical matriarch controlling her houseful of daughters. Gardley, however,
whips up a galvanizing storm of sexism and racism with a similar skeleton of
story, revving it up with grand melodrama – lightning, thunder, murders and
and Marie Thomas photos by Joan Marcus
under the fierce and knowing direction of Lileana Blain-Cruz, it all seems
entirely organic to the passions he is portraying. Similarly, the humor Gardley
weaves generously through his storytelling seems equally truthful.
aforementioned Beatrice is the mistress of Lazare Albans, whose dead
72-year-old body lies stiff on a parlor table throughout the play. The cause
of Albans’ death is questionable. Did he really die from choking on a fish
bone? Whatever, Beatrice is fairly assured that his will is going to leave her
as a free woman of color secure with the ownership of their house. It’s a
domain, she further believes, that will protect her three daughters from the
degradation of plaçage.
however, prove daunting. Beatrice’s oldest daughter. Agnês, defying her
mother’s dictates to observe mourning and not leave the house, has already made
the start of an alliance with a rich white fellow and plans to further things
with him at the masked ball that evening, where plaçage connections are officially made. She will take
with her youngest sister, Odette, to pose as her mother. Things at the ball do
not go as hoped, as we learn when the sisters return home.
throwing Beatrice’s plans into disarray is the appearance at her home of La
Veuve, her archenemy dating back to a contretemps years ago. La Veuve has come
to mourn Lazare and more to the point, question Beatrice’s long-time devoted
servant, Makeda, about the details of Lazare’s death. As for Makeda, she has
her own agenda, yearning for the freedom promised her by Beatrice once Lazare’s
will is settled.
fly in Beatrice’s ointment is her deranged sister, Marie Josephine, who
occupies the upper level of the house and now fears the presence of Lazare’s
ghost. She convinces Makeda to use her conjure-woman powers – yes, things get
complicated – to call up Lazare’s spirit into her (Makeda’s) body so she can
talk with him.
All of this happens
while a storm rages outside, and the thunder and lightning augment the
whirlwind within. And the changing conditions coming with the Louisiana Purchase add the final cap, as the story moves to its bitter conclusion, qu
the very nature of freedom in an oppressive society.
cast of seven women delivers a gallery of indelible portraits. Lynda Gravatt
elevates Beatrice’s earthiness with a sense of damaged nobility, while Harriett
D. Foy’s mix of spikiness and dedication as Makeda makes for a compassionate
Thomas embodies La Veuve as a likeable schemer, and Michelle Wilson brings a
touching sensitivity to Marie Josephine’s madness.
of Beatrice’s daughters is sharply drawn as a young woman caught up in a
maelstrom of passions and desire: Nedra McClyde as the tenuously self-assured
Juliana Canfield as the hysterically pious middle sister Maude Lynn, and
Joniece Abbott-Pratt as the callow but winning young Odette.
no scene in the play is as devastating as when the light-complexioned Agnés methodically
explains to Odette that her dark skin makes her much less desirable to white
men. But it is certainly matched in power with the furious incantations of
Foy’s Makeda conjuring up a drum-pounding invocation of black woman power,
reuniting Marie Josephine with a long-lost love. It grows into a fantasia of
dance and rhythm that threatens to rip the ceiling off the theater. Raja
Feather Kelly is credited with movement, and Justin Ellington created sound
design and original music.
Nedra McClyde, Juliana Canfield, and Joniece
production assets include Adam Rigg’s set showing a cross-section of Beatrice’s
stately home; Yi Zhao’s lighting which makes palpable the sweltering New
Orleans summer, and Montana Levi Blanco’s rich era-defining costumes.
probably should be noted that the deep South intonations utilized by the cast
may at times for some in the audience bury the gritty poetry of Gardley’s
writing. But the desire to hear every word will only add to the attention this
imposing and important play deserves.
posted August 2018
at New York Theatre Workshop
East 4th Street
until August 19