By focusing on a little known aspect of American history, specifically the status of “free women of color” in early 19th century New Orleans, playwright Marcus Gardley’s “A House That Will Not Stand” introduces us to an exotic, rhythmic and dynamic culture which existed somewhat uncomfortably alongside slavery, yet offered for some of the women involved a fleeting sense of self-empowerment.
Director Patricia McGregor’s production, which plays through May 10 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, serves Gardley’s vision quite wonderfully, features several mesmerizing performances, and engages the audience with its clever mix of carefully-choreographed movement, droll comedy, exaggerated drama and just the right dose of magic realism. The result is an evening that delights with its humor, yet stuns with its grasp of the limited and contradictory opportunities available for women at that period in time.
Gardley wraps his house in the system of "placage", in which white men of means could enter into formalized relationships with free women of color, usually through a contract with the woman’s mother who would receive a substantial settlement for agreeing to the arrangement. While the man would more often than not have a white wife and family elsewhere in town, he would often spend more time with his quadroon, the term frequently applied to such women, and raise a separate family with her in a fine home in a different area of town.
In Gardley’s tale, we meet Beartrice Alba, a free woman of color who has been in such a “left-handed marriage” herself, but now is found in mourning for her just-deceased white partner, Lazare. Neighboring gossip questions the circumstances of Lazare’s death, since moments before his passing, he and Beartrice had been engaged in a physical, knock-down fight because of Beartrice’s strong objections to her three daughters being placed into placage. Not to mention that her previous husband had died under mysterious circumstances as well, something that would naturally raise questions about spells and poisons in this Caribbean-influenced culture.
If the name Alba rings a bell, it’s because Gardley has based this work very loosely on Frederico Garcia Lorca’s play, “The House of Bernarda Alba,” in which a widow locks her five grown daughters into her Andalusian home for an eight year mourning period to save them from the carnal temptations of the outside world. Where the Lorca play is dark and grim, Gardley injects his work with much more humor, particularly in the arguments between Beartrice and her servant Makeda, herself a slave and anxious for her freedom. Makeda seldom censors herself in her discussions with her mistress, sharing in direct and frequently funny terms just what happens to be on her mind. Beartrice’s haughty self-esteem, which has alienated her from her neighbors and her daughters, makes her an easy target for Makeda’s barbs, although most everyone secretly admits to being afraid of Beatrice’s demeanor and ultimatums.
Lizan Mitchell’s Beartrice and Harriet D. Foy’s Makeda are perfectly cast as the two leading foils. Mitchell spews Beartrice’s delicate lines in an unwavering French Caribbean accent through pursed lips and an indomitable attitude, genuinely emphasizing the “bear” part of her character’s name. Mitchell captures the woman’s intimidating demeanor while subtly showing the myriad calculations going on in her mind as she attempts to adjust to and accommodate every twist that life may throw her way. Foy is marvelous as the long-suffering servant who’s familiar with all of her mistress’s bag of tricks and who can sympathize with the daughters’ frustrations. At the same time, Foy makes believable Makeda’s familiarity with the occult and her ability to contact the spiritual realm. Foy is also responsible for the vocal arrangements and some original musical compositions for the show, a talent demonstrated as she leads a marvelous dance of exaltation late in the play’s second half.
Gardley offers a nice contrast between each of Beartrice’s three daughters, starting with the tall Tiffany Rachelle Stewart as the entitled, petulant eldest, Agnes, who yearns for escape from her oppressive household through the placage system. Stewart effectively conveys Agnes’s confidence that her beauty will attract the attention of a handsome new arrival in town, but doesn’t quite register the young woman’s disappointment and devastation when circumstances turn against her. Flor De Liz Perez plays the youngest daughter, Maude Lynn, caught between the period of still being loyal to one’s mother while wanting to be part of her older two sisters’ lives. She allows us to see the young woman’s naivety mixed with a desire to speed up her maturity her as she both judges her sisters’ behavior while wanting to enter that world at the same time.
Joniece Abbott-Pratt makes a stronger impression as the middle sister Odette whose yearning is so obvious to the audience but unnoticed by both her sisters. It’s clear that when Odette agrees to play a minor subsidiary role in her older sister Agnes’s elaborate plan to attend a quadroon ball against the specific desire of their mother, the middle sister is merely agreeing just so she can get her foot in the door and meet some of the young white men in attendance looking for potential placees. She enjoys some feisty dialogue with her mother that underlines her character’s determination and unforgiving wit.
Petronia Paley plays two diverse parts which echo back to the Lorca play, with the first being a nosy neighbor and rival to Beartrice with an eye on the house following Lazare’s death, and as Beartrice’s mad sister, Marie Josephine, who like the grandmother in the original Lorca, is locked up in the family home and wanders in and out of the action sending insults Beartrice’s way and trying to figure out ways to escape. Paley does a great job of distinguishing between the two, at least once with a pretty fast costume change, bringing a suitable amount of discerning humor to each role.
Ray Reinhardt plays the unfortunate Lazare, who in the first act remains a corpse who actions can still plague and annoy his widow and in the second act comes to marvelous life as a feisty ghost ready to resume his argument with his wife over the future of their daughters’ lives.
Antje Ellerman has designed an evocative two floor set representing the interior of Beartrice’s house that accommodates the New Orleans sun, while also conveying the sense of mystery contained in the growing city’s night. He has the front entrance to the house accessed through a porch extending out beyond the front of the stage, which allows McGregor to place some action directly in front of the audience in the theater and up and down the two sets of stairs. Katherine O’Neill has created some attractive costumes that anchor the play in the 1830’s, including an exquisite black dress donned by Beartrice that genuinely pushes the boundaries of mourning garb. There are also a lovely assemblage of turbans and shawls, along with some colorful items for Makeba and Marie Josephine, and some clever costumes for the three daughters, that effectively convey the personality differences between them.
Keith Townsend Obadike’s sound accommodates the ominous nights and crackling spells, along with some background music. There’s a live but unseen percussionist, Jocelyn Pleasant, who contributes some essential beats throughout the evening. Russell H. Champa’s lighting also adds to the desired moods and ambience of the play, which moves from the brightness of day to the near sunrise of a night spent secretly on the town.
Both music and movement are essential to the success of this production, and McGregor has enlisted her sister Paloma to design the choreography and finesse the occasionally stylized movement of the cast. The movement seems part and parcel to the New Orleans setting, adding yet another level of atmosphere to the work.
Part of the enjoyment of watching Gardley’s play is seeing how he conveys the various levels of oppression and imprisonment felt by the different characters. Beartrice regards the placage system as a form of slavery as it binds her to a man, without all of the benefits of marriage. Gardley is careful to point out that as time progressed, the women in placage began to lose all of their property rights, until it became illegal for such a companion to inherit anything from the man’s estate. This of course was coupled with the lack of opportunities for women in general in the society of the time, particularly for those of mixed race. Underneath Beartrice’s station, there were the slaves like Makeda, who while they may have been regarded as family by their owners, still felt the repression of not being free. And at the same time, there are Beartrice’s daughters, each of whom felt the oppressiveness of living with a demanding mother who controlled nearly every aspect of their lives. The daughters, most notably Agnes and Odette looked to a system like placage as a sort of freedom, although it turns out that Odette sees more freedom in the equality of love. Similarly there are limited options for the mad sister, who only wants to leave so she can determine her own future, rightly or wrongly, but who must live as a prisoner in a house in which she is uncomfortable.
In all, “A House That Will Not Stand” is a funny, touching and rewarding evening, that puts into contrast the different ways in which women could feel oppressed and restricted in a city as diverse as New Orleans, where the mix of culture and traditions not only limited opportunities but also inspired thoughts of improving one’s situation.
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