The location for The House That Will Not Stand, now at the New York Theatre Workshop, is Faubourg Tremé, New Orleans, Louisiana. The date – and this is the important part – is 1813. A decade earlier Napoleon sold a beaucoup chunk of land (The Louisianna Purchase - 828,000 square miles for 15 Million dollars. Or 529,920,000 acres – not a bad trade) to the U.S. A decade later things in New Orleans were about to change for the 6 women who live in and around this “Creole Cottage.”
Things have already changed for the owner of the cottage and the only white person on the horizon. Lazare Albans, age 72, is dead. We can see this for ourselves because old Lazare is laid out on the dining table, embalmed in the fashion of the day and surrounded by gardenias. His passing is recent, just hours ago. In the time since his passing his placée (common-law wife), a free black woman named Beartrice Albans (Lynda Gravátt) has been a dynamo of efficiency. She has even visited Albans' legal wife, who is also the legal heir and now owner of the house that Beartrice has ruled these many years. Beartrice has discovered that the cards are stacked against her. Unless she does something, she and her three daughters Agnès (Nedra McClyde), Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield) and Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) will be without a home. And Beartrice is not about to accept that.
Just because she is down, however, does not mean that she is willing to let her children go to a masked ball on the very evening that their father has died. There are appearance to be kept up, number one, and there is lust to be smothered, number two. Her daughter Agnès is nearly mad with the prickly heat her body is giving off, and she has a white man in mind who will take her as his placée (marriage being out of the question, but slavery to be avoided at all costs). Beartrice has seen too much of the world. She knows what is out there at present, and she knows what is coming. The new laws about to be visited on New Orleans will strip bare any free woman without means. Her daughters would be safer under her roof. Period. In addition to her daughters the household includes her slave (yes a black woman owns a black woman) Makeda (Harriett D. Foy) and Beartrice's sister Marie Josephine (Michelle Wilson). Both women crave their freedom. Makeda wants her manumission papers before her mistress loses everything. Marie wants the freedom to walk into the spirit world where her dead lover waits for her.
Completing the sextet is a long-time enemy of Beartice, La Veuve (Marie Thomas) who feeds off the misfortune of others and doesn’t care who knows it.
This play has been compared to The House of Bernarda Alba. Of course there are similarities. But more than that - this play is operatic. The writing itself is unexceptional, and the plot lines that crisscross the stage are predictable. But the towering set by Adam Rigg serves to lift the tale up and let it float in thin air. There are majestic themes at play here. A change of rulers that will smash the centuries old established class system, daughters flinging themselves headlong into the wind of the coming storm, a mother who is fierce in her rule. The spirit world calls. Who will hear and who will heed? This enormity is reflected in three monologues – the first by Marie Josephine who tells Makeda about her dead lover. Now, Makeda knows all this because she has been around forever – so who is the story for? Usn’s. Makeka takes a page of this spirit talk herself when she reminds Odette to wear her blackness like a shield woven by centuries of women before her. This thrilling section becomes a near call and response and pulls us completely out of ourselves and into the story. Finally it is Beartrice, Maman, left with nothing but her fearful prophesizing and a near empty house, who rings the last syllable out of the last word.
Like I said, not a remarkable play, but one that benefits from the sum of its parts, and one that shines the light on a past swept out of sight for way too long. Bravo for that. And as the man sitting next to me said at the end of the show – “Isn’t it wonderful to see a play with six black women!” Yep.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"When you hear a drum beat as you’re watching Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand, which opened on Monday night at New York Theatre Workshop, sit up and pay attention. It’s likely to be the prelude to a flash of wondrousness. Drums are what herald two extraordinary monologues in this densely packed, erratic comic drama, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Their percussive insistence shapes two separate instances when both a character and the play that has hitherto confined her soar into a stratosphere of freedom."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Though it’s luscious and structurally artful, the play seems somewhat divided against itself."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"Big drama requires big performances, and it’s a major theatrical feat that the talented ensemble of seven actresses under Blain-Cruz’s mercurial direction achieves awesome effects without anyone cross-dressing."
Robert Hofler for The Wrap
"This poetical drama infused with supernatural elements boasts rich language and colorful imagination. But its narrative clunkiness is very much on display in the off-Broadway premiere of the work previously seen in Berkeley, California; New Haven, Connecticut; London; and Chicago."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...