In “The House That Will Not Stand,” Marcus Gardley’s historically fascinating, lyrical and surprisingly funny play, nobody much cares for Beartrice Albans – not her three beautiful daughters, not her mad sister, not her slave, and certainly not her rival, Madame La Veuve, who accuses her of murder.
“You may be the wealthiest colored woman in New Orleans,” La Veuve says to Beartrice, “but you built this house on sand, lies and dead bodies.”
Beartrice’s slave Makeda tries to defend her: “I’d think I’d know if the Madame was a murderer,” Makeda says. “She may be crass, calculating, cunning and unkind, but the woman is still a Christian.”
Beartrice, a free woman of color, will need all her cunning in order to face what is about to befall the Albans household.
For thirty years, she was a “placée,” a kind of official mistress to Lazare Albans, a white man, in an arrangement known as plaçage, a common law marriage that in effect sanctioned interracial unions in New Orleans and other French and Spanish colonies. But that relationship ended earlier in the day, when Lazare died — his corpse is in the back parlor; he’s the man La Veuve accuses Beartrice of murdering. And it is 1813, ten years after Napoleon sold the Louisiana Purchase to Thomas Jefferson, so French law and practice is coming to an end in New Orleans. Though Lazare left everything to Beartrice in his will, the Americans don’t recognize their relationship, and so she is in danger of losing her house and all her belongings to Lazare’s white wife, with whom he never lived.
This has consequences for all the characters. If Beartrice cannot keep the house, she will be unable to set Makeda free, as she has promised.
Her three daughters, Agnès (Nedra McClyde) 19, Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield), 18, and Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), 16, see an obvious solution. They want to go to the masked ball tonight so that they can find their own eligible white men and become placées. But Beartrice has banned them from attending, and is adamantly opposed to placage, which she sees as no different than slavery.
Gardley’s play is an inspired adaptation of Spanish playwright Federico García Lorca’s 1936 play ‘The House of Bernarda Alba,” keeping Lorca’s overall plot (though toning down the tragedy) and many of Lorca’s themes, especially the oppression of women; he layers the class prejudice that is in the Spanish play with the complicated, special racial prejudice of 19th century New Orleans.
Director Lileana Blane-Cruz oversees a beautiful production, from Adam Riggs’ historically suggestive set of chandeliers and shuttered windows, to the scary storm conjured up by lighting designer Yi Zhao and sound designer Justin Ellington. All seven actresses of the cast give glorious performances, able to bring out the humor in the script without losing sight of the inherent tragedy of their situation. Harriet D. Foy as Makeda, the black slave of a black family, makes the most of what has to count as the juiciest role, which includes an exquisitely choreographed if odd leap into voodoo. The three sisters create distinct personalities — embodying their mother’s description “the youngest Odette is all heart and the oldest Agnès: all body.” Marie Thomas is a hilariously scheming best friend turned antagonist, Michelle Wilson the crazy sister who maybe has more insight than any of them.
Linda Gravátt gives the role of Beartrice the gravitas it requires, with her character deepened by the suggestion of a willfully suppressed vulnerability. There were times during the production when I would have preferred that the dialect coach Dawn-Elin Fraser hadn’t worked so hard to make the accents so authentic, but when Gravátt delivers Beartrice’s last resentful, bitter, hopeful monologue at the end of “The House That Will Not Stand,” her words couldn’t be clearer, nor her underlying emotions; and, whatever her family thinks of her, we wind up caring.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged
The House That Will Not Stand
New York Theatre Workshop
Written by Marcus Gardley
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Scenic design by Adam Rigg, costume design by Montana Levi Blanco, lighting design by Yi Zhao, sound design and original music by Justin Ellington, wig design by Cookie Jordan, movement by Raja Feather Kelly, dialect and vocal coach Dawn-Elin Fraser
Cast: Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Juliana Canfield, Harriett D. Foy, Lynda Gravátt, Nedra McClyde, Marie Thomas, Michelle Wilson
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission