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Regional Reviews: Chicago

The House That Will Not Stand
Victory Gardens Theater
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's review of Prowess


Jacqueline Williams and Lizan Mitchell
Photo by Michael Courier
Northerners like me can fall into the trap of believing everything in the American South has pretty much the same history even if we've been to New Orleans and experienced the unique sense of place that is the Crescent City. If we've seen the French and Spanish influences around the city, we've been reminded that Louisiana was a colony of those countries when the original 13 colonies were under British rule.

Marcus Gardley's new play gives us a history lesson on how that heritage affected the way Louisiana practiced slavery in the decades before the Civil War. France and its colonies abolished slavery for periods in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and some of these former slaves and their children became "free people of color." In fact, roughly 7% of the population of Louisiana in 1840 were "free people of color." Some of them were women who were married to or concubines of wealthy white men in a system that was called plaçage; the man was the placer and the women the placées. The House That Will Not Stand takes us into the world of one such placée, with magical realism and humor but not without high dramatic stakes.

As the action of the play begins, following exotic dance movement (choreographed by Breon Arzell) to original music by Paul Obispo that sounds like an amalgam of current dance music with Caribbean influences, we learn that a wealthy white man named Lazar has just died under mysterious circumstances. An elegant looking free black woman, La Veuve (Linda Bright Clay), arrives at his home determined to get some inside information on the death from the slave maid Makeda (Jacqueline Williams) of Lazar's placée Beartrice (Lizan Mitchell). La Veuve, a rival to Beartrice, suspects that Beartrice actually murdered Lazar and bribes Makeda with pieces of silver to spill the goods. We soon meet Beartrice and Lazar's teenage daughters (Diana Coates, Angela Alise, and Aneisa Hicks) and the supposedly mentally ill sister Marie-Josephine (Penelope Walker) whom Beartrice has kept locked in the attic, as Gardley slowly establishes the various strands of his plot.

Though Lazar willed the family home to Beartrice, a change in the laws will grant the estate to Lazar's legal and white wife unless Beartrice can find a way to buy it back from her. Daughter Agnès wants to attend an annual ball so she can become selected by the white man who wants her for his placée, but Beartrice forbids it. The youngest daughter, the religious Maude Lynn (Alise), tries to stop the plot Agnès and middle sister Odette (Hicks) have hatched while their aunt Marie-Josephine assists Agnès and Odette in their getaway to the ball.

These subplots seem unrelated at first, and thus it's initially a little hard to see where Gardley is going or where our sympathies should be. Over the course of the two hours and 10 minutes of stage time, though, it all comes together into a remarkable picture of a segment of pre-Civil War society that is certainly new to most of us. But Gardley gives no mere history lesson. His story of these seven very strong and distinctive women is told with dry humor and a serious dose of voodoo magic when Lazar is conjured to inhabit Makeda's body and tell the story of how he died.

Jacqueline Williams's performance is a tour de force, encompassing sly comedy, high drama, and Makeda's possession by the spirit of the crude and masculine Lazar. Lizan Mitchell is no less impressive. Her Beartrice is steely, cold and controlling but we gradually see how her behavior has grown from a determination to maintain at least the level of freedom and privilege she and the daughters have enjoyed, in the face of Lazar's death and political/legal changes as the Civil War approaches. The three daughters have distinct personalities that are brought brilliantly to life by the actress in those roles. Coates's Agnès is willful and cunning, but her egotism keeps her from seeing the bigger picture. Hicks' Odette is initially meek but an inner strength emerges that is at first surprising, but brought to the fore impressively. Alise provides effective comic relief, as does Walker's voodoo practicing Marie Josephine and Clay's La Veuve.

Chay Yew has staged the action rather simply. The first act, particularly, is heavy, with long sections of dialogue presented without much movement and the piece overall has a largely presentational feel. Together with the multiple plot strands and initially unclear establishment of the main theme and conflict, it takes its time drawing the audience. Even so, Yew's impeccable sense of timing and pacing carry the action until we see Gardley's point. Amidst a society that permitted the subjugation of women on several levels—slavery at worst, concubinage for some and lack of suffrage for even the most fortunate—there were strong women like Beartrice determined to take what freedom and self-determination they could.

The action is played on a simple unit set by Yu Shibagaki, mainly a backdrop suggesting an elaborate wrought iron fence with tree branches interwoven. Izumi Inaba's costumes, mainly in blacks and whites, suggest period in an impressionistic way. The sound design by Christopher Kriz is also a standout, combining sound effects suggesting the weather outside along with an echo for Makeda's voice when she is channeling the spirit of Lazar and integrating Obispo's impressive musical score.

The House That Will Not Stand will play the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., through July 10, 2016. For further information and tickets, visit www.victorygardens.org or call 773-871-3000.


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