The House That Will Not Stand
Also see Zander's review of Shrek the Musical
Scenic designer Antje Ellerman's inviting set brings us to a two-tiered home in New Orleans. The year is 1836 and the interior is rich and comfortable. Lazare (Ray Reinhardt), who is an older white man, has just died. Beartrice (Lizan Mitchell) is a black woman who was his lover or, perhaps better said, he was her common-law husband. The play draws its focus upon plaçage arrangements. Playwright Marcus Gardley explores a time when black women (mistresses of white men) anticipated they would have inheritance and property rights when the men passed on.
Beartrice has three daughters. Agnes (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) is determined to get to a ball so she can find a lover. She insists that Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) become a facilitator and disguise herself as their mother. Agnes, mean-spirited, is eager to insult Odette about Odette's darker complexion. Tiffany Rachelle Stewart and Joniece Abbott-Pratt are quite beautiful women. Meanwhile, the youngest daughter, attractive Maude Lynn (Flor De Liz Perez), initially does quite a bit of praying. It becomes evident that she is drawn to her mother but curious about her sisters' choices, too.
Pivotal to the plot and brilliant in performance is actress Harriett D. Foy who plays the servant Makeda. She works for Beartrice and is not afraid to challenge her. Additionally, Makeda accesses the world of witchcraft. Beartrice is filled with self-pride and Makeda goes toe-to-toe with her. All the while, Makeda's quest is to liberate herselfto become a free woman. Late in the performance, she sings with soul and eloquence. Keith Townsend Obadike has designed sound for the production and contributes original composition. Foy provides vocal arrangements and added composition.
While it lasts just over two hours, including intermission, The House That Will Not Stand seems (and this is a compliment) much longer. So much occurs and there are multiple stories. Director Patricia McGregor effectively stages the proceedings as the sisters are oftentimes stationed upon a second story room. It is there that unhappy, driven Agnes makes her demands.
In addition to those already mentioned, Petronia Paley has two roles. She plays the neighbor La Veuve and Beartrice's sister Marie Josephine. Jocelyn Pleasant, who is not seen, provides live percussion for this presentation. Costumer Katherine O'Neill dresses the women in lovely period dresses which accent that epoch.
Gardley's play opens a window on this historical time of plaçage while the performance is energetic, musical and, during some moments, sharply comic. Beartrice wants better lives for her daughters. Beartrice, it appears, will not get her inheritance and she does not want the young women to become victims. On the other hand, plaçage did allow some women of color to have limited hope. It does not seem that the women entering into these so-called "left-handed marriages" become truly independent.
Production elements, high quality of writing, and excellent performances come together so that this is a full, heartfelt, and inspirational evening of theater. Real and spiritual worlds are combined so that the theatergoer will contemplate beyond the final curtain. Harriett D. Foy's turn as the ardent, smart, yearning Makeda is not easily forgotten.
The House That Will Not Stand continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through May 10th. For tickets, call (203) 432-1234 or visit www.yalerep.org.
- Fred Sokol