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The House That Will Not Stand

Theatre Review by David Hurst - July 30, 2018

Lynda Gravátt, Joniece Abbott-Pratt and Nedra McClyde
Photo by Joan Marcus

A moment comes near the end of New York Theatre Workshop's sensational new production of Marcus Gardley's provocative play, The House That Will Not Stand, where a house-slave named Makeda, superbly embodied by Harriett D. Foy, obtains her freedom from the Albans family who owns her and she walks out their door for the last time. It's a spine-tingling moment that will remain seared in your mind long after you see it, like much of the play that precedes it. Following 2014 productions of the play at Berkeley Rep and Yale Rep (who co-produced it) and the Tricycle in London, and A 2016 mounting at the Victory Gardens in Chicago, Gardley and The House That Will Not Stand are finally receiving a first-rate New York production that's richly produced and wonderfully acted.

Born and raised in Oakland, California, Gardley is more frequently produced in San Francisco, where he initially studied poetry at San Francisco State University, and Chicago, where he's currently the Playwright in Residence at the Victory Gardens Theater. In recent years New Yorkers have only seen three pieces by Gardley: the musical On The Levee in 2010 at LCT3 at the Duke on 42nd Street; The Box: A Black Comedy in 2014 at The Foundry at The Irondale Center in Brooklyn; and X: Or Betty Shabazz v. The Nation earlier this year courtesy of The Acting Company. Having come of age during "the age of Obama," Gardley is one of several young, African-American playwrights considered a post-black artist by some intellectuals in academia. His theatre work explores the black experience across a wide spectrum of individuals, such as a war veteran's difficult journey home to Harlem (Black Odyssey), women who joined the labor force to build ships in WWII (This World in a Woman's Hands) and hair salon owners grappling with gentrification (A Wonder in My Soul). For the last several years Gardley has worked predominately in television on shows as diverse as Z: The Beginning of Everything on Amazon and The Chi on Showtime.

Loosely inspired by Federíco Garcia Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, The House That Will Not Stand takes place in Beartrice Albans house in Faubourg Tremé in New Orleans over the course of a summer Sunday in 1813. At that time (after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 but before the North descended to irrevocably change their way of life), the Tremé neighborhood had the largest population of "free people of color" in the country and was a place where plaçage (pluh-sage) — a system of concubinage between free women of color and white men who were in common law marriages with them — was the order of the day. A woman, usually a quadroon, who was part of this system of plaçage was referred to as a placeé (plah-say). As the play begins, Beartrice's (Lynda Gravátt) married, white husband, Lazare, has died and his body is laid out in the parlor, dressed in white and surrounded by gardenias. Beartrice's arch enemy, La Veuve (Marie Thomas) arrives to pay her respects but ends up grilling the Albans family slave, Makeda (Harriett D. Foy), for information about Lazare's death and Beartrice's plans for her three unmarried daughters: the eldest Agnès (Nedra McClyde), the middle Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield) and the youngest Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt). Beartrice's younger sister Marie Josephine (Michelle Wilson) also lives in the house but she's kept locked up in the attic due to her questionable mental stability.

As Beartrice schemes to secure the deed to her house as quickly as she can, her daughters are desperate to convince their mother to let them attend the last masked ball of the season. But Beartrice is determined not to allow any of her daughters to attend for fear they'll become a placeé like she has been, a fate she considers as bad as slavery. Meanwhile, her actual slave, Makeda, is scheming to buy her freedom and start a new life for herself, something Beartrice has promised to do for her but has yet to make good on. In spinning his story, Gardley is able to explore different strata of servitude in the African-American and Creole community of that specific time and place. Additionally, it's a chance to observe the sexual rivalry between light-skinned and dark-skinned sisters, as well as the ever-shifting power balance between a matriarch, her sister and her daughters. The acting, particularly Gravátt as Beartrice and Foy as Makeda, is superb. Additionally, Gardley injects a huge dose of humor into his play in the caustic put-downs between the women with Gravátt getting the lion's share of the most hilarious retorts. Beartrice's possible solution to obtaining the deed to her house from Lazare's white wife is as shocking as it is outrageous.

Astutely directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (Red Speedo and Pipeline) the design elements of The House That Will Not Stand are particularly lavish. Adam Rigg's gorgeous scenic design of the Albans house works beautifully with the wonderful lighting of Yi Zhao and the delicious sound and music of Justin Ellington. And Montana Levi Blanco's spot-on period costumes for the cast's seven actresses are picture-perfect, particularly the fans, which the women snap with style and panache. Yes, you can quibble about the two-dimensionality of several characters and Gardley's occasional contemporary anachronism, but you can't argue that The House That Will Not Stand isn't wildly entertaining.

The House That Will Not Stand
Through August 12
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street
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