The House that will not Stand -- Solid performance at Yale Rep
By Amy J. Barry
Yale Rep ends its season with a rich and flavorful production set in mid 19th century New Orleans -- the world premiere of The House that will not Stand by Marcus Gardley. The costumes by Katherine O’Neill are lush and beautiful, Antje Ellermann’s staging of a parlor in a fine Southern home is elegantly detailed, Russell Champa’s lighting is exquisite and the complex drama is big and bold under the keen direction of Patricia McGregor.
The theme of the play needs some explanation as it explores an aspect of history that not much has been written about and therefore with which most of us are not familiar: placage. This describes a contract between “free women of color” and white men, since interracial marriage was not allowed at the time. Placage, from the French “to place,” allowed for the African American women in this arrangement to live very comfortably, attend lavish balls, and inherit property upon the white man’s death. Typically, for a sum of money, like a dowry, a daughter was placed with a white man by her mother.
The structure of the play follows this definition quite literally. The matriarchal Beatrice (Lizan Mitchell) is seemingly upset over the death of her white lover Lazare (Ray Reinhardt), who has just died under questionable circumstances. Reinhardt only appears briefly “alive” on stage as a ghost in the otherwise all female production.
Lazare wanted their three beautiful daughters, Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), Maude Lynn (Flor De Liz Perez), and Agnes (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) to attend an annual ball where they would find eligible white men and become their common law wives. But Beartrice sees this arrangement as just another form of slavery and forbids her daughters to attend. Like Cinderella, Agnes goes against her mother’s wishes and attends the ball with Odette agreeing to go along, disguised as Beatrice, to seal a “marriage” deal with a wealthy white man. The pious Maude Lynn sides with Beatrice, but to no avail can she stop her sisters from attending the ball. The plot thickens like a good gumbo and brings in magical realism with hymns sung by the daughters as they enter the stage, and distant drumming by percussionist Jocelyn Pleasant. Adding to the other-worldly feeling are characters Makeda (Harriett D. Foy) a voodoo-believing slave, desperate to attain her freedom, who runs the household, and Marie Josephine (Petronia Paley), Beatrice’s ghostly, half-crazed sister.
Mitchell leads the superb ensemble cast as the impassioned and fiery Beatrice, whose sweet potato pies could make the difference between life and death.
In the program notes, Marcus Gardley says, “Initially I set out to write about the time period, and then I realized I needed to write about African Americans who had slaves, and how music, poetry, and family ties play into the central narrative.”
It is quite a challenge to bring so many elements fluidly together in one play, and Gardley has succeeded quite famously. As clear as a bell in a complex plot is the message of what freedom means and at what price, quite literally, one will go to achieve it.
The House that will not Stand is at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven through May 10. Tickets are available online at www.yalerep.org, by phone at 203-432-1234 or in person at the box office.
This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies,and online at zip06.com and theday.com.