The House That Will Not Stand
By Rosalind Friedman
In the many productions I have reviewed, my complaints have been leveled at the play not the actors, who always give their best. However, in The House That Will Not Stand, a marvelous new piece by Marcus Gardley, the themes and the language, a combination of French and English, are really fascinating and poetic. We learn about a culture in New Orleans in the 1800's of which we had no knowledge: in particular, the relationship between free women of color and white men, who practiced the sanctioned act of “placage.” The term comes from the French “placer” or to place and described formal arrangements, where the mother of a quadroon -- a woman who was one-quarter black-- would place her daughter with a white man and be paid for this transaction. The man in question would support this mistress and her family, while also having a white family.
Here, we meet a beautifully costumed family (Katherine O'Neill) living in an exquisitely elegant home designed by Antje Ellerman, lit by Russell H. Champa. A high ceiling is punctuated by a sparkling crystal chandelier; the furniture appears to be covered in silks; there is fine black lace covering the tall windows. Beatrice, the mother of color, is played by Lizan Mitchell; her white lover and father of her three daughters has just died and is laid out on the dining room table in the next room. The fact that her three daughters are a mixture of colors is discussed openly. There's the tall lovely Tiffany Rachelle Stewart as Maude Lynn, who looks white and actually tells her sister, the adorably pretty Joniece Abbott-Pratt that she is too black. The third sister is Flor de Liz Perez, the very religious Agnes. One minute they are weeping for their pere -- and the other they are beseeching their mother to let them go to the annual Ball, where quadroons are openly presented. Although she adamantly refuses, wanting better for her children, the two sisters lock up Agnes, and sneak out. The consequences are not entirely pleasant.
In the center of all this, is Makeda, the maid who has been with this family for many years and is yearning for her freedom. Harriet D. Foy, who is given credit for Vocal Arrangements and Adidtional Original Compositions, gives the kind of tour de force earthy performance, full of voodoo, music and magic, that is unforgettable. Meanwhile Beatrice, who wants desperately to stay in her home, finds out that she will get nothing; by law, the wife, whom her lover Lazare (handsome, white-haired, Ray Reinhardt) had not lived with in years, inherits all. Ironically, Beatrice is saved by the money she receives from Maude's purchase.
Beatrice is a complicated woman, who seems like the meanest in the world. She's cruel to her friend, La Veuve, attractive Petronia Paley; she screams at her daughters, and admits to killing two husbands. Lizan Mitchell takes this part at too high and strong a pitch. Director Patricia McGregor should tone down the levels a bit so the drama and story could shine even more. That said, The House That Will Stand, is an exciting new play by Marcus Gardley; it will be at the Yale Rep through May 10.
(This review originally aired on WMFR Fine Arts radio)