There’s a corpse onstage for the entirety of Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand: an old white guy, suited up and laid out like a stuffed turkey on the dining-room table. He’s totally inert, yet his gravitational reach — and that of other white men we never see onstage — is all-encompassing, pulling like undertow on the fates of Gardley’s living characters, all women of color. House impresses on a number of levels: as a funny, sorrowful parable of nineteenth-century Creole New Orleans; an interrogation of complex racial histories; a tour de force of creative and verbose insults, delivered at breakneck speed. Lileana Blain-Cruz, with characteristic elegance and precision, directs an excellent cast in its New York premiere for New York Theatre Workshop.
House, inspired by Gardley’s family stories and loosely based on the Spanish modernist Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, anatomizes the collision of two colonial systems following the United States’s purchase of Louisiana from the French. Gardley’s brilliant, imposing protagonist, the matriarch Beartrice (Lynda Gravátt), is a free woman of color who, under the French practice called plaçage, lived as a white man’s common-law spouse, commanding an elegant house and enjoying the compulsory labor of the enslaved Makeda (a stunning performance by Harriett D. Foy). That is, until the day when Beartrice’s husband, Lazare, abruptly choked on a fish bone (hence the dead body in the spot where snacks might otherwise be). Now, swathed in black lace, Beartrice declares a period of household mourning against the wishes of her daughters, who are desperate to attend the evening’s masked ball so they can meet men and follow their mother into plaçage. Makeda is desperate, too — she’s been promised her freedom once Beartrice’s daughters are grown. Beartrice’s house is shuttered to keep the girls in, but also to keep external pressures out: heavy stormclouds rolling in, plus the Yankees, moving inexorably closer and bringing with them an entirely different system of slavery and racial oppression.
Desperation, wild weather, last-ditch escape plans: all the makings of a tragedy. But there’s little room for mourning in Gardley’s play, and no sentimentality in Blain-Cruz’s production. The women are all strategy and skill, the dialogue barbed with comebacks you’ll find difficult to forget. “Sniffling is for opium addicts and infants with pneumonia,” Beartrice snaps at her daughter Maude (Juliana Canfield), who dares grieve her father. Gardley isn’t suggesting that plaçage placed women in total control of their destinies. It was a vicious social order giving lighter-skinned women all the advantage; this devastating reality plays out in a struggle between two of Beartrice’s daughters, the lighter-skinned Agnès (Nedra McClyde) and the darker-skinned Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), over the same beau. But plaçage and the French system were different, and less genocidal, than the American slavery that followed. Adam Rigg’s set — high white shutters and open scaffolding — suggests freedom and confinement at once. There are no walls here, but also no escape.
In the original Bernarda Alba, offstage social context is more abstract and harder to divine. So even though it’s fundamentally a portrait of patriarchy — of the stifling forces that keep women confined to marriage, old maidhood, or death — it can at times feel misogynistic, because we can’t always see the bigger picture, and don’t always know why Lorca has rendered the matriarch so unbearably severe. Not so here: Gardley’s approach to historical background makes the white male power system concrete, and the onstage struggles urgently particular. Crucially, he also shifts protagonists late in the play, from Beartrice to Makeda, who gains her freedom and, satchel in hand, sets off to make a life — in a country that, as Gardley notes, will be built on her labor while forgetting her name.