[Full article published in The Clyde Fitch Report, July 31, 2018.]
In Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand at New York Theatre Workshop, eight characters — seven women of color and one dead white man lying in state — populate a splendid New Orleans transmutation of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. Lorca’s play, published in 1934 and first produced in 1945, involves a Spanish widow, the multi-year mourning period she imposes on her five daughters to honor her deceased husband, and how the children respond. Gardley’s adaptation pares the daughters down to three, but includes a housebound aunt, a servant and a neighbor, and transports the action to New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase — right before the Louisiana state legal system was finalized in 1813. Gardley’s theatrical world is enhanced by storms, portents of spirit visitations, choreographed sequences, and thrilling a cappella vocals. After several years in development, the play, the performances and the production design are all terrifying, witty, humorous, resigned, hopeful and haunting.
In 2014, Gardley told the San Francisco Gate that this play, originally commissioned by Berkeley Rep, was intended to be about growing up in Oakland. But he walked the story back a generation or two, incorporating the arrival of his mother’s family from New Orleans to Oakland with their cultural rituals and stories intact — which the playwright then adorns onto Lorca’s plot structure. Beignets, voodoo and storm shutters, social designations like quadroon and octoroon, and the relative worth of light and dark skin among people of color all root Gardley’s storytelling. But, perhaps most important, he analyzes and dramatizes the social practice of plaçage — interracial agreements that allowed white men and women of color to set up extramarital households during slavery.
Gardley’s matriarch, Beartrice Albans (Lynda Gravátt), achieved wealth and stability as the long-term placée of the wealthy, white, recently deceased Lazare Albans. Lazare was legally married to a white woman while maintaining this second household, but he sired children only with Beartrice. Indeed, it is Beartrice who scurries to secure the household in her name to keep her daughters safe — and to prevent them from entering into similar plaçagecontracts of their own. That’s easier said than done, since her daughters have been conditioned to see plaçage as their only road to security. With US law about to assume control and Yankees set to arrive in New Orleans, an old, repressive social order is under threat. And the tenuous arrangements of the household begin to fray.