- Chief New York Theatre Critic
- Outer Critics Circle
Beartrice Albans (a resolute and Machiavellian Lynda Gravátt) spent her life under the oppressive laws that governed people of color in the colony of Louisiana. Specifically, she was Lazare’s placée a status that allows her as a woman of color to set up common law households with a white man to circumvent legal prohibitions. Beartrice’s mother signed the papers that placed the young woman into this form of indentured servitude. Lazare, of course, was married to a white woman although he and Beartrice had three daughters together. In “The House That Will Not Stand” at New York Theatre Workshop, Marcus Gardley examines what happens to Beartrice and her daughters when Lazare dies (mysteriously) and new American laws – post Louisiana Purchase in 1813 – threaten to leave them homeless and living in poverty. Is there any chance of survival for the house Beartrice “built” during her time with Lazare?
Under the new American laws, Beartrice’s house goes to Lazare’s wife after his death, not to Beartrice. “I spent most of my life trying to break the yoke I got ‘round my neck when my mother sold me to be a placée. I thought I was selling my body for love or at least for wealth but the only thing it afforded me in the end was this house.” Beartrice does not plan to give up her home in Creole Faubourg Tremé, Louisiana easily. Nor will she “see her daughters become placées and thusly the property of white men.” There are a variety of new plays on and off Broadway that parse the kinetics of white privilege and systemic racism in a fictional setting. “The House That Will Not Stand” analyzes the same themes in an historical setting from the point of view of those experiencing the oppression.
Since its original presentation by the New York Stage and Film Company and the Powerhouse Theatre at Vassar in 2012, Marcus Gardley’s important play has been performed across the country and around the world. Its presentation at NYTW could not be timelier or more significant. The struggles of these strong Creole women – forerunners of Civil Rights in America – resonate with the struggles of all marginalized persons who feel they are either far from accessing true freedom and equality or one step away from losing the freedom and equality they and their forebears fought for.
The divisions within Beartrice’s house are powerful tropes for the divisions that existed in the early 1800s in America and continue to exist in the present. Director Blain-Cruz uses these intriguing divisions to move the action of the play forward with the alacrity requisite to the story line. Lynda Gravátt’s gripping performance as Beartrice is the centerpiece of “The House That Will Not Stand.” Ms. Gravátt portrays Beartrice as a conflicted mother who attempts to juggle her own need to stay in power with the needs of her daughters Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield), and Agnès (Nedra McClyde). Beartrice’s commitment to protect them despite the machinations of her sworn enemy La Veuve (Marie Thomas) and her clairvoyant sister Marie Josephine (Michelle Wilson) is unimaginably fierce. Lynda Gravátt’s multi-layered Beartrice will do anything, including giving herself to Lazare’s wife to keep her house standing.
Under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s deft direction, the seven-member all-female cast grabs the stage right at the beginning of the first act and never relaxes its tight grip on the plot driven by the conflicts of their individual characters. These are performances the audience will not easily forget – they sear deeply into the psyche with logos, ethos, pathos and humor as they explore the dynamics of systemic racism and sexism and freedom. Lileana Blain-Cruz creates stunning “pictures” throughout the performance that transcend traditional boundaries of space and time. These “pictures” include the compelling scene during which Beartrice’s slave Makeda (Harriet D. Foy) casts a spell on the deceased Lazare and allows him to overtake her body to learn the truth of his death. Ms. Foy’s performance is as brilliant as it is unsettling. Beartrice’s daughters and her sister have different ideas of how to escape bondage and these scenes are equally compelling.
Adam Rigg’s scenic design is magnificent and captures the splendor and period of the Creole cottage in Louisiana. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes and Cookie Jordan’s wigs are award-worthy and period perfect. Yi Zhao’s lighting and Justin Ellington’s sound and original music capture the mystery and pathos of Marcus Gardley’s script.
Beartrice is the mother who knows that her daughters “will be spat on because of the color of their skin, raped because of their flesh, made to slave in kitchens because of their sex;” however, despite their prodigality and upon their return “crawling on [their] necks, begging [her] with [their] baby eyes,” she will “still be here, sitting on my throne. I’ll sit back, suck my teeth and say so sweetly…Well…Welcome Home!” Prodigal daughters and prodigal mother willing to sacrifice all to obtain and preserve freedom. “The House That Will Not Stand” raises the essential and enduring questions needed to continue the discussion of systemic racism in America.
THE HOUSE THAT WILL NOT STAND
The cast for “The House That Will Not Stand” includes Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Juliana Canfield, Harriett D. Foy, Lynda Gravátt, Nedra McClyde, Marie Thomas, and Michelle Wilson.
The creative team includes scenic designer Adam Rigg, costume designer Montana Levi Blanco, lighting designer Yi Zhao, and sound design and original music by Justin Ellington. Movement is by Raja Feather Kelly. The dialect and vocal coach is Dawn-Elin Fraser. Terri Kohler serves as stage manager. Production photos by Joan Marcus.
“The House That Will Not Stand” runs at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th Street) through Sunday, August 12, 2018. For the performance schedule and to purchase tickets, please visit https://www.nytw.org/. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.