There is a steaming pot of New Orleans gumbo being served up on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre stage, vivifying an already enchanting production of “The House that will not Stand” by Oakland playwright Marcus Gardley.
Developed at the Ground Floor at Berkeley Rep, an innovative space dedicated to the cultivation of new plays, Gardley’s most recently completed work is currently having its world premiere on the Thrust Stage as part of the nationally acclaimed theater company’s main season.
Berkeley Rep’s latest commissioned play shines a light on a particular form of slavery most of us probably never encountered in an American history class: the social enslavement of free colored women. This mode of slavery is woven into the form a story that will undoubtedly fascinate and mesmerize audiences.
Welcome to New Orleans, 1836 — an often-overlooked slice of Creole history where voodoo magic and placage arrangements color the culture. With the placage system in place, free women of color were legally “placed” into recognized relationships with white European men. Those in these agreements were given the right to inherit property and assets from their white counterparts upon their passing. This frequently forgotten historical custom placed the placees, many of whom served the most prominent and influential denizens of New Orleans society throughout the 1700s and early 1800s, somewhere between concubines and aristocrats.
Enter Beartrice Alban (a compelling Lizan Mitchell), a sharp-tongued placee and mother of three who may or may not have just murdered her wealthy white lover, Lazare (the always rapturous Ray Reinhardt) through the conjuring of some bizarre voodoo hocus-pocus. With the golden age of the placage declining after the Louisiana Purchase, Beartrice is at risk of losing her rights along with the entirety of her fortune — including everything from her beloved home to the freedom of her teenage daughters. Relentless and tirelessly determined, she sets her eyes on Paris as a safe haven from the racial tyranny and is ready to bring down anyone who gets in her way.
Ironically, the three who stir up the most trouble and stand heavily in the way of Beartrice’s plan are her three daughters, whose agendas differ from that of their mother. The knowingly tempting and quick-witted Agnes (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) and the sweet, dark-skinned Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) are both set on being placed into placage arrangements despite Beartrice’s blatant disapproval. Contrastingly, the ever-so-pious Maude Lynn (Flor De Liz Perez) is trapped by the very shackles of her own religious judgment.
Tied up in the drama is Makeda (the captivating Harriett D. Foy), the family slave and house servant to whom Beatrice promised freedom once she receives her inheritance. Foy’s Makeda is utterly magnetic and enthralls with every dance, song and line — and with each scene, it becomes more and more apparent that it is Makeda’s enslavement and role upon which the play is centered.
As the plot unravels, we become quickly acquainted with the pandemonium that is post-antebellum New Orleans and the complexities of the placage system that are exposed when politics and culture clash.
“The House that will not Stand” tells a tale of slavery beyond its familiar context. Gardley’s script is entwined with magical realism and Creole charm and collides and dissects the two historically uncomfortable topics of female sexuality and race relations winningly. The work is half comedy and half drama — which can be quite conflicting and disorienting at times, for the dialogue flip-flops hastily back and forth between the two. However so, it is the soul of the work that stands high above all other factors, making such flaws so minor that they rarely take away from the story at large.
Michelle Lin covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].