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 plaçage contracts 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.
Oldest daughter Agnes (Nedra McClyde) schemes to attend a ball that might be the last of its kind before Louisiana statehood is complete; there, she hopes to reach an arrangement with a rich white man she met by chance in church. Youngest sister Odette (Joniece Abbottt-Pratt) will also attend the ball under a ruse to support her older sister, but she has other ideas in mind. Pious middle sister Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield) was closest to her dead father, and she’s convinced, based on his actions on earth, that he’s gone to hell. La Veuve (Marie Thomas), the neighbor, is an external antagonist to Beartrice: she threatens to purchase the house if there is no proper transferal of the deed. Then there’s the backbone of the household — three women who desire distinct paths to security: Makeda (Harriett D. Foy), an enslaved house servant who seeks her freedom papers from Beartrice; Marie Josephine (Michelle Wilson), Beartrice’s sister, who lives in the attic and wanders downstairs occasionally to haunt the household; and Beartrice herself.
Gravátt casts a commanding figure, delivering Gardley’s WASPish lines with the vocal gravitas that might power such a household. Canfield, as Maude Lynn, is delicate and resilient — a marvelous follow up to her work in Adrienne Kennedy’s He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box at Theater for a New Audience last season. Abbott-Pratt and McClyde are solid — totally believable as sisters. Wilson haunts and transports in equal measure. And the role and performance that knits this production together, while underscoring the yearning and resilience of each of the play’s characters, is the astounding funny, lyrical and focused Foy.
Gardley’s language is funny, often anachronistic, always potent. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz etches distinct characters on NYTW’s compact stage. Raja Feather Kelly’s stage movement is fluid and syncopated where necessary, combining contemporary gestures and period steps. House music and new compositions by Justin Ellington flow into a lovely sound design that never lets you forget that this is a New Orleans of night insects, of tropical storms. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes create distinct mourning for each character but also potent pops of color for the ball and for the departure of several characters. And the set design by Adam Rigg and lighting design by Yi Zhao cleanly delineate multiple playing areas — a second level, a flowing staircase and various first floor rooms.
Who is entrapped and who escapes social restraints? The House That Will Not Stand is a spunky, engaging, sardonic story of women making their way in a society framed by — who else? — men.