‘You may be the wealthiest coloured woman in New Orleans, but you built this house on sand, lies and dead bodies’.
Marcus Gardley began his writing career as a poet before becoming a playwright; and his flair for the poetic is evident in the mesmerising lyric dialogue of The House That Will Not Stand. The language runs rich with imagery and the wry metaphorical description typical of literature set in the American Deep South. With “mouths the size of the Mississippi” and irises that “wither into the soft hues of morning” or “burn bloodshot like a sunset”; the themes of mysticism and the supernatural are propelled by the play’s language, established from the off by the ominous grey-haired corpse splayed on the dining room table and developing into voodoo ritual and black magic as the story unfolds.
1836 New Orleans, and the state of Louisiana is being taken over by The Yankees. Under the previous French and Spanish colonial rule a ‘woman of colour’ could become a placée – the common-law wife of a wealthy white man – and achieve wealth, status and freedom (of sorts), but soon there will be a segregated class system that will strip the placées of everything. But what did they have to begin with? Meet Beartrice Albans, placée to a rich white man and one of the wealthiest women in New Orleans, with three beautiful daughters. When the rich white man mysteriously dies, the foundation of freedom that Beartrice has built for her daughters begins to collapse, and the women turn on each other in their struggle for freedom.
The Tricycle Theatre is housing the British premiere of The House That Will Not Stand. The size of the stage is perhaps a little small for the full grandeur of the Albans’ mansion to take on, but the play is staged well and the use of split-levels and offstage acting helps to establish a sense of naturalism and scale; the women’s elaborate, glittering gowns compensate for the splendour that the stage lacks. The cast are excellent: each actor displays a wry comic timing (as well as an array of rumbling intonation, eye rolling and teeth-kissing). However the characters sometimes feel disappointingly one-dimensional: with maudlin Maud Lynne (Get it?) the Christian vs. the two sisters who Just Want To Go To The Ball, the motives and conflict of each have the feeling of the overly familiar.
Though the play begins brilliantly, the second half felt confused: Beartrice’s motives to imprison her daughters become unclear and unrealistic, and her inspirational speech as she sets her serving-woman Makeda free from slavery feels strangely out of character for a woman who is known as notoriously calculating in respect to her own assets.
What the play does excellently, however, is explore a little-trodden path in American history. By examining this unique time in New Orleans, Gardley looks at multiple expressions of black womanhood, at the price and nature of freedom and at the ways that we continue to internalise constructs of identity. By thinning the walls between the natural and supernatural worlds, the past and present and the living and the dead, The House That Will Not Stand asks us to examine our conceived ideas of history: the accepted history that we have come to know as the truth and those histories which we have cast aside in its wake. 3/5
Review written by Claudia Winter.
The House That Will Not Stand is currently showing at the Tricycle Theatre until Saturday 22nd November. For more information on the production, visit here…
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