Slavery, freedom, power, the position of women, racial inequality, degrees of color — so many serious subjects come up in Marcus Gardley’s uneven “The House That Will Not Stand.” But, for some reason, the Bay Area native, now a New York up-and-comer, chose to write it funny. The laughs — and there are a lot of them — make the evening enjoyable but tend to mask the heavy import of the story.
It’s an interesting one, dealing with a little-known area of American history. In the early days of Louisiana settlement, white men outnumbered available women of their same race and social class. Coincidentally, a large number of free women of color were living in the area, due to the relaxed laws that allowed slaves to earn money and purchase their liberty, laws that came down from the territory’s European heritage and were unique in the American South, as well as a massive migration from Haiti. Supply and demand: a tradition of plaçage, a system by which young women of color were contracted to wealthy white men by their mothers for large sums of money (think Colette’s “Gigi”). The contracts were binding, with financial safeguards should the relationships come to an end. There often were children and, even if the man was married, he sometimes chose to live with his placée and leave her the bulk of his estate.
And then came the Louisiana Purchase and the laws of Louisiana were brought into accordance with the rest of the states. Gardley opens his play in the mid-1830s, just as the law has changed. Beartrice (a powerful Lizan Mitchell) has just closed the eyes of her longtime protector Lazare (Ray Reinhardt), who has left her their lovely home (elegantly appointed drawing room set by Antje Ellermann, replete with Spanish moss hanging from the theater ceiling) and all his worldly goods. Except she can’t collect. Under the new law, it all goes to his legal wife. “The Louisiana Purchase took away all our rights,” she bemoans.
The merry widow wants to take her three daughters to Paris, where they can continue to live in their accustomed style in a free society. But the money isn’t there and two of the girls — oversexed Agnès (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) and the romantic, idealistic Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) want to go to the Quadroon Ball, where they may be chosen by a wealthy white patron (Agnès already has one picked out). The third sister, Maude-Lynn (Flor De Liz Perez) is in love with Jesus and has to be tied up and gagged so the other two can make their escape.
Another very major character is Makeda, the maid (Harriett D. Foy) and, as funny as the family may be, she takes the cake (or, in this case, the sweet potato pie). Lots of common sense and a bit of voodoo get her through life until she can negotiate her freedom. Foy is fabulous in the role. The cast is rounded out by Petronia Paley, doubling as La Veuve, Beartrice’s arch-enemy, and Marie Josephine, Beartrice’s slightly balmy (or is she?) sister who has been confined to the house for some 30 years after falling out of a window on her way to an “inappropriate” assignation with a man whose skin is much too dark. The house, lovely as it is, actually is something of a prison — not just to Marie and the two rebellious daughters, but to Makeda the slave and, perhaps, to Beartrice herself, although she functions as the warden.
The women are fantastic, dressed in Katherine O’Neill’s lush antebellum gowns and ornate headdresses. Which means no derogation to Reinhardt, who spends most of his time dead — except when he is conjured up by voodoo incantation, beautifully chanted by Foy.
It’s just that the play itself, a co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre, is such an emotional hodgepodge. Under Patricia McGregor’s direction, it is occasionally moving (especially at the end), historically fascinating and hysterically funny to boot. Perhaps that’s the only way to tell this kind of story. Or perhaps, in true Creole fashion, the playwright simply chose to let the good times roll.