Review: In a New Orleans ‘House,’ Wealthy Women Are Haunted by Slavery’s Ghosts (by Haitian/PR Director Lileana Blain-Cruz)

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A review by Ben Brantley for the New York Times.

When you hear a drum beat as you’re watching Marcus Gardley’s “The House That Will Not Stand,” which opened on Monday night at New York Theater Workshop, sit up and pay attention. It’s likely to be the prelude to a flash of wondrousness.

Drums are what herald two extraordinary monologues in this densely packed, erratic comic drama, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Their percussive insistence shapes two separate instances when both a character and the play that has hitherto confined her soar into a stratosphere of freedom.

Each is, to some degree, about living in — and denying — captivity in early 19th-century New Orleans. The first monologue belongs to Marie Josephine (a rapturous Michelle Wilson), a middle-aged woman who is a virtual prisoner of her domineering sister, as she recalls a cruelly terminated love affair with a drummer who, like her, had skin as black as “a midnight with no stars.”

The second soliloquy finds Makeda (Harriett D. Foy), a household servant of regal bearing, delivering a propulsive history lesson to Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), the youngest daughter of the house, who believes her dark complexion is a fatal stain. In a speech that recalls the time-bending arias of August Wilson, Makeda hymns the sacredness of the drum:

It be the sway in a Negro woman’s hip
The shuffle in a colored man’s stride.
The beat be the blackest thang alive
Wake up! See how we survived

Makeda, rumor has it, is skilled in the sinister arts of voodoo. But what she’s channeling here is a spirit of pure divinity. And as Ms. Foy rides the bucking rhythms of Makeda’s journey through the past, present and future of African-Americans, she achieves an exaltation that lifts her and the audience into the empyrean.

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“The House That Will Not Stand” is Mr. Gardley’s loquacious and freewheeling answer to “The House of Bernarda Alba,” Federico García Lorca’s tightly coiled 1936 tragedy of sexual repression in rural Spain. Mr. Gardley’s “House” lacks the compelling inevitably and grim logic of Lorca’s.

Yet consistency of plot and tone clearly are not Mr. Gardley’s first objectives. What he’s up to here is suggested by the difference between the titles of his and Lorca’s plays. (Mr. Gardley has made a specialty of ingenious riffs on classic themes and American archetypes, in works that include “X: or, Betty Shabazz v. the Nation” and “A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes,” which relocated Molière’s “Tartuffe” to Atlanta.)

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Though he has provided an equivalent to Lorca’s titular matriarch — Beartrice Albans, embodied by the formidable Lynda Gravátt — the house that gives his play its name is more openly metaphoric. This house that is destined to fall is the corrupt institution of slavery.

Or rather slavery in many forms — cultural, familial and religious, in a world where worth is measured by skin tones. This “House” has been built in a fascinating, very particular time and place in American history, when women of color were mistresses to white New Orleans grandees in a system called plaçage.

Ms. Foy with Michelle Wilson, portraying an unstable aunt, in Marcus Gardley’s play at New York Theater Workshop.

These were women who, like Beartrice, ran their own households and enjoyed a degree of autonomy that would have been unthinkable for slaves on plantations. In the summer of 1813, a decade after Napoleon sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States, such freedoms are about to be revoked by the establishment of new laws.

In “House,” this threat imposes a deadline not only for Beartrice — whose longtime lover has just died (and is visibly lying in state) — to secure legal ownership of her home. Her personal slave, Makeda, must acquire her freedom from her owner before it is no longer legally possible to do so. Beartrice, though, is a woman who likes to control those around her.

That’s especially true of her three daughters: Agnès (Nedra McClyde), who longs to attach herself to a rich white man; Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield), a young woman of fanatical piety; and Odette, the least assured of the three.

Rounding out the ménage is their ranting aunt, Marie Josephine, who lives restlessly in the attic, like the mad Mrs. Rochester of “Jane Eyre.” And lurking at the edges, like a vulture who has scented carrion, is La Veuve (Marie Thomas), an evil-tongued frenemy of Beartrice.

You may find it difficult to sort out all the rivalries and counterplots festering among these women. And despite Ms. Gravátt’s monolithic presence, it isn’t any easier to reconcile Beartrice’s puritanical strictness with her consciousness of her sexuality as her greatest asset. (She refers to her genitalia as her “sweet potato pie,” which becomes addictive to anyone who tastes it.)

In the same vein, the insults that fly among the characters have the formulaic snap of contemporary sitcom banter. And Mr. Gardley’s fondness for metaphor can sometimes strangle what should be simple exposition.

Ms. Blain-Cruz, the fast-rising director whose earlier credits include the Signature Theater’s stunning production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World,” doesn’t find a similar, persuasively sustained perspective here. But the production is a lavish eyeful, for sure.

Adam Rigg has created a handsome, atmospheric prison of a set (beautifully lighted by Yi Zhao), and Montana Levi Blanco’s mourning costumes are deliciously opulent. But the most crucial technical element here may be Justin Ellington’s sound design, which hints at the abiding presence of ghosts from a long and troubled history.

There is also, just so you know, a real ghost, that of Lazare Albans, Beartrice’s late lover, whom she may or may not have murdered the day before. He inhabits the body of the remarkable Ms. Foy’s Makeda, and he is a vibrant, insufferably sneering and oppressive specter.

It feels right that haunting should acquire such visceral physicality in a universe where the past is always present. As Beartrice pricelessly observes of her deceased and despised partner: “Shoulda known you’d be just as hellish in death as you were in life, Lazare. That was my error: thinking you’d change just ’cause you was dead.”

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