Written by Marcus Garvey; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Off Broadway, Play
Extended through 8.19.18
New York Theatre Workshop, 83 East 4th Street
by Emily Cordes on 8.5.18
Harriet D. Foy, Lynda Gravátt, and Michelle Wilson in The House That Will Not Stand. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: Inspired by Lorca’s classic, The House That Will Not Stand crafts a rich parable of freedom and oppression.
The House of Bernarda Alba, Federico García Lorca’s tale of a tyrannical widow and her rebellious daughters, stands as a testament to the dangers of corrupt power and repressed desire. Despite its footing in the cultural climate of Andalusian Spain, the play’s themes surpass time and circumstance, revealing systemic oppression’s capacity to poison our most intimate human bonds. Set in 1803 New Orleans, Marcus Garvey’s The House That Will Not Stand deepens and extends Lorca’s critique as it follows the Albans, free women of color poised on the brink of social and familial disruption.
Formed by the practice of plaçage, a French legal concession through which white men held common-law marriages with their black mistresses, the Albans household now faces the dual impact of its patriarch’s death and the recent Louisiana Purchase, both of which threaten its former stability. Following the passing of her wealthy white husband Lazare, former placée Beartrice Albans (Lynda Gravátt) readies herself to claim his fortune and safeguard the futures of their daughters Agnès (Nedra McClyde), Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield), and Odette (Joniece Abbot-Pratt). However, Beartrice's efforts are compounded by rumors of her involvement in Lazare’s death, and newly established American laws nullifying their union and granting the inheritance to Lazare’s “legal” white widow.
As her old rival La Veuve (Marie Thomas) closes in on the family’s spoils, Beartrice wrests control, imposing a seven-month mourning period, barring her children from society, and denying Makeda (Harriett D. Foy), their lone slave, her manumission. Unease descends as the girls chafe at their imprisonment, particularly Agnès, who yearns to meet her white suitor Ramón at a masked ball and become a placée like her mother. When Makeda’s intercession fails, the girls sneak out to secure Agnès' plaçage. Meanwhile, more restless souls stir in the form of Beartrice’s mad sister Marie Josephine (Michelle Wilson). Confined to the attic and grieving her dark-skinned former lover, Marie insists Lazare’s ghost haunts the house, and appeals to Makeda’s knowledge of voodoo to contact his troubled spirit. As storms brew and plans unravel, the Albans women must confront multiple specters to face the world before them.
Garvey’s lush symbolism, paired with a formidable cast, reveals the conundrum of freedom sought through oppression. Gravátt’s Beartrice is a woman hardened by time and circumstance, unafraid to threaten, seduce, or manipulate to retain what is hers. The product of a corrupt system, her machinations form a twisted effort to rise within its confines while protecting her daughters from the same fate. Like Lazare’s ghost, the phantoms of patriarchy, racism, and classism haunt the estate as Odette’s love for Ramón, Maude Lynn’s fanatic piety, and Agnès' social climbing launch a wave of sisterly backstabbing which, as Marie Josephine notes, makes the whole family bleed.
Paradoxically, the play’s most oppressed characters offer its greatest hope, linking their compatriots’ history with the promise of transcendence. A slave amongst freewomen, Foy’s Makeda traverses worlds with truth, humor, and grace, as willing to barter for information as she is to harbor lost spirits or uplift her charges with tribute to their African roots. Trapped but for the “freedom” of her madness, Marie Josephine plays a similar role, hovering between rapturous fantasy and acute awareness of the family’s strife.
Blending period detail with minimalist framing, Adam Rigg’s set embraces and ensnares the women. Its ornate, transparent walls give flimsy shelter against natural, supernatural, or human threat, but the characters cling to any refuge it provides. Lazare’s corpse lies on a bier throughout, a silent emblem of the household’s toxic foundations and perpetual conflict. The house voices disquiet through Justin Ellington’s foreboding soundscapes, while his original songs lend beauty to its starkness. Moving from shadowy evening to stormy night and hesitant dawn, Yi Zhao’s lighting builds pivotal tension, but borders on melodrama when strobe-light storms embellish characters’ fury.
A fitting heir to its source text, The House That Will Not Stand brings Lorca to the American sphere, highlighting the racial injustice, gender disparity, and class warfare that shadows our history and bleeds into modern life. Distorting our affections and pitting us against our own, neither house nor nation steeped in such bias can stand. Yet as the play suggests, we may dismantle these self-sustained prisons through awareness, compassion, and fortitude, building better worlds in their wake.
(The House That Will Not Stand plays at New York Theatre Workshop, 83 East 4th Street, through August 19, 2018. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7, Wednesdays through Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 1. Performance on Wed 8/8 is at 7; performances on Sun 8/19 are at 2 and 7. Tickets are $65 and are available at nytw.org.)
The House That Will Not Stand is written by Marcus Garvey and directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Scenic Design by Adam Rigg. Costume Design by Montana Levi Blanco. Lighting Design by Yi Zhao. Sound Design and Original Music by Justin Ellington. Wig Design by Cookie Jordan. Dialect & Vocal Coach is Dawn-Elin Fraser. Movement Direction by Raja Feather Kelley. Production Stage Manager is Terri K. Kohler.
The cast is Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Juliana Canfield, Harriet D. Foy, Lynda Gravátt, Nedra McClyde, Marie Thomas, and Michelle Wilson.