The year is 1813, on the eve of the Louisiana Purchase. The place is French (for now) New Orleans, where free women of color—well, light-skinned women of color—can enter into plaçage, a kind of common-law marriage with a white man. The looming change from French to American jurisdiction means that, as tenuous as things already are, they’re about to get a lot worse.
This is the setting for Victory Gardens ensemble playwright Marcus Gardley’s 2014 play The House That Will Not Stand, now in a Chicago premiere directed by Chay Yew. It tells the story of Beartrice Albans (Lizan Mitchell), an aging placée whose white husband-cum-master, Lazar, has died suddenly. In a desperate effort to protect herself and her three daughters, Beartrice sets about securing the deed to their family home. She plans to lock them all inside it, giving themselves a place where they can be truly free. Unfortunately for her, pretty much everyone else has different plans.
In this setup (which owes an acknowledged debt to Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba), every character in the play is a woman of color, but they are not all equals. Makeda (Jacqueline Williams) is a slave in the household who’s hoping she can buy her freedom, while Beartrice’s sister Marie-Josephine (Penelope Walker) has been declared mad and locked up in the house for years. Beartrice’s eldest daughter, Agnes (Diana Coates), plans to sneak out of the house to go to a masked ball and find a man to make her his placée. She even goads her younger sister Odette (Aneisa Hicks) into joining her in disguise as their mother, all the while harping on Odette’s darker skin tone as “the family stain.”
The cast is fantastic across the board, with Yew’s turned-up-to-11 direction giving them all license to let it rip. The show opens with the “Purple Rain” guitar riff, courtesy of sound designer Christopher Kriz, and it sets the tone perfectly. By intermission, Yu Shibagaki’s starkly chic set is practically splattered with shade.
When the show is at its best, it is electrifying. Gardley does not shy away from melodrama. Instead, he takes all the familiar soap opera elements and works them into a furious lather. If he wanted to write a play that survived on shade alone, he could have done so easily. But The House That Will Not Stand is not just a tasty collection of bons mots. It is a serious inquiry into the politics of race, gender and the awful intersection of the two. The show unravels somewhat in Act II, the plot devolving into a series of moments, but many of those moments still land with thunderous, squalling power.
Victory Gardens Theater. By Marcus Gardley. Directed by Chay Yew. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2 hrs 15 mins; one intermission.