For 57 years, between the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the start of the American Civil War in 1860, the state of Louisiana was in a kind of limbo, socially defined neither by its French or Spanish history nor its newfound Americanism. Despite a heavy role in the slave trade, with New Orleans hosting the largest slave market in the US by 1840, the state was home to an increasing number of ‘free people of colour’ who, partly due to Louisiana’s lack of European settler women, often served as mistresses or wives to white men, a system know as ‘plaÃ§age.’ Their children, referred to as quadroons, were mixed race, and so Louisiana’s racial system distinguished black people not just by being free or enslaved but by the shade of their blackness.
This is the historical context for Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand – matriarch Beartrice, of French-Creole origin, is mistress of Lazare Albans, a wealthy white merchant whose body, freshly dead, lies to be mourned in the hall of his grand New Orleans house. His passing in effect widows Beartrice – while Lazare had a wife in law it’s Beartrice who is mother to his daughters Agnes, Maude Lynne and Odette, and to whom Lazare leaves the house which they share with Marie, Beartrice’s deranged, clairvoyant sister, and Makeda, the household’s black-African servant.
Lazare’s death – the circumstances of which are murky at best – leaves the household in limbo, with Beartrice under suspicion of foul play, Makeda moving a step closer to emancipation and the daughters potentially a step closer to plaÃ§age, and the building itself haunted by Lazare’s ghost spoiling for a fight. If James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams and Gabriel Garcia Lorca sat round a table to write a spooky spoof, the result might be something like The House. In its working through of a messy narrative the text lurches from social commentary to ghost story to comedy with genre-bending deftness, misfiring (the spooky moving of chairs and fall of curtains is clumsy; the plot hinges in Beartrice’s unlikely unawareness of a legal detail; an overlong first half gets bogged down in exposition) almost as often as it lands, with a healthy dose of Wildean wit throughout.
Designer Tom Piper’s muted set, however, provides a pared-down backdrop to keep the focus not on genre, or really on narrative, but character. The set’s black and white, haunted house simplicity is significantly less ornate than Beartrice implies, as is described in Gardley’s stage description, or was seen for the play’s premiere in New York – compare this with this.
As a result, Indhu Rubasingham’s production feels throughout as close to a piece of ‘poor theatre’ as it’s possible to make this play (that or the Tricycle’s production department ran out of cash), driven by phenomenal performances with Tanya Moodie’s Makeda and Martina Laird’s earth-shattering Beartrice standing out from a terrific ensemble. And the lack of specificity in the design in turn keeps the focus on the universal, for despite the unique nature of New Orleans’ socio-political climate, The House becomes a play about defining black identity. The six women are in effect embodiments of black women in different socio-political situations in 1830s’ America: Beartrice the mistress and matriarch, her neighbour the single but socially powerful La Veuve, Makeda the slave, the mixed-race daughters a triumvirate of mind, body and soul, Agnes the sensual, Maude Lynn light-skinned and Christian, Odette dark-skinned and romantic. The ambition of each represents a progressiveness within the terms of their society – to inherit property, to buy a white man’s property, to buy freedom – and thus their dramatic function becomes less as agents in this narrative knottiness but as standard bearers of different logic systems that might be used to fill the gap left by the death of the white man, be that voodoo, US law or Christian faith.
As the members of Beartrice’s household begin to answer that on their own terms, their futures take them further away from her motherhood. Sitting in an emptying house, her final speech decries the hateful, violent future that awaits her daughters and, moreover, foreshadows the persecution that was to befall the black citizens of New Orleans and beyond. While Beartrice is Gardley’s tragic heroine, his text opens up to become a fundamental questioning of black identity – a Bernarda Alba for New Orleans, and a soul-searching reclamation of a forgotten history.