The only white man in Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand is dead, which is a refreshing state of affairs. The seven black women who carry the story hold the stage brilliantly without him, although one of the play’s heavy ironies is that many of the characters must rely on white men to gain a semblance of freedom.
This is New Orleans, Louisiana, 1836. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte sold the state to the Americans, but between the Louisiana Purchase and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, New Orleans retained a fascinating culture influenced by Spanish, French and African traditions, in which free women of colour could live with wealthy European men as their mistresses, or placeés. Beartrice (Martina Laird) is one of these women. Following the death of the man she had lived with, she hopes to inherit his house and property, enabling her to bring up their three free-born daughters, Agnès, Maude Lynn and Odette, without having to sell them to white men as placeés. But New Orleans society is changing, and the daughters have other ideas.
While it contains just a few moments when exposition and plot take over too obviously, Gardley’s script brims with a fantastically quotable, patchwork language, studded with Creole phrases. All the actors relish it. Ayesha Antoine as Agnès describes an encounter in church with lip-licking lasciviousness: “he looked at me like I was the Last Supper… just by speaking to me, he made me come to Jesus”. As the family matriarch, Beartrice holds her daughters in a grip as tight as a corset. Laird’s voice moves between strangulated pain and silky-smooth politeness, but when Beartrice warns her youngest daughter, “Odette, you move a muscle and I will break a bone,” everyone within earshot tenses. Watching her trade insults with her arch-nemesis La Veuve (Michele Austin) is like watching two great boxers floating like butterflies, stinging like bees.
Indhu Rubasingham’s direction brings the cleverness and cunning of the women in the house to the fore, while Paul Anderson’s lighting reminds us of the oppressive heat outside. The production is also full of music, composed by Paul Englishby and sung particularly beautifully by Tanya Moodie as Makeda, the wise houseservant, and Danusia Samal as Maude Lynn.
The House That Will Not Stand explores loss and yearning, and asks serious questions about the nature of freedom alongside its comic elements; Moodie is especially good at commanding both aspects of the script. For Makeda, there should be a dignity in being black and female that a racist, misogynistic society denies, even though it technically allows women of colour their freedom. In a powerful speech, set to a drummed and foot-stomped beat, she tells everyone in the city to “put some dance on dem bones” because “the beat be the blackest thang alive.” On the night I saw it, the play received a well-deserved standing ovation led by a group of local sixth-formers who had cheered and hissed the best lines throughout. The vital energy on stage fills the theatre.
The House That Will Not Stand is playing at the Tricycle Theatre until 29 November. For more information and tickets, see the Tricycle Theatre website.
The House That Will Not Stand is playing the Tricycle Theatre until 22 November. For more information and tickets, see the Tricycle Theatre website. Photo by Mark Douet.