New Rep show explores family, freedom

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Photo by Carol Rosegg.

For its last show of the 2013-’14 season, the Yale Repertory Theatre is staging a new play exploring the importance of family and the cost of freedom.

“The House that will not Stand” by Marcus Gardley opens tomorrow night at the Rep. The play centers on a group of women in New Orleans and the tensions that arise between them after the death of the family patriarch. Gardley said he was inspired by various sources, including the work of Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, 19th-century American history and his own family’s stories.

“I would argue that all plays somehow draw upon the playwright’s life,” Gardley said. “I noticed that the sibling rivalry here is very similar to my own relationship with my siblings.”

The play is subtitled “A drama about the free women of color in New Orleans, 1836,” and Gardley noted that his mother’s side of the family is originally from New Orleans. Gardley said he wanted to expose a little-known period of New Orleans history in which many African-American women who had been extremely wealthy before the territory was sold to the United States lost all of their property under the American racial laws of the period. Gardley added that the use of poetic language in the play was inspired by one of his favorite playwrights, Garcia Lorca, famous for a similar writing style.

The story line focuses on the central character Beartrice, her three daughters and their servant in the aftermath of the death of Beartrice’s husband. While two of the daughters yearn to find a partner, Beartrice prevents them from leaving the house to attend social events because she feels that no man in the city is worthy of their hands in marriage.

Lizan Mitchell, who plays Beartrice, described the character as a “product of her time,” noting that Beartrice’s overbearing parenting style originates from a strong desire to see her children prosper. Patricia McGregor, the show’s director, said that Gardley chose “Beartrice” rather than more conventional spellings of the name, such as “Beatrice,” to evoke the image of a bear, an animal known to be protective of its offspring.

“The particular animal [Beartrice] resonates to is the bear, so you should imagine a mother bear in a beautiful costume,” Mitchell said.

McGregor and Mitchell said the play’s script contains highly detailed and specific stage directions, which are meant to ensure that the production accurately depicts the culture of New Orleans in the early 19th century.

McGregor explained that the city is a combination of vastly different cultures, noting that some parts of it resemble Greek revival architecture while others appear similar to Senegalese tropical landscapes. During the rehearsal process several features of the play’s set, even objects not significant to the plot, were replaced in favor of more elaborate props in order to better portray the elegance of the characters’ household, she added.

Harriett D. Foy, who plays Makeda, the family servant, said the characters themselves are also designed to reflect the New Orleans culture. She said that her character is based on the ancient Queen of Sheba and explained that she must appear regal even though she is only a servant. McGregor explained that the play is set during a time when the French-influenced “plaçage” system — a system in which black women played the role of wives to European men but were not legally married to them — was in place. As a result, McGregor noted, young women such as Beartrice’s daughters had to always present themselves elegantly in order to impress potential suitors, wearing restrictive clothing such as corsets.

McGregor added that the production will feature elaborate lighting and sound effects during scenes in which supernatural forces are involved, such as when the family house appears to move on its own and when characters invoke religious deities. She said that while films may use techniques such as computer-generated imagery to create the appearance of magic, depicting magical elements on stage requires actors to convince the audience that such spirits exist through their behavior. Mitchell noted that for her, these spiritual scenes are not only about portraying a character in a play, but also about paying homage to her ancestors.

“In terms of African culture, this is the spirituality that is indigenous to the people,” Mitchell said. “It may be foreign to Europeans but to people of African descent, you have an intuitive feeling for this spirituality.”

Performances of “The House that will not Stand” will run through May 10.

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