This January, TIME Magazine published “10 Reasons for Theater Lovers to Leave New York in 2014.” I was intrigued to see “The House That Will not Stand” by Marcus Gardley DRA ’04, now playing at the Yale Repertory Theater, prominently featured on this list. The play takes place in 1830s New Orleans, where obstinate free woman of color Beatrice (Lizan Mitchell) mourns after her white lover Lazare (Ray Reinhardt), and father of her three daughters, dies mysteriously. Spurred by my interest in African American history and TIME’s recommendation, I rushed to the Yale Rep.
The story begins on a cheerful note: Lazare’s corpse lies on a table in the house. A woman named La Veuve (Petronia Paley) enters and snatches the rings from his fingers to spite her rival, Beatrice. Makeda (Harriett D. Foy), Beatrice’s slave quickly confronts her.
Before the play reaches the ten-minute mark, La Veuve has already given the audience reason to be wary of Beatrice’s character: she suspects that Beatrice murdered Lazare and a former lover as well. La Veuve reveals her suspicions to Makeda, and this exchange, though entertaining, reveals the two issues that plague the play as a whole: unnatural dialogue and overacting.
A sign of great theater is that it teaches you something new without sounding like a dry lecture. “The House That Will not Stand” has too much bombast to make you drowsy, but, on the other hand, it features expository moments that stick in the atmosphere like smog. These moments often fall upon Beatrice, played with a laughable French accent by Mitchell. She gesticulates to educate us on “plaçage,” that genteel form of slavery that placed free, light-skinned black women with white men in New Orleans. But now, free women of color are losing their privileges. As a result, she doesn’t want her lively, eager daughters Agnès (Tiffany Stewart DRA ’07) and Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) to be a part of this system. What a mouthful! But this little lesson, as awkwardly executed as it sounds, is necessary because plaçage remains such an obscure part of American history.
From start to finish, every actor speaks and moves with an exaggerated twist of the neck, a sing-song drawing out of words or a sassy distortion of the face. This performative excess, which verges on racial caricature, threatens to mute the historical struggle and trauma that the text wants to convey to the audience. To be sure, there are instances in which this sort of performance provides the viewer with a genuine, emotional connection with the characters.
Although the plot revolves around Beatrice’s efforts to support her family and Odette’s and Agnès’s romantic longings, the real powerhouse of this play is Makeda. Foy distinguishes herself amidst the sea of overacting not through subtlety, but by making her emotions come across as the most authentic. Her character’s colorful flights of language, pride in her African heritage and her desire for freedom are effective and touching.
The production’s aesthetic and visual components, however, nearly compensate for the pitfalls in acting. The scenic and costume design, courtesy of Antje Ellermann and Katherine O’Neill DRA ’09, conjure romantic visions of the antebellum South reminiscent of “Gone with the Wind.” Curtains and portraits of the daughters line the immaculately white interior of the house, while outside, palm trees lean on the structure. The moss hanging on the lights’ rafters above the stage provides an added element of realism. The costumes, a parade of elegant, shimmering gowns and veils, deserve applause on their own. Ultimately, both the set and the costumes work together to symbolize the polished façade of what plaçage really was: an alternative form of slavery that still degraded human beings.
The lighting, designed by Russell H. Champa, effects a mood that alternates between realistic and fantastical. The reds, blues, pinks, greens and reds reflect the characters’ vivid flashbacks and wild dreams as they’re acted out onstage. These surreal colors lend strength to the play’s supernatural moment, in which Lazare returns from the dead and (unsuccessfully) confronts Beatrice. It’s too bad that the vivid lighting can’t flesh out this underdeveloped part of the play. Because there are so many other plot points zipping around –– the question of plaçage, Makeda’s freedom and colorism between the darker Odette and lighter Agnès –– the ghost storyline falls flat. Because of this unsustainable and underdeveloped number of plotlines, paired with overheated acting, I left the Yale Rep feeling simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed.
While I didn’t leave “The House That Will not Stand” totally disappointed, I was expecting more from such an interesting and hidden story that deserves to be told. TIME describes the play as such: “With ‘12 Years a Slave’ one of the top contenders for Oscar nominations, Marcus Gardley’s new play about a free woman of color in 1836 New Orleans could be arriving at just the right cultural moment.” This is certainly true — “The House That Will not Stand” comes at a time when African American stories are becoming more and more visible in popular culture. But unfortunately, the play doesn’t quite succeed in adding anything critically outstanding to the greater discussion of black stories portrayed onstage.