Produced by: Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Featuring: Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Harriett D. Foy, Lizan Mitchell, Petronia Paley, Flor De Liz Perez, Ray Reinhardt, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart
Directed by: Patricia McGregor
When: January 31-March 16, 2014
Where: Berkeley Rep Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck, Berkeley, California
Running time: 145 minutes, including one, 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $29-$59 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org
Read Karen D'Souza's review in the San Jose Mercury News.
Read Robert Hurwitt's review at SFGate.com
"The House That Will Not Stand," now in its world-premiere run at Berkeley Rep before heading east to Yale Repertory, takes place in a poetic confluence of crossroads.
It is 1836, and the placée system in New Orleans is coming to an end. Also coming to an end is the life of Lazare, a 72-year-old white man who is having an argument with his long-time placée (woman-of-color mistress), Beartrice, about their three daughters.
Lazare wants the three beautiful young women to go to the masked placée ball, where one or more of them might become the placée of a rich man. Beartrice wants none of that. She wants to take the girls with her to Paris, where she believes there will be less racism than among the Americains.
But Lazare seems to be losing that argument, having died that morning, maybe helped along the fatal path by a fish bone, or maybe by a bit of voodoo whispered in his ear by Beartrice.
And the three teenage gals, Agnès, Maude Lynn and Odette, are each at their own crossroads: The sensuous Agnès wants to become a placée and make use of the body God has given her; Maude Lynn (whose name is a great pun, say it out loud) is deeply sad about her père's death, and prays all the time; Odette doesn't at first seem to be directing her own fate, but by the end of the play has definitely gone her own way.
And there is Makeda, their slave, who yearns for freedom. And Beartrice's maybe crazy sister, Marie Josephine, who still pines for the black man she had loved, years before. And La Veuve, Beartrice's long-time rival, who schemes to ruin Beartrice.
It's a lot of drama to keep track of, but playwright Marcus Gardley's script does it mostly quite well, helped along by a good dose of humor from time to time, a couple of excellent performances, and a remainder of very good performances.
It's a fascinating bit of history, something not taught in schools, as I recall. It was a time in the 1700s and early 1800s when women of color were able to build fortunes and political power as the placées mistresses of wealthy white men. It was a system disrupted in New Orleans by the Louisiana Purchase, when the Americans came in with restrictive laws regarding people of color.
Lizan Mitchell is quite fine as Beartrice, and a delight to hear. Even when threatening and dangerous a common thing for this head of household, with all her desperate plans she has a rich Creole accent, rolling each syllable into a fully rounded ball and delivering it only when ready for maximum effect. Mitchell embodies Beartrice's strength and clever self-assuredness, while still allowing us to see tiny glimmers of her fear for she never loses track of how high are the stakes.
Harriet D. Foy is understandably the audience favorite as Makeda, the slave who serves this rich household of beautiful women. And she is crafty smart, talking La Veuve out of her jewelry in trade for information about Lazare's death. Foy also provided vocal arrangements for this show, and some original compositions.
The three young women all sing, and Foy delivers a wonderful tune about cooking gumbo that captured all eyes and ears.
Petronia Paley doubles as the scheming La Veuve, and also as Beartrice's childlike, maybe crazy sister, Marie Josephine. She has a lot to do in both roles, and keeps them very well separated. She is especially fun to watch as Marie Josephine, who hears personally from Lazare how he died, and that he wants to get his three daughters out of Beartrice's house before dawn. There is a feeling of threat implied.
She also has the difficult task of delivering a too-long exposition about Beartrice's history. She kind of rushes through it, which is understandable otherwise, everyone would be there all night. But it's just too long a speech; Gardley would do well to find another way to deliver that information.
The three daughters are all beautiful. Tiffany Rachelle Stewart is Agnès, who is flirted with by a white man in the "colored" section of the church, scandalizing the family. She wants to become his placée. She delivers a speech about how the young man made her feel in rather old language, but somehow makes it seem quite 21st century. Flor De Liz Perez has a lot of crying and praying to do as Maude Lynn, the only one of the three daughters who is really hurt by Lazare's death. Joniece Abbot-Pratt is the daughter with the "family stain" in her skin, the brown one, in a time when golden skin and paler were prized among the octoroon placées.
Hats off to costume designer Katherine O'Neill, whose handsome gowns make all of these women even more impressive. Even Makeda the slave is well-outfitted in this rich home Makeda is a woman with some knowledge of the spirit world, and it is great fun that her gown is adorned with open eyes.
Antje Ellerman's set is handsome and effective, with only the problem of the second-floor bedroom for the three teens, which is too high and too forward. People sitting too close in the audience to stage left are pretty much out of luck when it comes to seeing what's going on up there.
The set, with its scattering of furniture, does make for some blocking challenges for director Patricia McGregor, but overall, she makes it work in a way that adds energy to the dialogue-heavy play.