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
Running time: 145 minutes, including one, 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $29-$59 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org
In most scripts, stage directions are kept pretty simple. "Lights up in an apartment. Outside, it is raining."
There are reasons for that. Some directors just don't want it. They want the playwright to get right to the meat of dialogue and action. And many playwrights feel the same way.
After all, the audience doesn't see the stage directions. They see the action, they hear the dialogue.
And some directors especially for movies, I've been told by a longtime Hollywood screenwriter really don' t want no stinkin' stage directions. They want total creative control.
And plays and movies are both hugely collaborative. The writer provides the skeleton of plot and dialogue, but the director, actors, musicians, set designers, lighting and sound designers and many other people get involved in creating the flesh, the hair, the colors, the sounds.
It's an amazing process.
But simple stage directions are not the way of the excellent playwright Marcus Gardley, whose beautifully written "The House That Will Not Stand" just opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which commissioned the piece.
Witness, from the mise-en-scène of Gardley's script:
The dead body of Lazare Albans, 72, lies stiff as bird shit on a long table in the parlor room of a Creole cottage. Surrounded by gardenias and stuffed in a pearly white double-breasted suit, he looks so pretty one could weep over him or float him in a parade. Yet his beauty is no match for the walls, which are white as God’s teeth and the wooden floor, which sparkles like brand new patent leather shoes. Three life size paintings of exceedingly beautiful colored women, (poised like queens) hang between four French windows covered in black crepe. A red, velvet chaise sits in the right corner downstage, beside a yellow orchid and a rocking chair etched in African symbols. This is the tea room. A chandelier made of pearls and cowry shells hangs over the room reflecting only candlelight since the windows and mirrors are covered. Even the clocks have been stopped. This is a house shrouded in the lifeless music of mourning.
I have to say, "Wow." Shakespeare did not indulge in such flights of descriptive fancy.
Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches
But for Gardley, that is not enough.
"I think about the mood, the tone, of the scene," Gardley explained in a recent phone interview. "I love film, I love visual art. Stage direction gets at what's happening on stage, that you can't describe in dialogue."
And, truth be told, Gardley looks at his plays as literature, to be read outside of performance. Fair enough. I've read, I think, all of Shakespeare's plays, for instance, but I've only seen maybe 10 or 12 of them performed.
And, Gardley says, most directors have responded well enough to the way he writes.
"Knock on wood, everyone has responded favorably. A lot of them have overlooked it. But when they struggle with the scene, they go back to it. It helps them figure it out. I never force it.
"(Playwright) Sarah Ruhl does it well American magical realism she has a stage direction where the character turns almond.
"For me, I'm really interested in expanding the form, in challenging the traditional idea of theater. How can actors take it to another level through poetic description?"
Gardley comes from a literary family, in a sense. He was raised in West Oakland, California, in a "terrible part" of the city that has seen plenty of violence over the years.
"But I didn't know it was terrible," Gardley said. "Our parents masked it from us. They wanted us to know we could do anything we wanted.
"We didn't play outside all the time. Our parents infused our world with literature. We always had our heads in books. All my siblings are writers."
Gardley's older brother, Paul (named for Paul Laurence Dunbar) is a poet. Sister Brianne is a novelist. Sister Kassendra writes short stories.
And Gardley himself is having a very successful time as a playwright. He wrote his first play while at San Francisco State, earned an MFA at Yale and now teaches in the theater department at Brown. And travels constantly to help with productions of his plays all around the nation, and to accept various awards, including the 2011 Aetna New Voices Fellowship at Hartford Stage, the Helen Merrill Award, a Kellsering Honor, the Gerbode Emerging Playwright Award, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Award, a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation grant, the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Scholarship, and the ASCAP Foundation Cole Porter Award.
These days he lives in Harlem, when not traveling, a block from former President Bill Clinton's office.
"The House That Will Not Stand" is a fascinating, illuminating and entertaining story of the last days of the placée system in New Orleans.
Placées were free women of color who sometimes lived very good and wealthy lives in the French and Spanish New World. They were mistresses of white men with money, and kept their own homes and built their own fortunes, and sometimes raised second families for their lovers.
It was a system that worked fairly well in the 1700s and early 1800s, but was damaged in New Orleans by the coming of the Americans, who brought more racist and oppressive laws to the mix.
"The House That Will Not Stand" takes place in 1836, and is a song about that time of change, and a picture of an ugly racial divide that has scarified the United States ever since.
Not that all was ideal within the placée system. A bit of dialogue from the play (Please note that the script may have changed from the early version I was allowed to read):
"Don’t be a fool, it’s 1836, you a gal and you’re colored. And you’re colored brown. If you were my hue or lighter, maybe you could put on heirs but ... let’s face it. You were born with the family stain, Odette. You’d be lucky to be a placée."
(Something I like about that bit of dialogue: The pun at "heirs." Putting on airs? To play superior. Putting on heirs? Having children by a rich lover.)
Gardley's family has some history in New Orleans, but he first really heard of the placée system when he read an Anne Rice novel, "Feast of All Saints." Then he launched into reading historical documents and books and even lived in New Orleans for a while.
"I was fascinated," he said. "Most people don't know this history. A significant number of black women in New Orleans who were rich, active politically. A foundation of the Civil Rights movement comes from this group of free people of color."
In "This House Will Not Stand," Lazare Albans, "72, a white, wealthy merchant," has just died, and he is laid out in the house of his mistress, Beartrice Albans, "50, a free woman of color."
Ray Reinhardt has the fun of playing Lazare, who has plenty to do, despite being dead. For one thing, Lazare is a lively corpse who manages to cop a feel from a beautiful woman who is there to mourn; and he also bounces into flashback scenes.
Lizan Mitchell plays Beartrice, whose very existence is threatened by the new, American, laws in New Orleans. Sure, Lazare left her a house and money, but the law may say different, and award everything to Lazare's actual wife, who is white.
Meanwhile, Beartice also has to worry about her daughters, Agnès, Maude Lynn, and Odette. Lazare and Beartrice had argued about whether they should go to the placée's ball, at which, maybe, they could find their own men to keep them as mistresses.
Lazare wanted them to go. Beartrice did not.
"Those balls are for quadroons needing a white man to lighten their bloodline and fill their pockets," says Beartrice. "Our gals have more wealth and beauty than any gal in New Orleans. Why do they need to be placeés? Not a man, white or colored is good enough for them."
And then there are the attitudes of the young women, too, and what happens to them.
Beartrice, really, is the only one to see how things are changing. Her fears are justified.
It is a rich play, full of history, hilarious dialogue, significant drama and serves as an allegory of American racism and the damage it has done.
And it's a really good read. It's literature.
But, no rest for the creative: "This House Will Not Stand" just opened at Berkley Rep, and Gardley is also helping out with the premiere of his "Black Odyssey," in Denver.
"It's an adaptation of 'The Odyssey,' a story about a soldier who leaves the war in Afghanistan," Gardley said. "He's lived in Harlem, in a bad neighborhood, and told himself he wouldn't kill other people. But he kills a young boy, and goes on an odyssey to deal with the guilt, traveling through time to meet characters he realizes are his ancestors, who each give him a piece of himself so he can get back to Harlem."