Chicago Theatre Review
‘The House That Will Not Stand’ is Theater Ecstasy
The House That Will Not Stand – Victory Gardens
America is a country of unique gifts, but perhaps its most spectacular talent is that of willful forgetfulness. As James Baldwin wrote more than 50 years ago, a land that constantly defines itself as “exceptional” must, as a result, conveniently ignore the less-than-flattering elements of its past and present, and here in the home of the free and brave, the price for that exceptionalism has been a collective amnesia among the white mainstream class on anything involving slavery – a system that existed for 246 years and was, at the outbreak of the Civil War, surpassed only by Russian serfdom in its size and scope. To put things into perspective, slaves were the largest financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, according to historian David Blight, and their collective value (roughly $3.5 billion) was greater than that of all the nation’s manufacturing and railroads.
A system of that magnitude and sheer enormity is rife for artistic exploration, and Victory Gardens’ sensational staging of “The House That Will Not Stand,” which is receiving its Midwest premiere in a freshly revised text from ensemble playwright Marcus Gardley, has unearthed a fascinating wrinkle in that history, and in the process, produced one of the very finest shows on a Chicago stage in 2016.
The setting is New Orleans circa 1813, a highly complex time in a city already defined by its considerable nuance and diversity, thanks to its French, Spanish, Haitian, and African roots. Now part of the United States (following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase), the city is slowly coming under the economic and social control of its new country, which means different things to different residents – particularly the city’s free black population. Antebellum New Orleans featured the largest and most prosperous free black community in the U.S., and “The House” focuses on one black family stuck in that awkward transition.
It’s a narrative that defies succinct summary. Beartrice Albans (played by the sensational Lizan Mitchell) is the proud, ferociously stubborn matriarch, a free black woman whose husband, a wealthy white Frenchman who married her under the placage system – which allowed white men to enter common law marriages with free black women – has just died. In his wake are three daughters: selfish Agnés (Diana Coates), who yearns to enter a placage like her mother and become a common-law wife to a rich white man; Odette (Aneisa Hicks), whose spirit and dark complexion earns the constant mockery of Agnés; and ultra-religious Maude Lynn (Angela Alise Johnson). Joining them are Marie-Josephine (the passionate Penelope Walker), Beartrice’s erratic sister; La Veuve (a wonderfully sassy Linda Bright Clay), her fellow matriarch and rival; and the play’s very best character, Makeda (masterfully played by Jacqueline Williams), the Albans’ highly clever slave who yearns for her freedom.
Although there are two main points of conflict that run throughout the play – Agnés’ efforts to secure a placage against her mother’s wishes, and the slowly unraveling truth behind the patriarch Albans’ death – Gardley and director Chay Yew ultimately create a work that encompasses a dazzling array of themes and motifs that still resonate in America today, including: spirituality, and the conflict between old-world religions (in New Orleans’ case, voodoo) and modern Christianity; Afrocentrism, and the politics of hair and complexion that play into it; the arts, and how the African American experience produces such glorious examples if multiple forms (in a stroke of brilliance, Gardley and Chay use modern music and dance sequences as transitions between scenes); and the enduring perseverance of love, freedom, and acceptance. Those elements and more are supported beautifully by Yu Shibagaki’s minimalist staging, Izumi Inaba’s perfect costume design, and Paul Whitaker’s subtle lighting.
Such weighty themes, however, hardly bog down the action of “The House,” which remains a spritely, active, and deeply hilarious play, thanks in no small part to its exception casting. As Beartrice, Mitchell does not so much speak her lines as spew them, her commanding voice crowing with shimmering authority. All three sisters banter and argue in a manner that anyone with siblings will find relatable and nostalgic. And as Makeda, Jacqueline Williams brings the same warmth and focus that she did to Court Theatre’s recent, excellent production of “Gem of the Ocean,” a world-wise and world-weary disposition that is impossible to ignore.
And one final note of emphasis must be made about this very important fact – “The House” features seven actors in its cast, all of them black women. In an interview accompanying the play, Gardley spoke of how unwelcoming the current performing environment is to black women, and how he actively sought to confront that with his new work: “Why are Black women always subjugated to the stereotype of ways being over-masculine, attitudinal, aggressive, all of those things which actually are strengths? But people have co-opted them. Changed the truth about what it means to live in your purpose and be strong and try to take that away from them.”
The very casting composition of “The House” is as elegant as protest as I’ve ever seen on a Chicago stage, and theatergoers would be right to take part in that protest and see Gardley’s new, masterful work.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through July 10 by Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets are available by calling (773) 871-3000 or by visiting www.victorygardens.org.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.