A peek into a neglected corner of history
A little-known facet of American history and race relations comes to light in “The House That Will Not Stand,” being given its world premiere by Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre.
Playwright Marcus Gardley sets the action in the home of Lazare (Ray Reinhardt) and Beartrice (Lizan Mitchell) in New Orleansin 1836. Beartrice, a free woman of mixed race, is the white Lazare’s plaçage, or common law wife. According to the program notes, plaçage “described formal arrangements between white men and free women of color, since the law … forbade interracial marriages. … It referred more generally to a free woman of mixed race (who) was ‘placed’ with a white man by her mother,” who was paid. The man customarily bought the woman a house and provided for her and their children.
Thus Beartrice lives in a pleasant house with her three maturing daughters, her sister and a black slave. However, times have gradually been changing since New Orleansbecame a part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.
As the play opens, Lazare has died under somewhat suspicious circumstances, but Beartrice has decreed that her household will mourn for six months. Therefore, her daughters and she will not go to the masked ball, where it was expected that she would negotiate with white men for them to become plaçages.
When the two of the daughters sneak off to the ball anyway, they set off a series of events that permanently change the household.
Gardley mixes ample portions of voodoo, superstition and conjuring into this story along with passages of poetic beauty and some amusing lines.
Directed by Patricia McGregor, the play is anchored by Mitchell’s steely Beartrice and the household’s wily slave, Makeda (Harriett D. Foy), who longs for her freedom. Petronia Paley does double duty as La Veuve, the family’s gossipy longtime neighbor, and as Marie Josephine, Beartrice’s off balance sister and a virtual prisoner in the house.
Tiffany Rachelle Stewart plays Agnès, the self-centered, often cruel oldest daughter. She says that the youngest daughter, Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), is not as appealing to white men because her skin is darker than that of her two sisters. The middle sister, Maude Lynn (Flor De Liz Perez), is one-dimensionally religious.
Although the overall plot is easy to follow, details sometimes get lost when accents are difficult to understand. Running for some two hours and 20 minutes, the two-act play would benefit from tighter focus.
Production values are high, especially the lovely period costumes by Katherine O’Neill. The two-level set is by Antje Ellermann with lighting by Russell H. Champa and sound and music by Keith Townsend Obadike.
Despite some shortcomings, the play is a fascinating look at a slice of history with interesting characters.
“The House That Will Not Stand” runs through March 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St.Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.