Seven women, a segregated society, and an age-old means of survival. That’s the pretext behind the play The House That Will Not Stand, now in production at the New York Theatre Workshop in New York City.
Written in 2014 by Marcus Gardley (whose credits include Showtime’s The Chi) and inspired by The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca, the play captures a pivotal moment in the lives of two generations of free women of color in 183os New Orleans.
It’s the climax of the American Civil War, when New Orleans’ gens des couleur libres are realizing that their days of being among the privileged classes are numbered and that only the established practice of plaçage—that is, of mixed race women becoming the contractually bound mistresses of wealthy white men—is perhaps their only possible means of recourse.
It is within this context that one mother—newly freed from her own decadeslong plaçage by the sudden death of her benefactor—seeks to prevent their three daughters from the same fate, in defiance of both cultural customs, guaranteed protections and even her daughters’ desires. The results are the making of an intriguing plot, but when playwright Marcus Gardley and Obie Award-winning director Lileana Blain-Cruz spoke with The Glow Up about bringing this era of black history to life, they made it clear that this is also a story that still holds much relevance for contemporary audiences.
The Glow Up: What attracted you to telling and crafting this story?
Marcus Gardley: I saw a production of The House of Bernarda Alba and laughed through most of the show. I was later told that the play was not a comedy, so I reread it and laughed, realizing that Lorca was writing a play that was both comic and tragic. It inspired me to write a play in the same style.
We use the same muscles to laugh and cry. It’s only fitting that a play can make us do both, and in fact, give us a range of emotions. To this end, I decided to write a very loose adaptation of the play to explore this idea. The play is also about a monumental time in our history that most people do not know about so I wanted to share that with audiences as well.
Lileana Blain-Cruz: This play shares a moment in time that was significant in American history ... but we know very little about the women, particularly the black women that lived inside that moment. This play paints a powerful theatrical portrait of those women that endured a country in the midst of transition and that felt important to me.
TGU: Why do you feel this story is relevant for audiences today?
MG: I think the notion of what it means to be free and issues around colorism, ownership and self-determination are quite relevant for today. At the heart of this story, a mother is fighting tooth and nail to keep her children. This is extremely relevant today, as we have seen children being taken from their parents and put in cages in our very own country.
LBC: Again, it’s about our history, about moments of transition. The women of this story are in the midst of a political change that is going to deeply affect their lives. That reverberates for me in our current climate—knowing that things are changing, getting considerably worse for some—and the questions feel similar: How will we weather the storm? How will we make it through? What is on the other side?
TGU: Obviously, race, colorism, class and functioning under the mantle of patriarchy are central themes within this work. Do you feel much has truly changed since the period in which this piece is set?
MG: Honestly, I think there has been a lot of progress, but it’s extremely slow and even though laws have changed, people’s behavior has not. We live in a county where black bodies are still not respected and treated equally. We still have a lot of wounds that need to be healed as a nation.
LBC: Well, we don’t have slavery—that’s pretty significant! But what this story shows is how those themes continue to reverberate because the deep psychological damage of that institution still impacts us to this day. Race, colorism, class, etc., are still byproducts of colonialism and slavery—and they don’t disappear just because the business of slavery ended.
TGU: What would you like audiences—particularly, audiences of color—to take away from this work?
LBC: That in the midst of all this trauma in the past we had powerful, complicated women surviving, owning property, leading families, leading their lives—and their experiences were unique and varied and important and an important part of our history. Because of them, we are here.
MG: My dream is for audiences of color to see themselves—their awesome beauty, brilliance and strength. I want to celebrate the African woman and put her on her throne. I want to bring the passion and the poetry of our mother’s tongue and the spiritual ecstasy of our church into the theater and into our hearts. I want to celebrate our divinity and start a conversation about how far we have come and how imperative it is that we move into the future, united.
TGU: As a creative of color, why do you personally feel it’s important to bring narratives like these forward?
LBC: Basically because of all of the above. I remember learning about the Louisiana Purchase—no one told me about free women of color! No one in school told me about Creole society, about the very many varied and complicated and joyous experiences of the black experience. When I got to college, I learned and read but it increased my desire to put our epic stories on the stage; to continue to share and celebrate these women who are part of and central to our American history.
MG: I stand on the shoulders of James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Bruce Nugent, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Phyllis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison. I must bring our narratives forward to continue the legacy of these giants and further the African American literary voice, which engraves itself in the hearts and minds of our people. These narratives remind us who we are and they celebrate our complexity.
TGU: Do you ever feel restricted or “typecast” as a creative of color?
LBC: I can see a desire to maybe do that; everyone tries to put people into boxes that they understand. But one compliment that I have always appreciated about my body of work is that it resists categorization—I work on all kinds of projects, from new experimental plays to Shakespeare to opera. And while I champion stories of people of color and women, the forms that they take are very, very different each time, and that keeps me excited.
MG: I can only be restricted if I let others define me ... I believe that the artists’ job is not to be defined by limitations but to explore our imaginations. For example, one audience member said I “should stick to one genre,” [that] my plays are “doing too many things.” I responded, “Jazz does many things; hip- hop does many things.” We are people of polyrhythms and multiple melodies, we are people of deeper beats and runs, riffs, trills and break dance. We have no limits. Boxes are prisons. We are people of diverse, intricate and earth-shattering forms of expression.
TGU: What message, specifically, do you want to give audiences about the specific power, will, intuition, alliances and fortitude of women of color?
LBC: I don’t make plays to deliver messages, per se; but I am excited for the audience to witness in an epic way the Herculean obstacles faced by these women and how they navigate that terrain in their unique ways—some with strength, others with savvy, some with faith, others with humor—all with a tremendous amount of power and wit and love for each other.
There is no monolithic experience and what’s exciting in this play is to see seven very different black women living and surviving and sometimes failing in their unique ways while upholding a bond of sisterhood.
MG: Women of color deserve their place in the pantheon of great literature. They deserve to have stories about them, for them, in conversation with themselves. There is a specific strength, elegance and power that only women of color possess. It’s time that we honor them; for they, in my mind, are the backbones of this nation and the world.
The Glow Up tip: The House That Will Not Stand is playing at the New York Theatre Workshop through August 12. If you’re in the NYC tri-state area, you can get tickets here.