Trains and boats and planes. People are pouring in by all means of transportation to Martha’s Vineyard. If it is August, then you must know whoever you are looking for, the Vineyard is where they will be. Except for Ray and Darlene Bruce, who have chosen to go to Florida this year and are sorely missed. And let’s not forget our Sag Harbor friends, such as Thelma Dye and Carlton Holms, the Honorable Frank Perry and those too beachy to mention.
News just in from classical performance critic, supporter and lover Patrick Bradford. Bradford is an African-American practicing attorney. He studied dramatic literature as a Harvard undergrad and has reported on the following—a good way to keep cool and enjoy the balmy summer nights.
Entering New York Theater Workshop’s modest space for a fourth performance of Marcus Gardley’s hilarious and powerful “The House That Will Not Stand,” one is greeted by Beyoncé Knowles Carter, shouting out anthems of Black female power and independence. One cannot help but think that the production’s talented director, Lileana Blain Cruz, has intentionally drawn a line from Carter, an iconic, beautiful, fair-skinned artist and business woman of today, back to her phenotypical sisters in 1813 New Orleans, where “House” is set. And what a great distance playwright Gardley has traveled with this historical comic-drama, infused with a mashup of contemporary and 19th century language. Gardley’s facility with language has been compared with Lorca, mixed with Tennessee Williams. He is a master of word-play and operates in diverse theatrical modes.
Thus far, Gardley has been produced more in London and in U.S. regional theaters than in New York City. I hope that “House” will alter this unfortunate circumstance. His “X, or Betty Shabazz v. the Nation” (The Acting Company) and “The Box” (The Foundry Theater) are both engaging works seen earlier in NYC. “House” (2011) arrives in NYC after outings in London, at Yale Repertory (where I first caught it a few years ago) and at various other regional theaters. The text has been reworked since Yale. Thankfully, the New York Theater Workshop production retains the ultra-talented Harriett D. Foy, peerless in the critical role of Makeda, a slave desperate to win her freedom. Foy’s unforgettable and career defining performance makes “House” essential theater-going. It also announces Foy as a major leading lady in the American theater.
With the Louisiana purchase in 1803, the French custom of wealthy white men taking fair-skinned Black, common law wives—the system of plaçage—was dying out in New Orleans. Under this system, Black women and their children could live comparatively comfortably, own property and even enjoy certain rights of inheritance. Yet, in 1813 these customs were changing. With U.S. ownership, plaçage could easily become chattel slavery for unfortunate women of color and their biracial children. For as the play’s matriarch, Beatrice Albans (a stern and stellar Lynda Gravátt) says, she does not want any of her three daughters to become common law wives, as plaçage is also a form of slavery. And Beatrice Albans should know. The play opens with the death of her white husband, Lazare, and for the first time in her life, there is the prospect of greater freedom. Lazare has left the house and other significant property to Beatrice, but U.S. law has now interceded. And so everything goes to Lazare’s white wife, who bore him no children.
How will Beatrice win out and maintain a home for her three daughters—Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield) and Agnes (Nedra McClyde), her mad sister Maria (Michelle Wilson) and loyal slave-servant Makeda (Foy)? Especially with Beatrice’s archenemy Madam La Veuve (an effective and bitingly funny Marie Thomas) waiting to buy Beatrice’s house if she cannot come up with the biblical 20 pieces of silver to buy it back from Lazare’s white wife.
Loosely based on Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” this production of “House” has many things to recommend it. Fine direction by Blain Cruz, sumptuous costumes by Montana Levi Blanco, realistic wigs by Cookie Jordan and a beautiful set by Adam Rigg. The New York Theater Workshop has put forth a rich production that captures the grandeur of Gardley’s script. “House” is an engaging history lesson. The custom of plaçage reminds us of the variation in slave experience, a fact now more widely understood given the academy’s decades long exploration of the institution of slavery. That chattel slavery in the U.S. quickly became defined based on color, with blackness being intentionally chained to disadvantage, still haunts the nation today. Gardley rejects the lie of Black inferiority in writing that is muscular, lyrical and spiritual. He gives his most ardent and gorgeous words to Makeda, a dark slave who, astonishingly, knows the true worth of her blackness. It is priceless: “Come again! Black ain’t never been ugly. Half the world’s Black and God ain’t never made half a mistake. He hung the stars in the Black sky because the blackness is brilliant, not the stars.”
With a storm coming and Lazare’s ghost haunting the house, two of Beatrice’s daughters sneak out to the annual ball to find white common-law husbands. Sister Maria’s madness is traced back to a true love, a drummer, now dead, who she met in Congo Square (a famous area in New Orleans where slaves were permitted to congregate and enjoy music buoyed by drums). Maria is a dark woman, but self-hate led her to reject her drummer, as he was “black as midnight.” But his rhythms still beat in her blood, and she is led back to his arms by a grand aria first written especially for Foy while the play was in production at Yale: “Then you seeing your soul. You seeing where your blackness began. There. Where Indians carved a square with their feet. Way back when. And danced secrets into the soil that confuse many a folk now. For they knew what we will never know: How to slow a hurry-cane. How to tear loose a tornado. How to grab hold a quake, rock to its beat so as to not lose your footing. … On this sacred earth of Congo Square. Here, where they let us keep the drum. Hear it! It be the sway in a Negro woman’s hip. The shuffle in a colored man’s stride. The beat be the blackest thing alive. Wake up! See how we survived.”
Foy has drawn uniformly superlative reviews—“remarkable” (New York Times), “gloriously dynamic” (Vulture), “heartbreaking” (Hollywood Reporter), “wonderful” (Time Out New York), “a stunning performance” (Village Voice). However, no review has yet appropriately described the depth, breadth and full arch of her unforgettable performance. Foy renders her unique artistry in four movements. She moves from farce to tragedy in the course of two hours. In the first scene, Foy channels a humor that mixes Carol Burnett with camp, drawing laughs from the audience as she “pours the tea,” literally and physically—gossiping about Lazare’s death to La Veuve. In act two, Foy is called on to impersonate Lazare via a voodoo spell. Foy’s work here is eerily convincing. Next comes her big aria announcing the play’s central themes—the beauty of blackness, the richness of the drum, the importance of Congo Square and the history of the middle passage. It is spoken, danced, sung and conjured by Foy with such artistry that I predict hers will be the definitive performance of the role.
Finally, when Makeda is manumitted, Foy proves a powerful dramatic artist. As she leaves the house, taking her first steps as a free person, Foy’s Makeda slowly speaks the words of a Negro spiritual (“Shine on Me Lord”). She leaves the audience breathless. Foy takes us from high comedy to piercing drama in the course of an evening. It is simply one of the most astounding theater performances I have ever seen.
Foy’s name should be on the lips of every theatergoer, including every theatrical producer. There should be talk of mounting shows especially for her. My list would certainly include Beatrice (“Much Ado About Nothing”), Josie Hogan (“A Moon for the Misbegotten”), Martha (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”) and Blanche (“A Streetcar Named Desire”). If Foy were a white actress with such limitless theatrical gifts, all of these suggestions would be inevitable. However, the all-to-present and limiting themes of “House” might well remain with us of limited opportunity. I hope to goodness that I am wrong, and that Foy’s talent will soon be fully embraced and exalted.
Foy has been on my list of special performers ever since I first saw her standout work as Big Sweet in Arena Stage’s 2002 production of “Polk County.” Since then, I have followed her career with keen interest, and her performances are always rounded with fine artistry. But in “House” she finally has a role that permits her to display an extensive portion of her gifts. I still don’t think we have seen all that she might accomplish on the stage.
I have seen this production four times. And I plan to see it again because each time I am transported by Ms. Foy’s unique gifts. I urge you to secure tickets quickly. The production has been extended, but only through Aug. 19.
Until next week … kisses.