With the opening of The House That Will Not Stand only a couple of days away at the Tricycle Theatre, I spoke to Ayesha Antoine ahead of the night to find out more about the production, themes and how her experience has been working with an all-black female cast (with the exception of one male!)
You’re starring in The House That Will Not Stand at the Tricycle Theatre, how has the experience been so far?
Well, from the time I read the first page of the script and when I read the character name, with seven female characters, all women of colour, I was excited! To have a play with that many parts for black actresses. Then the setting of it – 1836, New Orleans, where people of colour had their own society. They were free and they had property. They were middle class, the ruling class you could say! I fell in love! Then the banter between characters; I haven’t been so nervous for an audition for a few years, because I just knew having read the play if I came to see it and I wasn’t in it, it would break my heart! We had a read through in the summer holidays and then we started rehearsals. So we’re four weeks into rehearsals now and it’s taking shape.
In the first week we did a stumble through the whole play and everybody I think was surprised at how it wasn’t terrible! [Laughs] Normally in the first week, everybody is just remembering people’s names. We are just grateful that we’ve got even more time to finesse it, tweak it, keep adding layers to what is already quite a dense play, and when I say ‘dense’ I mean a lot of characters are going through great journeys. Being on this piece of work, we all feel a bit of responsibility and the urgency of it. We’re excited to deliver it to the audience.
Could you give our readers a short insight of the play?
It’s 1836, New Orleans, so it’s still French Louisiana. It hasn’t been bought by the Americans yet, but that is impending. Martina Laird plays Beatrice who is the wealthiest free coloured woman in New Orleans. She is wealthy because her husband is a wealthy white man and in this society white men can have wives, but they also have a plaçage which is a French word, which means they can have a creole/free woman of colour as a common-law wife. This woman can have property, she can have businesses and if he dies and he chooses to leave it all to his plaçage, that can happen. [These women] they were powerful and they had businesses, property, money, but her [Beatrice] husband has just died and so it’s how the household precedes once the husband has died.
There’s so much history behind this…
Exactly! All I heard was that it’s set in 1836, New Orleans,‘free people of colour’ I instantly Googled before I started reading the play. I’m very into black history, I read a lot of history and I had never heard of there being an area in America in the 19th Century where there were free coloured folk! But what’s beautiful about the play is that it’s not heavy with that history. What grabs you are the characters and their story!
Could you tell us a little bit about your character and how you developed her?
My character is the eldest daughter of Beatrice, her name is Agnes and she is 19 and desperate to be let out of the house because her mother has kept them locked up, pretty much. She doesn’t want us to go down the same path she went. It’s a modern story – young girls nowadays think ‘oh for me to be free and to have a life, I need to get out from under my mother’s house, find a husband and have a life’, but she’s tried to tell them that’s not how it works. But Agnes, she’s just like her mother, she’s hard headed, very headstrong! I’m enjoying her a lot, because there’s something about the language of the time as well. Marcus Gardley, the writer, has written such wonderful language, that you can’t help but enjoy it.
The play also looks at the unique form of African-American religion and racial divides and though it’s set in 1836, how relevant do you think it is to today?
What’s interesting is because people of colour were free the racial divide actually isn’t necessarily between the whites and the blacks. In New Orleans there were three; you had free people of colour, you had white then you had Creole and the Creole were the mix of everything. They could be mixed with Native American, French, Spanish, European, and African. The relevance is that you did have pigment toxicity, so it was about shades. The lighter you were, the more mixed you were, the straighter your hair, the more likely you were to succeed. You had white women of the time, pretending to be Creole, saying they were Creole so that they could earn more money and be more revered in society. Whether we agree with it, disagree with it, we know where it’s come from, it’s still there. I think what this play does is highlights where it could have started from, this placement of blacks at the bottom, Creoles/mixed at the top, that whole grading by shades. But also you’ve got women struggling in a society against them. They can fight as much as they want, earn and be successful as they want and at any time the real people in power can take that away from them.
Nobody can give you your freedom, because if they have to give you your freedom then you’re not free. I think those are all quite relevant nowadays plus the over sexualisation of women from a young age. They were raising these young girls so that they would have the Quadrant Ball every year and at this ball Creole women would meet a potential husband/benefactor. That was where a lot of negotiations… it was kind of like the auction block, but in the ball, with pretty dresses! They paid the mothers to have their daughters as a plaçage. So in terms of feminist issues it’s very relevant to now. I’m expecting a lot of interesting discussions to start afterwards.
Can you describe what the experience has been like to be part of an almost all female black cast?
Completely joyful! We laugh a lot and we talk a lot! I haven’t worked with an all-female company before I don’t think, but I love it. It’s like all of the best parts of a woman amplified. The nurturing, the sisterhood, the looking out for each other, the freedom, we all feel very safe in the room and supported. The women in this play – Martina Laird, Michele Austin, Clare Perkins, Tanya Moodie, these amazingly experienced, talented actresses, I think all of us feel very grateful and receptive to being in this room with all that collective knowledge and shared experience. It’s magical, not to sound too cheesy! [Laughs]. What I love about the characters is that we’re not bitches to each other and if we have valid arguments or conflicts it’s very rarely over a man! We get angry, we get ugly, it’s really meaty. I hope that comes across when people come and see it.
Have there been any difficulties or joys during the rehearsal process?
It always gets to a point for me in rehearsals where I start questioning everything I’ve done, but that is part of the process. All that means is that you need to ask more questions, get the answers then you move on! It’s normally the penultimate week in the dressing room where questions that haven’t been answered in week one might be getting asked because you’re getting deeper and deeper. The conversations might be getting lengthier as you’re getting more of an idea of what you’re doing, but difficulties – no, just more work.
You have great credits across television and theatre, but what have you learned from this particular production?
I think the reason I fell in love with this part is because I had never played a part like her before. She is, I wouldn’t say two-faced, she is in a position where she’s a survivor, she’s fighting for her life. When you are backed up into a corner you do anything you can to survive. So she’s nice when she needs to be nice, cutting when she needs to be cutting and I’ve never played a character that covers all of it.
She adapts to her environment?
Yes! Exactly that! I’m excited about that challenge. I’ve learnt that I definitely want to work with more women and I don’t want to go backwards. After you’ve done a play like this, not giving discredit to any of my other credits, but it’s another benchmark and that’s what you want with every job, you want it to be a step up.
What are you looking forward to the most about this production?
Audience! I think the audience are like the last piece of the puzzle of every play. We could be in there for two months, but we would never really know the play fully until you get it in front of an audience. Having the audience in and just hearing and seeing how they react to it, how we react to them, that takes it to a whole level of evolution. I’m not looking forward to it ending, and I’m not usually like that. I start a job; I know when it is finishing, what date and time before I even start, so you can’t really get sad about it. This job, I think it’s going to be a tough one.
As this play is on for a long run at the Tricycle Theatre, do you have any future projects planned?
Not really. I’m going to enjoy it to the fullest. I’m really aiming to get back onto telly, I’m putting that out there, hopefully you can do something about that [Laughs]. There’s so many amazing television programmes coming out now, with black actresses at the helm and not just one! They’re writing it, producing it, starring and supporting in it, so yeah I’d like to get me one of those please and thank you.